- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2011

Because this is America and everybody has a right to an appeal - not to mention a Twitter account - Jerry Hairston got to play third base for the Washington Nationals on Sunday, his 35th birthday. He could have served a one-game suspension for his run-in with plate umpire Ed Hickox two nights earlier, but he decided to postpone it so he could tell his side of the story in full, glorious detail. (I don’t know about you, but I’m envisioning a PowerPoint presentation.)

Besides, Hairston was the victim of a dirty trick. Clayton Richard, the San Diego Padres’ sneaky southpaw, quick-pitched him in the seventh inning, touching off the incident. Hairston claims he had called time to prevent Richard from doing, well, “what he does,” but the ump forgot and did nothing when the lefty let one go while Jerry was stepping into the box. A fly out followed - after which, Major League Baseball says, Hairston bumped Hickox while lodging a complaint.

You can understand his Jerry-atrics. The Nats are having a hard enough time hitting the ball - as their .229 average attests - without a pitcher pulling a fast one on them. And Richard, to hear Hairston tell it, is notorious for this sort of thing, for starting his windup while the batter is still grooving to his walk-up music.

Indeed, last season, when Hairston was in San Diego, he saw Richard pull the stunt many times, he said. That’s what made it sting even more. This was his friend doing this to him, somebody he considers a “great guy. Love him as a teammate.” As an opponent, though, Clayton isn’t quite so huggable.

The quick pitch, of course, is as old as the game itself. If Abner Doubleday didn’t throw the first one, then Alexander Cartwright did. The ploy is predicated on the idea that, as Warren Spahn put it, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” If you can disrupt the hitter’s internal clock by speeding up the at bat a bit, it can give you an edge.

Best of all, umpires rarely if ever do anything about it. Let’s face it, they love pitchers who work fast and get them out of the hot sun sooner. Why would they object if a hurler let loose with a pitch while the batter was still fiddling with his wristbands?

Jim Kaat, the 283-game winner, is convinced he extended his career by several seasons because his pitching coach with the Chicago White Sox, Johnny Sain, taught him to quick pitch in 1974. Kaat didn’t do it occasionally, just to mess with the hitter’s head; he did it all the time.

When the catcher threw the ball back to him, he says in Bob Vorwald’s book, “What It Means To Be A White Sox, “I imagined in my mind that the bases were loaded and the hitter had just hit a ground ball back to me and I was throwing it back home for a force out. That was my mental picture of what my pitching motion was. It was step and throw.”

Over the years, the quick pitch has become kind of a lost art. Nowadays, you’re more likely to get penalized for dawdling on the mound (e.g. Boston Red Sox reliever Jon Papelbon) than for going into your hurry-up offense. (The Angels’ Brendan Donnelly did get called for it a couple of years ago - once - but, heck, he was already on the Watch List after getting caught with pine tar on his glove.)

Pine tar, obviously, is a no-no. So are sandpaper, thumb tacks and assorted lubricants, including good ol’ saliva. But the quick pitch is in that gray area - the gray area makes batters see red.

According to Hairston, Richard learned the quick-pitching craft from Mark Buerhle when they were on the White Sox staff together. “Buerhle’s the best at doing that,” he said. “Clayton joked about it [Saturday] when I talked to him about it. He got me. He got me ejected. Obviously, it works, and good for him. His job is to get guys out, and he did that.

“It’s not the guys that throw 95, 97 [mph] that give you the most trouble. It’s the guys that can keep you off balance. That’s what pitching’s about.”

Naturally, Richard had a slightly different version of events: “Coming up with the White Sox, it was kind of taught. They wanted you to have a good pace while you worked, to keep your defense in the game. I think that makes a bigger difference than upsetting the hitter’s timing. And being able to play with Buerhle for a couple of years, I kind of saw firsthand how that helped him. When you move quickly, it’s sometimes quicker than the batter wants you to go.

Jerry and I, we just kind of chuckled about it. I told him, ‘You should have been ready.’ I wasn’t actually looking at him because I was checking the runner. Then I looked back at the plate and started making my pitch, and he was looking back at the umpire.”

Who, besides Richard and Buehrle, are card-carrying members of the Quick-Pitchers Club? Among the accused, a Google search reveals, are the Giants’ Sergio Romo, the Brewers’ LaTroy Hawkins and the Phillies’ Cole Hamels, though there are undoubtedly other practitioners.

“It’s a small crowd,” Hairston said. “Cliff Lee’s good at it. You find that guys that do it are pretty successful.”

As fate would have it, Lee is scheduled to be on the mound Tuesday night at Nationals Park for Game 2 of the Philadelphia series. So unless Hairston’s appeal is fast-tracked, he can look forward to getting quick-pitched for the second time in five days. In fact, he might want to start his swing right now.