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Oakland A’s minor league coach banned after ordering intentional balks to end game

Jul 3, 2012, 10:30 AM EDT

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This is kind of nuts. A coach in the A’s system, who was acting as manager for the Stockton Ports in the class-A California League, has been banned from being in the Ports’ dugout for a year after ordering his pitchers to intentionally commit balks in an effort to end a game that had reached the 17th inning.

The pitchers were actually position players — each team had burned through its pen — and he ordered the balks in order to prevent injuries to his players:

[Todd] Steverson, Oakland’s roving hitting instructor, ordered Josh Whitaker, an outfielder and the second Ports’ position player to pitch that night, to commit balks to move Modesto runners into scoring position. Whitaker blatantly balked twice in the 17th, but the Nuts could not get the game-ending hit until the 18th, after another balk.

Steverson, who was filling in for the usual Ports manager who was on vacation, admitted the next day that he did it on purpose:

“We had a position player out there and I didn’t want to put another position player on the mound and get him hurt … I didn’t get any of my pitchers hurt and I didn’t get any position players hurt. So a game on June 23, 2012, well, these guys will be playing many more games more important than that.”

After that interview, the California League banned him for a year. Though, since managing or even coaching the Ports exclusively is not his job, is probably not the most arduous thing ever.

Still, that’s something else, no? I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a coach ordering that kind of thing. And I am divided in my thinking about this.

On the one hand I understand Steverson’s rationale. You don’t want prospects getting hurt in such a situation. But more compelling to me is the counter argument: these games count and are supposed to be competitive. If the California League or, for that matter, Major or Minor League Baseball wanted them to solely be about player development and/or preservation, they’d suspend games that go beyond a set number of innings like they do in spring training.

So ok, Steverson, I get it.  But if you didn’t want to wind up in a situation where position players could get hurt pitching, maybe you need to manage your bullpen better and make some reliever wear one rather than make a mockery of the competition, however mild a mockery it might be.

  1. number42is1 - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    I dont understand why he didnt just tell the guy to throw a meatball over the plate and end it. why go through all the trouble of balking?

    • Francisco (FC) - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:52 AM

      Maybe he did and the opposition just couldn’t hit the damn ball!

    • zzalapski - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:57 AM

      A fat one over the plate can also result in a line drive to the pitcher’s head. Not a particularly desirable outcome.

    • Max Power - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:37 AM

      I’m pretty sure when a position player goes into a game in the 17th inning, the instructions are “pitch to contact.”

      Looks like the strategy was balk guys into scoring position, and then groove one.

      The real question is, why was the regular manager taking vacation during the middle of the season? Guys will sometimes take a day or two for family weddings or graduations (not including Kirk Gibson), but vacation?

  2. texasdawg - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    This is only OK when commissioners do it.

  3. pjmitch - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    I agree with the coach’s decision based on the injury factor but he also could have told his outfielders turned relief pitchers to just groove it in like BP couldn’t he have?

    • southpaw2k - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:44 AM

      Even if he had told his players comng in to pitch and give up a walk-off home run, wouldn’t he ultimately face the same kind of punishment he got? What difference would there be between giving up a home run vs. balking in a run?

      • deathmonkey41 - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:48 AM

        Well, maybe he isn’t asked about a grooved meatball by a position player as opposed to 2 or 3 balks that they commited. Either way, a year is a really long time. Players only get 50 games if they’re caught doing steroids.

    • southpaw2k - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:46 AM

      Also, there’s the possibility that serving up a base hit to the batter could result in a line drive that could bean either the pitcher or another position player on the field. Balking in a run limits the chance of injuring anyone.

      • deathmonkey41 - Jul 3, 2012 at 12:16 PM

        I don’t think they balked in a run though- the way I understood it, they just balked the runners into scoring position.

  4. paperlions - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    The coach had the right idea, end the game, but probably could have chosen a different route. In A ball, player development is 99% of the goal, “competitive games” and a small profit are by-products. No MLB team cares what their MiLB’s records are….if they win “championships” or anything else. They want players to stay healthy and develop.

    17 innings of Minor league ball is enough already….for the record, many MiLB games are only 7 innings by design (when they play double headers). The competitive goals are player-specific, not at the team-level.

    • kkolchak - Jul 3, 2012 at 2:24 PM

      “No MLB team cares what their MiLB’s records are….if they win “championships” or anything else.”

