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Baseball Beaning & Brawls

2009 August 19
by Brian Goff

John Kruk and Eric Young provide a humorous analysis of the “right way to fight in baseball” following the Red Sox Kevin Youkilis charging of Detroit’s Rick Porcello a week ago n ESPN MediaZone.

Beaning (which Porcello’s pitch may not have been), on the other hand, does not amuse me. Baseball has long had the tradition of permitting even blatant hitting of batters and inevitable retaliation as “part of the game.” In recent years, MLB rules have limited retaliation, but only rarely will umpires eject the initiator as happened this season to John Lackey of LAA. Defenders of this policy view self-enforcement mechanisms and incentives as sufficient with statements like “if you do let these things work out in small ways, it blows up into bigger things.” Detractors, like myself, see vigilante justice that, while admittedly involving a degree of self-enforcing incentives, permits a lot of plunking of players with a dangerous weapon and blows up into bigger melees now and then.

Inter-league comparisons throw cold water on the “let them work it out” philosophy of baseball. In a high emotion and intensity game such as football, fights rarely occur and brawls practically never at the professional level. If operating by baseball’s “code,” a defensive lineman who thought an offensive player gained too much advantage in some way or pulled some dirty maneuver would simply raise up before the next snap and and kick the offensive lineman in the groin. Instead, the league punishes much less egregious behavior with personal fouls and would immediately eject and likely suspend any player engaging in such “settle the score” tactics. the Albert Haynesworth “stomping incident” is a case in point — ejection, suspension, end of story with no need for the Cowboys to plot their “retaliation” against the Titans and no appearance of any thing of this sort of malfeasance across the league.

One reply might be that Haynesworth’s actions left no doubt whereas pitches sometimes “get away.” No doubt, no one can perfectly discriminate pitches that are intentionally thrown at batters from pitches thrown inside with no intent to hit anyone. Based on game situation (score, pitch count …), game history, team histories, pitcher characteristics, and pitch characteristics, MLB players and umps (especially catchers and umps) can likely determine with at least 95 percent accuracy whether a pitch is intended to hit someone or be so far inside as to be equivalent to intending to hit the batter. I can tell with probably 85 percent accuracy watching at home.

The cultural differences that have developed in baseball and football extend beyond just the penalties. In baseball, not only were pitchers like Bob Gipson, Don Drysdale, and Nolan Ryan revered for their ability to get batters out, but a whole folklore of admiration developed around their willingness to throw at batters. Reggie White was a great defensive end, but no one would have thought him better for picking up a QB and dumping him on his head or punching some offensive tackle in the face. Hall of Famer or not, such behavior would diminish his stature. Can anyone imagine a punch to the face of a receiver who just caught a TD pass being acceptable behavior that’s “just part of the game”?

Robin Ventura’s farcical charge of Nolan Ryan resulting in Ryan’s headlock on Ventura made me belly laugh along with everyone else. To my point, here, however, there’s nothing funny about Ryan (one of my favorite players) hitting Ventura with a 95 mph fastball. Rather than the futile rush of the mound, Ventura might have called out Ryan — why does a future Hall of Famer with the stuff that Ryan had find it necessary to throw at people? Why is this accepted behavior?

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