Just got off the phone not too long ago with GM Jack Zduriencik, who was in Tacoma tonight watching pitcher Michael Pineda strike out 11 over five innings. Zduriencik was not happy with tonight’s dugout row between Chone Figgins and Don Wakamatsu, which he was told about by phone moments after it occurred.
Zduriencik spoke to Wakamatsu by phone after the game, as he was driving back from Tacoma. He’ll meet with Wakamatsu and Figgins behind closed doors tomorrow and that should be quite a conversation.
From what we could determine tonight, a heated exchange erupted once Wakamatsu told Figgins he was being pulled from the contest after failing to back up that Michael Saunders throw in the fifth inning. Figgins tried to argue his case and things deteriorated from there.
In the end, players were jumping in left and right to separate the two and pull each other away. Jose Lopez had his jersey pulled off when a coach yanked him away from the fray. We could not determine whether Lopez was part of the initial fight or a separate one, though the more likely explanation seems that he was merely one of those intervening between Wakamatsu and Figgins. A television replay I saw seemed to suggest that.
Lopez did not come out to talk to the media afterwards. Nor did Figgins, who watched the rest of the game on television in the clubhouse, then left the ballpark.
Wakamatsu could not duck the media, so he stood and took questions about it. I asked him why he’d picked this moment to bench a player when there have been numerous instances of bad base running all week and poor situational hitting all week.
“I think you’re talking about base running plays and not all of those are cut and dried,” Wakamatsu said of the prior gaffes that went unpunished. “I thought this was cut and dried.”
Russell Branyan was one of the guys who jumped right in the middle of the fracas. Branyan has only been here a while, but make no mistake: he’s here to help restore some veteran presence to this clubhouse, something that has been markedly lacking since last season.
Remember, back when the M’s were tossing their season away with terrible, distracted on-field play last month, it was Cliff Lee who had to call a team meeting in San Diego. One of the items discussed was Ken Griffey Jr. and the need for the players to move past their feelings about his abrupt departure.
Several players believe Wakamatsu forced Griffey out of Seattle – something Wakamatsu denies.
About a week after Griffey’s retirement, Figgins was openly critical of Wakamatsu’s decision to drop him down to No. 9 in the batting order.
Branyan said he went in the clubhouse to speak to Figgins right after tonight’s incident.
“I just think it was needed,” Branyan said. “I just think when you have a situation like that, you want to keep your group together. You don’t want guys straying away and going on their own. We’re a 25-man team and we want to keep it that way.”
Branyan said Figgins responded well.
“I think Figgy’s a little misinterpreted at times,” Branyan said. “He sat right there in his chair and watched the rest of the game, supporting his team. I know a lot of guys in that situation who would have come in, showered up and gone home. So, I think Figgins, after the fact…I don’t think what he had to say…I think it was very emotional. I think what he had to say came from emotions. And he didn’t really have time to think about it. It was two men, they voiced their opinions, and their opinions, each of them didn’t like.”
Branyan said it’s been a trying year for all of the Mariners, who are struggling to maintain their composure as the season heads downhill.
“From where we were last year, a fairly good season winning 80-something odd ballgames, to having the season go the way it has this year, it’s a little bit of a letdown,” he said. “I think people are starting to press a little bit, trying to do a little more whether it’s at the plate, or on the field, or on the basepaths.
“It’s been a tough season for a lot of guys here and it’s something where we need to come together and pull through this thing as opposed to pointing fingers and tearing ourselves apart.”
Branyan was asked about the mood inside the clubhouse this year as opposed to last season.
“From year to year, it’s going to be different,” he said. “You’re going to bring in different personnel. It’s a lot of the same guys from last year. I think winning helps, losing hurts and when you’re losing you start to see how well people handle adversity, tough times. That sort of thing. And when you do have some new guys in the mix, people may not feel as comfortable around each other, especially in times when they’re losing ballgames.”
Branyan said the team has to sit down and re-focus itself on the task of playing fundamental baseball.
He was asked whether he had anything to say to Seattle baseball fans who may have witnessed the incident at the ballpark.
“The way we’ve been playing, it’s hard to convince any fan to come out and watch us play,” he said. “Because it hasn’t been pretty. But on the other hand, we’re working hard. From an individual standpoint, I think we’re trying too hard. Guys are trying to carry the load on their shoulders.”