      Yep–that’s the dirty little secret of affiliated minor league baseball. The entire season is really just one long extended spring training.

    • gammagammahey - Jul 3, 2012 at 2:34 PM

      The fact that Steverson is also a roving hitting instructor rather than the full-time manager means that he’s not so managing this team in a semi-competitive environment day in and day out. His job was to take care of his young talent and he did just that. The fact that he got a year-long ban probably also stems from the fact that the league knows he only spends a couple of weeks per season with this particular team anyway.

  5. darthicarus - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    I’m trying to recall the long list of position players who have gotten injured while filling in pitching in a blow-out or extended game. Having trouble even thinking of one but I do know there have been quite a few that have pitched without incident other than having their egos deflated or boosted depending on their performances.

    • dddread4 - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:00 AM

      Jose Canseco blew out his elbow pitching in a blow out.

      • darthicarus - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:09 AM

        I’m sure the steroids and other assortment of cocktails Canseco took didn’t help his health either.

      • madhatternalice - Jul 3, 2012 at 12:44 PM

        @dartghicarus

        I’m sure your medical degree will back that assertion up.

        Kudos to the coach. Maybe they’ll promote him to AA to get around the ban?

    • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:28 AM

      Statistically, injuries are not very common when a position player enters in to pitch, however the Jose Canseco injury in 1993 was such a high profile injury, it’s become one of those things you simply don’t want to risk if you don’t have to. Consider this: if a pitcher gets hurt it’s bad luck. If a position player gets hurt pitching, it’s coaching error. Right, wrong, or indifferent, coaches, especially minor league ones, know they have to protect their jobs and in facing a decision that may result in an injured player, or intentionally losing a meaningless ballgame, you’re going to see the coach lose every time. His biggest mistake here was giving an interview and admitting he threw the game. Just ask Cole Hamels.

      • cur68 - Jul 3, 2012 at 12:00 PM

        FTW

  6. Detroit Michael - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Given that the coach / temporary manager was deciding to sacrifice the integrity of the game for a perceived benefit to his team’s long-term health, one can disagree with him but it seems like a harsh penalty to impose after the fact. If the guy had known that the League would have been so adamantly opposed to it, I doubt that he would have done it.

    • paperlions - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:55 AM

      What integrity are you speaking of?

      Managers manage MiLB games for player development purposes, not to win. Starters are pulled after pitch limits, starters work on pitches, location, control, etc. without regard for specific outcomes (yes, getting hitters out is nice, but the goal is to develop pitches, control, a repeatable delivery, etc.)….and MiLB games resemble little league games in that many players don’t play the entire game because they are trying to get work in for all of the players on the roster.

      MiLB games are never managed with winning as the primary goal.

      • natslady - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:00 AM

        Not to mention major-leaguers in there rehabbing, shoved into the lineup for a game or two. In the end, the MiLB teams are set up to benefit the ML team.

      • Detroit Michael - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:39 AM

        There’s a lot of other goals in terms of allocating playing time, etc., but teams don’t generally internationally try to lose minor league games. That’s the integrity of which I am speaking.

      • paperlions - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:42 AM

        In general, that is true….but they don’t try to win them either. The goal of the game was already accomplished. Everyone got in their work, it should have been over. No MiLB team should ever have to put a position player on the mound.

    • natslady - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:56 AM

      At the very least, he wouldn’t have said he did it. Honesty not the best policy in baseball… (h/t to “Candide” on Nats Insider). Should have learned from Colbert: “Yeah, he’s not a pitcher, not surprised he didn’t throw that great… better luck next time.”

  7. largebill - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    Craig,

    Like you I’ve got mixed feeling on this. It goes against my nature to every intentionally lose. However, with a teenage son who pitches and having observed a lot of youth baseball, I have come to the opinion that no one game is worth potentially hurting a player physically. Now, of course a minor league game is more “real” than a 16 year old’s summer league game, but still purpose is still primarily developmental especially in A ball. That loss will be forgotten an injury lasts. Throwing while fatigued (and the heat adds to this) is when mechanics get sloppy which leads to injury. Using balks to end the game is pretty stupid as you’re counting on the umps knowing what a balk is. Better off using a wild pitch or two.

  8. Ben - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    Harsh penalty, but I’m fine with what the coach did. 17 innings is only fun in MLB, and the risk of injury to prospects just isn’t worth it. How many people were still left in the stands after 17 innings, anyway?

