In 17 seasons of covering minor league baseball, last season’s game on June 23 has to be the strangest I’ve covered.
It was Modesto Nuts game at John Thurman Field against Stockton that went 18 innings and ended when Ports’ outfielder Josh Whitaker was called upon to pitch and ordered to balk intentionally to bring the game to an end.
The fallout from the decision made by Oakland hitting coordinator Todd Steverson, who was the acting manager that night, was a one-year suspension from California League dugouts and a $1,000 fine.
In the months since that game, I’ve had the chance to speak with almost everybody involved in that decision _ with Steverson, with Athletics’ director of player development Keith Lieppman, with Modesto manager Lenn Sakata, with California League president Charlie Blaney, and with Modesto players involved in the game
Finally, prior to Wednesday afternoon’s game, I was able to catch up with Whitaker, who is returning to the Stockton outfield this season.
Here’s my chat with Whitaker, a Georgia resident who was drafted by the A’s in the 25th round of the 2010 draft out of Kennesaw (Ga.) State.
BVB: What was your initial feeling when Steverson and (pitching coordinator) Gil Patterson asked you to commit balks to lose the game?
WHITAKER: The one thing that hit a nerve with me is that I wasn’t playing that day and I saw my guys out there busting it for 17 innings. I was asked to go out there and give the game away. As a competitor and as a teammate I didn’t want to do it.
I was stuck in the middle because the guys asking me to do it were the pitching coordinator and the hitting coordinator. I didn’t want to make the wrong impression on anybody and I wanted to stay on their good side because they have a lot to do with how I move through the organization. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
I’ll always remember that night, and it was the first thing that went through my mind when I walked into the ballpark this week. I had fun pitching. I threw in college, in fall ball, just to be looked at in a closer role. I think all position players want to get on the mound to be able to compare themselves to the pitchers on the team. We always joke with the pitchers about how we could do better than they do and could get out there and throw strikes.
BVB: All of us could see Steverson’s position, where he didn’t want to get anybody hurt and that no more development was to be accomplished after the 17th inning. On the other hand, those coordinators weren’t around to see you guys lose 16 straight games earlier in the season.
WHITAKER: That was a long stretch of games and it wore on everybody, including the strength coach and the trainers. Nobody likes to lose. When that many losses come in a row, something has to give. I think it’s harder in baseball to lose 20 games in a row than win 20 in a row. So many things have to go wrong to lose that many in a row. A lot of guys were struggling individually, and that snowballed, then made its way onto the field where too many guys were trying to do too much to help the team win. That only makes things worse. You just have to step back and relax and have faith in your teammates to do the job.
BVB: When you were on the mound, did you give any thought to how you were going to balk?
WHITAKER: I did make it a little obvious.
BVB: Yes. If I could tell from the press box that you were trying to balk, then it’s really obvious.
WHITAKER: If I could go back I would have thrown wild pitches. I know enough about balks to have hidden it a little better, and that’s the one thing I really regret because if it wasn’t so obvious we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
BVB: I went in to the clubhouse the next morning to talk to Steverson, knowing that he would tell me the truth. All he had to do was lie and I wouldn’t have been able to write about it. That’s how much of a stand-up guy he is.
WHITAKER: He’s a great guy and a great coordinator. His back also was against the wall. He had sent a position player out to pitch in a game the year before and that player ended up having Tommy John surgery. That had to have been in the back of his mind.
When it came down to it, I appreciated the call they made just because they wanted me to be safe and healthy. I have a career ahead of me and to ruin that for a couple pitches on the mound isn’t fair to me. Then again, I’m just playing the game of baseball. I know I was confused that night on what was the right thing to do.