One of the guys who was right in the middle of everything was Jason Vargas, of all people. He pitched a great game tonight, despite not having his best stuff. Vargaswent seven innings and only allowed two runs – just enough to lose.
“I was just trying to keep people from getting hurt,” he said. “That’s not anything you ever want to happen in a dugout. But, it’s a crazy game.”
Vargas said everybody “just wants to play good and is frustrated. It’s been a rough first half. And eventually, things like that are going to happen when people are frustrated. But we’ve got to play tomorrow and we’ve all got to get along in here for the next couple of months. Hopefully, we’re past it, we’ve sorted it out. We’ve got a lot more games to play.”
Vargas was asked whether he’d sensed anything brewing with the team that would lead to a confrontation such as this one.
“You know, I’ve never really been in a dugout where something like that’s happened,” Vargas said. “I really didn’t know a whole lot what was going on. I didn’t really see. I was just happy to get out of the inning without giving up that run. When I came out, I was kind of surprised and saw things start to happen and just tried to keep people under control…from it getting out of control…before people started getting hurt.”
Josh Wilson was told by bench coach Ty Van Burkleo to get warmed up while the top of the fifth inning was still going on. Later, he emerged from a dugout bathroom and saw the altercation already unfolding. Wilson said he’s never been part of anything like that at the major league level, only once in the minors.
Ryan Langerhans said he remembers a similar dugout dispute while playing for the Washington Nationals. Langerhans wound up grabbing on to Branyan during the episode. One telelvision replay appeared to show Branyan climbing up on a dugout bench and trying to go over the top of another player to get at Figgins – or at least forcefully order Figgins to back away from Wakamatsu.
The whole thing was pretty confusing and muddled, so again, I’d rather not speculate based on viewing video footage frame by frame. When you do that instead of looking at things in real time, it can sometimes distort what actually happened.
There is little doubt that Branyan was trying to play the part of a “policeman” of some sort. The fact that he went in the clubhouse to speak to Figgins afterwards is another indication of that. A team can’t have players openly challenging the manager like that. Branyan was a big Wakamatsu supporter last season and like I said, it’s probably something the team had in mind when it re-acquired him.
I’m not privy to everything that goes on behind clubhouse doors and I’m not going to try to read Figgins’ mind. Maybe this was just a onetime outburst of frustration from a struggling and proud player who works hard and does not like the idea of being benched and made an example of.
But it’s also the second time this season in which Figgins has been demonstrably critical of a Wakamatsu decision. The first time was in Texas when he voiced criticism of Wakamatsu for moving him down in the order.
Some people tried to spin that off as a positive development, one in which Figgins was merely expressing pride. I didn’t like it though, coming on the heels of Ian Snell seeming to casually shrug off some comments by Wakamatsu when told about them by reporters.
The Mariners were playing terrible baseball at that point, the commentary by Figgins was fresh on the heels of the Griffey departure and the criticism of his manager’s decision by Figgins, to me, seemed to further undermine Wakamatsu in his own clubhouse.
Wakamatsu seemed to weather that storm. But now, this dugout altercation, again involving Figgins, is like opening old wounds. Maybe these are just two separate episodes but it doesn’t feel that way.
And again, it’s up to Zduriencik to get to the bottom of this. If he’s going to keep Wakamatsu around as manager, he can’t have players openly confronting him like this in full view of television cameras and thousands of people at the game. What Figgins has done here is damage at least some of the manager’s credibility. In the army, he’d be headed for a stint in the brig, or peeling potatoes for a while if he tried that with a superior.
This is tough on the whole organization because Figgins was brought here to be a veteran leader. What do you think the $36 million was for? Just his walk rate? There is a responsibility that comes with that. And no matter how frustrated he gets, he can’t undermine the leader in public. That’s the law of the workplace jungle folks and it’s there for a reason. Close the door and scream at a guy all you want – but don’t go all Rob Dibble-Lou Piniella, because it usually won’t end as happily as that little scrap did.
Wakamatsu was already in a tough spot and it just got tougher on him.
Zduriencik has to get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. And he has to do it while supporting his manager if Wakamatsu is to remain in charge. The indians have to remember who the chief is. No matter how hot it’s getting in the wig wam.