  9. danaking - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    Japanese baseball has ties. (At least it did the last time I looked, which has been a while.) Since minor league baseball is about player development–and the fans are entitled to see teams trying to win for their money–why not say a game is either tied or suspended after 12 or 15 innings? I sympathize with the manager’s plight, though the intentional balks were a somewhat less than elegant solution.

  10. mattintoledo - Jul 3, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    A funny thought occurred to me. I’m sure the California League would argue they have to give their fans the feeling that this is competitive baseball that matters. But how many fans would be left in the 18th inning of a Hi-A baseball game?

    I’m sure of the six, two were super pissed that the game was ended in such an anti-climatic way.

    I kid, but I can certainly see both sides of the argument here and tend to agree there were probably less conspicuous ways to get this one in the books.

  11. heyblueyoustink - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    The regular manager was on vacation during the season? I think i’ve found my calling.

  12. natslady - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    So ok, Steverson, I get it. But if you didn’t want to wind up in a situation where position players could get hurt pitching, maybe you need to manage your bullpen better and make some reliever wear one rather than make a mockery of the competition, however mild a mockery it might be.

    That’s really harsh, Craig. The guy’s not a manager in the first place, and, please–no major-league manager emptied his BP down to position players in the 17th inning???? Maybe he actually was trying to win the game for the first, y’know, 15 innings?

    • elibolender - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:19 AM

      I agree with Natslady that Craig is a bit harsh in that statement. The job of a Single A manager (or acting manager because the real manager was on vacation, which I find to be hilarious and reminds me of Lou Brown putting Charlie Donovan on hold because he had a guy on the other line about some whitewalls) is not necessarily to “manage a bullpen” so that they can win a game and be prepared for a 17 inning game. Single A is all about development and getting guys reps so he could be under strict orders to not use pitchers for more than a certain amount of pitches/innings and under orders that he has to get four particular pitches at least 25 pitches or something. I would also surmise that an organization such as Oakland has such safeguards/orders in place and also that a fill-in manager was DEFINITELY given marching orders for how he was to manage in the real manager’s absence. I imagine behind closed doors Billy Beane and the Oakland front office has no problem with what Stevenson did.

  13. natslady - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    By the way, you are kidding yourself if you think Major League managers maintain the “integrity” of the game at all costs. They throw in the towel sometimes–just not so obviously and openly.

    Here is Mike Rizzo: “Davey knows when to lose one so he can win the next five.”

  14. Diana - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    Another reason to limit the game as he did – or in any fashion that’s respectable – is to protect the op batters as well from an inexperienced position player/pitcher who could accidentally hurt someone. I say he did the right thing and the ban was absurd.

  15. garik16 - Jul 3, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    No, you know what my favorite part of this is? They tried to throw the game in the 17th inning….and FAILED.

    1 out, batter walks.
    Intentional Balk
    Intentional Balk

    Now you’d think they’d try to balk again to end it, but I guess they were trying to be subtle. And you know, it’s a position player on the mound! Surely the opposing team can put one in play for the win. Next Two Batters:

    K
    Fly Out.

    So they had to intentionally balk a THIRD time in the 18th inning!

  16. scottp9 - Jul 3, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    I don’t understand why he didn’t just have his pitcher throw balls until he’d walked in the winning run. Could be done less obviously than an intentional balk and it’s more certain – not relying on the umpire’s understanding of the balk rule. I’m with the manager on this in any event – it’s ridiculous to play 17-inning games in the minors with developing players, and there should be an innings cap on those games. The fans got more than their money’s worth from that game.

  17. ndrick731 - Jul 3, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    This was a professional game that people paid to see right? Unless they are given their money back or some kind of credit I think they deserve to see a game played to a legit finish. And whoever authorized a vacation for the manager in the middle of the season needs to be looking for new employment. Being off for 6 months a year isn’t enough?

    • contraryguy - Jul 3, 2012 at 4:33 PM

      Look at it this way, the fans in attendance could go to work the next day and say “man you wouldn’t believe what I saw in the 17th inning last night!”

      Crazy things happen in baseball (and by crazy, no pun intended on that classy Modesto Nuts name). It’s printed on the ticket somewhere, or should be. The craziest bit is assuming that a modern ump knows how to call a balk.

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