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Conflicted: Tigers' Daniel Norris has love-hate relationship with retaliatory pitching

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Thanks to a pandemic-induced furlough last week, I finally got around to reading my friend Danny Knobler’s excellent book "Unwritten — Bat Flips, the Fun Police and Baseball’s New Future," published by Triumph Books.

Good stuff throughout, but it was the chapters devoted to the unwritten codes about payback and pitcher retaliation that sent me back to a crazy day in Cleveland, Sept. 18, 2016, when Indians starter Trevor Bauer drilled three Tigers — including Ian Kinsler in the head — in the first three innings.

Daniel Norris was pitching for the Tigers that day and it was on him to serve up retribution. Never was a pitcher more conflicted about his duty.

"It will probably feel like a spring training inter-squad type thing for a while," says Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris about the prospect of playing without fans.

“I am not pro hitting people and I’m not pro not hitting people,” he said in a phone conversation Tuesday. “I’m in the middle. I mean, I understand it. I know it’s part of the game. But at the same time, I’ve literally never hit anybody on purpose in my life.”

As Knobler discusses over several chapters, the unwritten rules pertaining to when, if and how pitchers should retaliate are somewhat hazy, varied and circumstantial.

Rick Sutcliffe, the former Cy Young Award winner whose 18-year career spanned three decades, is quoted as saying no manager ever had to tell him to hit an opposing hitter.

“But if one of my guys got drilled, I’d go to him and say, ‘Who do you want me to get?’” Sutcliffe said in the book. “I need those guys driving in runs for me.”

Tigers Hall of Famer Jack Morris had only one rule — if you are throwing at a guy, don’t miss.

“Seven for seven,” Morris told Knobler. “They wore a baseball. They never once screamed, either. They knew why they were hit.”

As Knobler pointed out, it’s not a generational issue. There were plenty of old-school managers like Earl Weaver and Bob Lemon who opposed having their pitchers retaliate. Newer-school managers like the Dodgers' Dave Roberts and Rays' Kevin Cash believe in their pitchers protecting their hitters.

“Retaliation is a strong word,” Roberts told Knobler. “It’s taking care of your guys. We play 162 games, and you have 25 guys, or more than that over the course of the season. You have to know each one has each other’s back. Pitchers and hitters, that’s something you have to have.”

Knobler gives examples of both the right way and the wrong way to do it — and in one case, both happened in the same game.

In September of 2018, the Rays and Yankees got into it at Tropicana Field. After several Rays players had been hit in the series, reliever Andrew Kittredge buzzed Yankees catcher (now with the Tigers) Austin Romine head high.

Wrong way.

Yankees pitchers CC Sabathia responded by drilling catcher Jesus Sucre in the left leg, then yelled toward the Rays dugout (and presumably Kittredge), “That’s for you.”

Right way. Even the Rays players agreed.

“I have a lot of respect for CC,” said Carlos Gomez, a Rays outfielder at the time. “If he feels he should need to hit somebody and he did it, I have more respect because he protects his players. That’s how the game is supposed to be played.

“You protect your guys, they’re going to protect you.”

Former Tiger Justin Verlander told Knobler, “There’s a right way to do it. It’s about where you hit a guy. You see it all the time with veterans, where they get hit, they know it and it’s done the right way. They just take it and go to first base and they don’t say a thing about it.

“And then it’s done. Message sent, message received, everyone’s aware and that’s the end of it…(But) if you start going high near his head, then you’ve got issues.”

Back to Norris and that eventful Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field.    

The Tigers were still very much in the wild-card race and they’d lost the first two games of the series. The Tigers parlayed the Kinsler beaning (he was later put in concussion protocol) and a Victor Martinez hit by pitch into a three-run third inning and were up 3-2 when Norris took the mound in the bottom of the inning.

His teammates were hot, most of them on the top step of the dugout chirping at Bauer throughout the top of the third inning.

As former Tigers catcher James McCann said afterward: “Nobody likes to get hit. I think the stat at the time was, he had thrown 10 balls and three of them hit our guys. I have no problem pitching in, but hitting three guys like that, it’s going to wake somebody up.”

Norris, just 23 at the time, knew without being told what was expected of him.

“I like old-school baseball, I really enjoy that,” he said. “And I know retaliation is a part of that. In my very humble opinion, I don’t disagree with it. But I also think, for the lack of a better explanation, there’s a correct way of doing it.”

It simply isn’t in Norris’ DNA to throw a baseball at another human being knowing there is the possibility of causing bodily harm. It’s against his nature. But it was what the situation called for, and what his teammates fully expected.

“I’ve been hurt so much in my career that I know missing time is the worst thing in the world,” he said. “As a pitcher, retaliating and protecting his teammates and doing it the right way is somewhat acceptable.

“But my perspective, I would never ever want to hurt somebody because I know what it’s like to miss time. I’m kind of treading on light ice even talking about this, but I’d never head hunt, ever. You try to hit them below the waist, but like I said, I’ve never hit anybody on purpose in my life.”

He still hasn’t. First up for the Indians in the bottom of the third inning — former Tiger Rajai Davis.

“Of course it was Raj, a good friend,” Norris said. “It’s always weird and never fun.”

Norris ended up throwing a pitch behind Davis. And though he didn’t hit him, he felt the message was delivered.

“Listen, if somebody drills one of our guys and one of our pitchers goes out and hits somebody in the head, nobody is going to be high-fiving about that,” Norris said. “If you do it right, if you send a message or however you want to look at it, you’ve got your guys’ back and everybody understands.

“That’s the way this game has been played for so long. You are never intending to hurt anybody, but you have your teammates’ backs. We understand it and they understand it and you move on.”

Afterward, Bauer apologized to the Tigers, saying there was no intent to hit anybody and several Indians players said the situation was handled properly by Norris and by home plate umpire Jordan Baker, who issued warnings to both dugouts after Norris’ wild pitch.

“For me, I like to think of baseball in the old-school way,” Norris said after the game. “But to be honest, I don't want to put anybody on base. I’m not trying to give up runs. I don't want to give up our lead at that time. I just want to get outs.”

That he did. He went five innings that day, allowing one earned run with six strikeouts in the Tigers’ 9-5 win.

Twitter: @cmccosky