Three incidents and one statement by their GM over the last year is all it has taken for the media and the baseball world to label the Arizona Diamondbacks as one of the dirtiest teams in baseball. But are they? We examine what many writers would call the D-Backs “Thug Life” over the last two seasons.
When you look at the series of events that have transpired, it is easy to see how Kirk Gibson, Kevin Towers, and crew look more like the bad guys at the end of an 80′s sports movie than anything else. It all started with a brawl in L.A. that saw former D-Backs pitcher Ian Kennedy come in high and tight to rising star Yasiel Puig from the Dodgers, hitting him in the back and grazing his nose. After the Dodgers retaliated an inning later followed by further Diamondbacks retaliation, a bench clearing brawl broke out between the two clubs.
In this instance, Arizona was labeled as the instigator, despite the fact that the pitch from Kennedy seemed to be unintentional. Many questioned how unintentional it was considering at the time the Diamondbacks’ seemed to publicly have an issue with Puig’s antics, however the fact remained no one could question whether the Dodger’s retaliation later in the game was intentional. But in the court of public opinion, the D-Backs were judged as guilty of baseball sin.
So the D-Backs went the rest of the season without any more retaliatory actions, even when it seemed necessary, but that brawl in L.A. was the beginning of a freefall for Arizona in 2013. The team lost their grip on first place in the NL West to the eventual winners, the Dodgers, and watched that same team from Los Angeles celebrate winning the pennant by taking a dive in the D-Backs pool at Chase Field. Eventually, we found out that some players from the Dodgers even peed in it.
Surely, the Diamondbacks would be seen as the victim in this case, right? In the great rule book of sports, there is no greater infraction than celebrating like that on someone else’s home turf, but even in this instance Arizona was seen as being “sore losers”. Instead of the lack of class being shown by the opposing organization, people laughed about the the celebration and made statements such as “Maybe Arizona shouldn’t have let them win the pennant.” It was a “damned if you do – damned if you don’t” situation for Gibson and Towers.
During that offseason, tensions mounted over “PoolGate” and the biggest blow to the Diamondbacks’ reputation came when general manager Kevin Towers was interviewed for 620 AM KTAR in Phoenix in October:
“I think come spring training, it will be duly noted that it’s going to be an eye for an eye and we’re going to protect one another. If not, if you have options there’s ways to get you out of here and you don’t follow suit or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”
And like that, the perception of Arizona became that of an archaic team with archaic principles who planned on headhunting any opposing players who thought they could get away with disrespecting the D-Backs franchise. They also became a team who seemed like they would cut ties with any talent that wouldn’t fit the mold and do the bidding of management. Towers received much criticism for making that statement, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t reflect the internal attitudes of most teams within the league. It just means Towers was brazen enough – and angry enough – to say it. So the world waited for the situation to come to a head.
And it did. Eight months later against the Milwaukee Brewers.
On June 19th vs the Brewers, Milwaukee’s starting pitcher Kyle Lohse nailed Arizona’s up and coming star Chris Owings in the head/neck region after already unintentionally hitting D-Back Didi Gregorious in the game. This gave Kirk Gibson and crew the green light to go after one of their biggest foes, Ryan Braun, plunking the batter intentionally/unintentionally. Again, much like the Puig incident, there was public knowledge about the way the D-Backs – and mainly Gibson – felt about Braun and his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal, so the planned attack looked more like a check mark off the hit list rather than retaliation for the two hit batters earlier in the game.
The biggest issue hitting Braun was the approval relief pitcher Evan Marshall received from the crowd, the dugout, and Gibson himself. It was the fist bump seen around the World. Forget the fact that the poorly planned attack left Arizona with nobody in the bullpen to come in to the game. Or the fact that cold reliever Brad Ziegler came in to give up a game winning grand slam to one of the hottest hitters in the league at the time in Jonathan Lucroy. It’s the fact that Arizona’s quest for revenge in that moment superseded the natural desire and focus to win the ballgame. As someone who covers this team, it was the first time I felt embarrassed about their actions.
Fast forward now to the most recent incident that has turned a seemingly pedestrian season series between Arizona and Pittsburgh into a angry rivalry between fans and the organizations. In game two of the four game series, Pittsburgh took a commanding lead late in the game. Gibson turned to All Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to pinch hit in the bottom of the 9th when he had been given the night off, and, as Arizona’s luck has played out all season, he was injured by an inside pitch from Pirate’s reliever Ernesto Fieri. Goldschmidt fractured his hand and ended his season.
The next night, the two teams battled in a competitive game that saw Pittsburgh once again take a large lead late in the game. With the win out of reach for Arizona and Gibson already tossed earlier in the game for arguing a challenged fly ball call, Randall Delgado faced reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and nailed him in the back with a 95 MPH fastball. If you’re naive, you can believe Delgado’s story about losing control of the pitch. But Delgado had only hit one batter all season long last year, and, based on the edict handed down by Towers, he could have been one of the pitchers in danger of not fitting the mold when it came to retaliating. So he did. We may never know if he was ordered to do so or if he acted as a lone wolf, but the damage had been done. Arizona was now THAT team.
McCutchen ended up also going on the DL two days later with an oblique injury that many online doctors have attributed to the HBP while real doctors are saying the opposite. Regardless of your stance, an eye for an eye occurred, and two innocent All Stars and MVP candidates now sit out with injuries that probably could have been avoided.
Pittsburgh, who saw more batters HBP last season than any other team, seems to not be blame free. This season, they lead the league in hitting opposing batters at 61, often having control issues when pitching inside. Starting pitcher Charlie Morton has hit 18 batters alone, which is more than half of Arizona’s team total of 33. Opposing a team with a track record like that is scary enough, but when you factor in that they did hit the best player on the D-Backs roster and put him out for the season, it only brings those fears to light as a real life nightmare come true. Which is exactly what Arizona is living right now.
The Diamondbacks have now been criticized and slammed by the national media, calling Gibson and crew “bullies” and “meatheads”. Even local AZ media jumped in on kicking dirt on the franchise by agreeing that the team is one of the dirtier teams in the league. Although their actions are wrong in some cases or misguided in others, the truth is that the Diamondbacks are far from being a dirty team. A dirty team to me is a team that embraces players who cheat with open arms and little doubt. A dirty team to me is a team that allows pitchers to cheat by using foreign substances or allows the ground crew to make certain changes to the field that opposing teams are unaware of. Hell, you could have even said the D-Backs were a literally “dirty team” when Martin Prado was still around handing out dirt baths for walkoff wins. Basically though, a dirty team cheats to win, which is something the D-Backs have not been doing in 2014.
Arizona has become a reflection of their leadership, which means they are an emotional team that can be dumb at times. It also means that they are tired of being the punching bag of the league. Most are sure that a regime change is on the horizon, so at this point, we could see a new identity for this team during the offseason. But for now, you can tell that the Diamondbacks are still mad that someone peed in their pool.