When the hero takes a fall

Colby Lewis is living proof that nobody’s perfect.

Three years ago, Lewis became something of a national hero – or at least a National Public Radio hero – when he was the first major leaguer to take official paternity leave. The public was certainly on his side, and anyone in my business who questioned Lewis’s decision was roundly castigated.

I did raise then, and will raise again now, one question: What if it’s Game 7 of the World Series and your favorite team’s best starting pitcher elects to skip his scheduled start? 

Here’s my guess: You wouldn’t be real happy with him. But something like this will happen someday … and by the time it does, you’ll be okay with it. Because that’s just where the trend-line is going. Ten years from now, players might be getting days off for their daughters’ ballet recitals. Ten years from now, players might actually have scheduled vacations during the season. Seriously. It’s become perfectly acceptable for players to leave their team for a variety of reasons — paternity, bereavement, and the always popular “personal business” (although that one’s popular just during spring training, I believe) — and there’s no reason to think that list won’t grow.

Now, this hasn’t yet happened in the other big sports. But a) it probably will, and b) it makes more sense in baseball than football or basketball, because baseball players have a smaller impact on a particular game than in other sports, and particular games are less important than in other sports (especially football). So baseball players are allowed to desert their teams because, quite frankly, baseball players just aren’t all that important. Not over the course of two or three days.

But of course that equation does change if you’re a great starting pitcher, and particularly if you’re a great starting pitcher in October. What I just can’t figure out is if all these official leaves are actually available during the postseason. Maybe not. But even if they are, I suspect that most players wouldn’t leave their club during a postseason series. 

Which is a point worth remembering when somebody says that any player who doesn’t take time off for the birth of a child is some sort of monster. It’s simply a matter of priority. In June, players make a calculation involving the importance of a baby’s birth, the importance of a single game or two, and the social ramifications of both. Result: paternity leave. But that calculation will usually come out differently in October. Which means everything is relative. Which means we should be careful about labeling anybody a monster.

Okay, so that was 400-plus words about paternity leave and I didn’t even come here to write about paternity. I came to point out that Colby Lewis is just as capable of making lousy calculations as anybody else.

He proved this Saturday night. Lewis was pitching against the Blue Jays in the fifth inning. His Rangers were losing 2-0, and Colby Rasmus came up with two outs and nobody on.

Let me repeat. Two-run game. Fifth inning. Batting team, by the way, is locked in a tight pennant race. Every game might count. Every run might count.

Rasmus is a left-handed power hitter. He’s not a good hitter, but he does have 13 homers in just 214 at-bats this season. You don’t expect Colby Rasmus to do anything except swing real hard at everything. Which is why you shift against him. Which the Rangers did.

Rasmus bunted. Which he should have. If you can bunt decently, you should almost always bunt against the shift. For the simple reason that an extraordinarily high probability of reaching first base trumps the low probability of hitting a home run. 

Rasmus also reached first base safely. Which led to Colby Lewis saying a bunch of really strange things:

"I told [Rasmus] I didn’t appreciate it," Lewis said. "You’re up by two runs with two outs and you lay down a bunt. I don’t think that’s the way the game should be played."

When pressed further on what the problem with Rasmus’ bunt was, Lewis insinuated that the outfielder put himself before his team.

"I felt like you have a situation where there is two outs, you’re up two runs, you have gotten a hit earlier in the game off me, we are playing the shift, and he laid down a bunt basically simply for average," Lewis said.

The bunt itself wasn’t the only thing that bothered Lewis, who threw five innings of two-run ball, falling to 6-7 on the season. Lewis felt that if Rasmus was going to bunt in that situation, he should have been taking off for second once he reached base.

"[Rasmus] didn’t steal within the first two pitches to put himself in scoring position," Lewis said. "That tells me he is solely looking out for himself, and looking out for batting average. And I didn’t appreciate it."

Lewis said he believes Rasmus knew he made a mistake based on what he said to the pitcher on the field.

"Whatever, he thought he could say two words the whole time, which is whatever, which is what most people respond with when they know they are in the wrong," Lewis said.

So now a pitcher’s yelling at a hitter for … doing something that’s (supposedly, theoretically) good for the pitcher’s team? Wow. That’s some sort of responsibility that Colby Lewis is assuming. Now he’s not just defending the honor of his own teammates, but also that of an opponents’ teammates?

For his part, Rasmus had the perfect reaction: “I’m just trying to help my team and he didn’t like that — so sorry about it. I’m not here to try to please the other side, I’m here to help my team, and I had an opportunity where I could and I took advantage of it.”

When we’re picking teams in the BaseballMath Olympiad, I’m choosing Colby Rasmus first.