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Bautista, Odor at fault in brawl, but MLB culture bears blame too

How baseball's toxic self-policing culture was at the root of Sunday's fight between Jose Bautista and the Blue Jays and Rougned Odor and the Rangers.
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Sunday afternoon was apparently alright for fighting in Texas, as the Rangers and Blue Jays got into a benches-clearing brawl in the eighth inning of their series finale, a 7–6 win for the Rangers. The donnybrook, triggered by a hard, overaggressive slide into second base by Jose Bautista, was a true scrap, featuring Texas second baseman Rougned Odor landing a solid right cross on Bautista’s face and ejections galore—and the promise of some serious suspensions in the aftermath. But the roots of Sunday’s dustup likely go back to last October, when Bautista bat flipped his way into the Rangers’ ire.

Let’s set the scene: With Toronto trailing 7–6 in the top of the eighth, Bautista was hit by a pitch by Rangers reliever Matt Bush to start the inning. Bautista wasn’t happy with the plunking—one that seemed awfully intentional, coming as it did on the first pitch—and had some words for Bush and the Rangers’ dugout before taking his base. After a flyout by Edwin Encarnacion, lefty Jake Diekman relieved Bush and induced a weak ground ball to the left of third base off the bat of Justin Smoak. Adrian Beltre charged the ball and fired to second, where Odor caught it for the out, only to throw wildly to first after Bautista slid into him late. An enraged Odor shoved a jawing Bautista, then wound up and delivered a vicious punch. Both dugouts emptied, with fists and players flying across the field behind second base and Beltre running over to pick up Bautista and carry him away from the brawl.

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After several minutes of shoving, grabbing and angry words between the two teams, the umpires ruled Bautista out for interfering with Odor at second base—triggering an automatic double play via the new slide rule, Rule 6.01(j), that ended the inning—and ejected Bautista, Odor, Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson and Rangers bench coach Steve Beuchele. Toronto reliever Jesse Chavez also saw his day come to an early end after he hit Prince Fielder with a pitch to start the bottom of the eighth, leading to an ejection for him and Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who had replaced manager John Gibbons after he was thrown out of the game in the third inning for arguing balls and strikes.

Watch: Blue Jays, Rangers brawl after takeout slide

That the Rangers and Blue Jays came to blows shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, given the bad blood and tension between the two teams ever since Bautista’s home run—and his emphatic post-homer bat flip—in Game 5 of last year’s Division Series put an end to Texas’s season. Earlier this month, the two teams met in an emotional four-game series in Toronto that saw the Blue Jays win three of four, including two walkoffs and a 10-run rout in the series finale, though it didn’t feature any retaliation on Texas’s part against Bautista. The rematch in Arlington, meanwhile, saw the Jays take the opener before the Rangers grabbed the second game on a walkoff of their own ahead of Sunday’s rubber match.

On Sunday, things were heated throughout. Toronto first base coach Tim Leiper was ejected in the top of the third for arguing with first base umpire Dale Scott, Gibbons was rung by home plate ump Dan Iassogna in the bottom half of the frame over a close pitch to Odor that was called a ball, and Odor was taken out on a hard slide by Michael Saunders in the sixth (one that, like Bautista’s slide, resulted in an automatic double play for interference). The half-inning before the brawl, Texas, trailing 6–4, took the lead on a three-run home run by Ian Desmond—one he punctuated with a bat flip of his own.

Rest assured, this is not about to turn into a hot take on how bat flipping is a sin and how the game must be respected. Desmond should be able to flip if he wants, just as Bautista had every right to be emotional about his home run last October and had every right to take umbrage at Bush and the Rangers for plunking him over his flip. What he doesn’t have is the right to barrel into Odor at second, taking an already charged situation and blowing it up. After the game, Bautista made the requisite noise about how the Rangers lack leadership and “don't play the game the right way” (as well as an odd statement about how he chose not to hurt Odor with his slide), but those words ring awfully hollow after he went full bore into Odor and chirped about it. His actions on the base paths were reckless and wrong, and if nothing else, he deserves a suspension and fine for his slide.

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But if Bautista lit the match, then Odor piled on some extra explosives to ensure a bigger bang. Give him all the points you want for executing a textbook right cross that would make Floyd Mayweather jealous, and you can certainly understand why he was none too happy about Bautista’s slide. But there’s no universe in which throwing a punch is acceptable. That haymaker will obviously and rightfully earn Odor some time off, as well as cost him a healthy chunk of salary. The same can be said of Bush for hitting Bautista and of Chavez for plunking Fielder.

Ultimately, though, blame baseball’s idiotic and pervasive atmosphere of policing itself for Sunday getting out of control. Ever since Bautista sent his bat skyward in Game 5, you knew that the Rangers would retaliate for it, and once Bush hit Bautista, you knew he and Toronto were going to send a message about that, and round and round we go with everyone getting angry and nothing getting solved. Players both current and past grope for their fainting couches when someone dares pump a fist or flip a bat or do anything that “disrespects” the game, but violent, potentially injury-causing retaliation continues on with hearty self-approval. This is where Bryce Harper’s comments about the game being tired ring the most true: Its culture of toxic masculinity demands conformity and features a moral code that can’t condone bat flips but is somehow okay with plunkings and hard slides. Bautista’s post-game comments show just how silly it all is—self-appointed keepers of the unwritten rules fighting to keep each other in line over the smallest and most meaningless of imagined transgressions.

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A brawl like Sunday’s didn't need to happen, but it was practically preordained from the moment Bautista hit his home run six months ago. Grown men couldn’t keep their emotions in check over one man celebrating arguably the greatest moment of his entire life, and here we are half a year later seeing the repercussions of that. There’s no excusing Bautista for his slide or Odor for his punch. But to be surprised that they happened misses the reality that they were inevitable in a sport where playing the game “the right way” somehow became so important.