Mike Mussina never has been kind to the Detroit Tigers. Indeed, for Christmas, Mussina always asks for another turn at Tiger Stadium. But last night the Tigers found the combination of Mussina and plate umpire John Hirschbeck absolutely intolerable.
With Mussina tempting perfection before a sellout crowd atCamden Yards, Hirschbeck's "liberal" strike zone pushed the Tigers into a frenzy.
The Tigers ended up with a 4-0 loss and more ejections (three) than hits (two) against Mussina. They were only four outs away from being on the wrong end of a perfect game when designated hitter Frank Catalanotto drove a double into right field. Avoiding a no-hitter did nothing to ease the anger within the visitors clubhouse.
"It's a joke," complained right fielder Bobby Higginson, who along with manager Buddy Bell and left fielder Luis Gonzalez was ejected for complaining about balls and strikes. Higginson's ouster actually came from crew chief Richie Garcia, who took exception to Higginson waving his arms and hurling a cup full of water against the dugout steps.
"They ought to send a tape of this to the league so they can do something about it. It happens all the time," Higginson said.
While others practiced diplomacy, Higginson held back nothing. "He's the worst umpire in the league. It's blatant," he added.
Apparently, it wasn't that bad. AL president Dr. Gene Budig dropped in on the umpiring crew afterward. His small talk included no reference to the nasty exchanges between Hirschbeck and the Tigers' dugout.
Hirschbeck's NL-sized strike zone seemed ripe for history. Not that Mussina needed much help. He entered the start with a lifetime 13-2 record and 2.39 ERA against Detroit, including a win last Wednesday in Tiger Stadium. Last night's win marked the first time Mussina has beaten an opponent four times in the same season.
"John has always had a pretty liberal strike zone. Everybody in the league knows it. It's nothing new," Mussina said.
Asked if he thought his a generous strike zone, Hirschbeck answered, "Yes, I do." It was in no way an apology.
"I've been here 16 years and I haven't changed. And I'm not going to change," Hirschbeck said. "Pitchers throw strikes. Batters hit the ball and fielders make plays. Whoever scores the most runs wins the game."
Last night Mussina and catcher Chris Hoiles exploited it to the max. Hoiles often set up six inches off the outside corner. Whenever Mussina hit Hoiles' mitt he was rewarded. By the fifth inning Bell began consistently complaining from the dugout. In the sixth, the Tigers began losing bodies.
Bell was the first gone. He complained too long and too loud from the dugout and was ejected by Hirschbeck as Gabe Alvarez led off the sixth inning. After his ejection he accused Hirschbeck of giving Mussina one strike zone and his starter, Bryce Florie, another. Afterward, Bell bit his tongue, fearing retribution.
"If I say what I really feel right now, I'll get in trouble," said Bell, who claimed to receive two reasons for his ejection.
The low-key Gonzalez received the final thumb when he groused about a strike call in the eighth inning. Hirschbeck bounced him with a 2-2 count. Gonzalez's crime was to complain while looking down and stepping out of the box.
"He said, 'Give me a chance.' I said, 'You'd have a lot better chance if you swung the bat,' " Hirschbeck said.
"I don't want to take anything away from Mussina," Gonzalez insisted. "He threw a great game. And I don't want to say anything about [Hirschbeck's] strike zone. It's a new day and new game tomorrow. I just told him I needed more of a chance than that."
Pub Date: 8/05/98