Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Willie Mays Rule

tony conigliaro after the beaning

Colorado Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook, who nearly died due to complications from a lung ailment but recovered to play again in 2005, was recently awarded last year's Tony Conigliaro Comeback Player of the Year Award. The award is named in memory of the late Boston Red Sox outfielder -- pictured here on the cover of Sports Illustrated after he was beaned in his right eye in 1967 -- whose potential Hall of Fame career was cut short by the blow.

Though Conigliaro came back to play the year after the beaning by California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton, the BoSox lost Conigliaro's services in the World Series that fall and Conigliaro was never the same again.

Fans tend to forget that Conigliaro was part of a murderers row that dared defy the time-honored Willie Mays rule that batters should never antagonize pitchers. The trouble came about when Conigliaro and other BoSox batters during the pennant drive adopted the unmistakable, trade-mark batting stance of Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski, who held the handle of the bat next to his ear so that the barrel rose high above his head like an exclamation point. The gesture was designed perhaps to intimidate pitchers. But its unintended consequence was that it earned pitchers' enmity, and someone paid the price.

Hamilton and Angels catcher Bob Rodgers always denied deliberately beaning Conigliaro in retaliation for his inflammatory pose at the plate, or for any other reason. But Conigliaro's family was so convinced that the knockdown was intentional that they refused to let Hamilton visit Conigliaro in the hospital. Two days after the beaning, Yastrzemski began wearing a helmet with an earflap, which is now standard major-league equipment.

And what exactly is the Willie Mays rule? One: no styling at the plate like Yaz; two: no standing in the basepath admiring the ball like Reggie Jackson; three: no fist-pumping or clapping like Kirk Gibson; four: no "one flap down" like Jeff Leonard; five: no slow-trotting around the bases like Pete Incaviglia; and six: no coming back out of the dugout to tip your hat like Mickey Mantle.