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  • Does MLB need to do something about beanball culture after Thursday's brawl?
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
August 24, 2017

Consider this great inane internet debate of years past: Which athletes are best equipped to win a Battle Royale if limited to their own sport’s equipment with no protective padding or helmets? Hockey players have skates and sticks. Baseball players have bats and balls. Football and basketball players have their athleticism, I guess. The possibilities are intriguing and gruesome. Javelin throwers could impale you from close range; archers can shoot arrows at you from distance. Biathletes are heavy favorites since they have guns, but their skis limit their getaway abilities.

One group that is equipped for a decent chance at survival are baseball pitchers. Assuming they have an unlimited supply of baseballs, pitchers can strategically hide and plan aerial assaults by hurling fastballs at opponents’ heads, hips or backs. Imagine being blindsided by a Chris Sale fastball in the small of your back. Ouch! The opposition is defenseless and will be, at least briefly, incapacitated and potentially killed by a ball coming at 90-100 MPH. Will pitchers be the last athletes standing when the rest have succumbed? Possibly, but they’ll last longer than most others.

Now consider that even though a fastball to the head is potentially fatal, several baseball players, coaches and managers still encourage and tolerate beanballs as ‘part of the game.’ The general defense of retaliatory beanballs is a ham-fisted interpretation of deterrence (or ‘policing themselves’ in baseball parlance) or, more simply, Old Testament eye-for-an-eye philosophy. Thursday afternoon proved the flaws in baseball’s longstanding adherence to its vengeful ways during the Tigers’ 10–6 win over the Yankees. What started with an attempt at retaliation translated into a chaotic and ludicrous spectacle that echoed the knockdown-drag-out brawls of decades past. By the game’s conclusion, four players had been hit and eight members (including both managers) were ejected. 

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The genesis of Thursday’s fracas was Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer’s drilling of Yankees DH Gary Sanchez. Sanchez homered in his prior at-bat, his eleventh of the month, and Fulmer was either sick of Sanchez playing so well or lost command of his fastball. Fulmer’s pitch plunked Sanchez in the midsection, but he didn’t receive a warning, a customary move that often follows a pitcher drilling someone who homered off of him. Since Sanchez may be the hottest hitter in baseball right now, the umpires should have assumed that the Yankees would exact revenge after seeing their hottest player hit by a pitch. It was an oversight, and the umpires should have issued immediate warnings, but that didn’t justify what would later take place. 

When Miguel Cabrera arrived for his at-bat in the sixth inning, Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle threw behind him in baseball’s typical “you throw at my best player and I’ll throw at yours” gesture. Kahnle was adhering to baseball’s traditional code of conduct, but he was immediately ejected without a warning. That decision infuriated Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who was summarily tossed after berating the umpires for their quick-trigger decision to eject Kahnle. After the game, Girardi excoriated the umpires for their “poor” handling of the game and argued that if Fulmer could hit Sanchez intentionally, the Yankees were free to have at whomever they wanted. Kahnle didn’t even hit Cabrera, so the decision to eject him without a warning was, at best, mystifying. 

As replacement pitcher Aroldis Chapman completed his warmup tosses, Cabrera and Yankees catcher Austin Romine argued before Cabrera shoved Romine to the ground and threw a couple punches as Romine fell. What descended from there looked more like the brawl from The Naked Gun than any contemporary base-brawl. While most bench-clearing incidents result in a lot of standing, gesturing and yelling, this was a brawl worthy of street arrests: Romine landed some decent body shots, Sanchez jumped in to get some licks in on Cabrera, players sprawled to the ground to prevent their more emotional teammates from attacking anyone. This wasn’t triggered by a hit batsman, but that Cabrera objected to being targeted. Cabrera was rightfully ejected while Romine was ejected for defending himself. 

And then the hit batsmen piled up. 

Dellin Betances entered the game in the seventh inning and delivered the game’s scariest moment when he hit James McCann in the head with a fastball. Despite his intimidating appearance at 6’ 8”, Betances is known as one of the game’s gentle giants and probably didn’t want to hit the leadoff man in a 6–6 game, but the benches emptied anyway and Betances was ejected after two pitches. David Robertson relieved Betances and hit John Hicks in the hand, but wasn’t ejected because of a lack of clear intent. That was almost certainly accidental, but it didn’t stop the Tigers from sending reliever Alex Wilson to drill Todd Frazier in the leg, which emptied the benches again.

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A mere 30 miles from the Palace at Auburn Hills, where the notorious “Malice at the Palace” permanently changed the NBA and its approach to discipline, Comerica Park hosted an embarrassing spectacle that should cause Major League Baseball to rethink its disciplinary practices during beanballs.

McCann was fine after taking a Betances fastball to the head (he’d even come back to homer that struck a Yankee fan in the face in his next at-bat), but that is the exact scenario that will either end a player’s career or kill him until the league insists that throwing at players is unacceptable in any circumstance. Betances probably didn’t mean to hit McCann in the head, but he could have been throwing a brushback pitch that tailed on him. McCann was caught by cameras screaming “he hit me in the f------ head!” and pleading for Betances’s ejection. It was hard to blame him. As it stands, the umpires have the discretion to eject players—even if they haven’t issued warnings—if they feel a player has been thrown at. The problem with enforcing that rule is that the pitcher can always say the ball slipped, and draconian ejections by umpires are never viewed favorably by the teams or fans.  

Until Major League Baseball actually addresses this trend, players will continue to get hurt, either from the ball hitting them or from the fight that comes afterward. Those who argue most vociferously for the players to police themselves often aren’t the ones taking fastballs to the ribs. It’s an outmoded brand of machismo that works so rarely, yet inspires a slavish devotion. Maybe it’s the will to carry on tradition, maybe it’s a fear of the “softening of America.” These justifications are usually moronic, and all purveyors of this philosophy should be hit by a Major League pitcher to test their resolve.

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The solution, or one of them, is a severe mandatory penalty for any intentional hit batsmen. If you want to start a beanball, fine, but be prepared to sit at least 15 games if you’re complicit. There is no way to eradicate hit batsmen from baseball or the temptation of revenge, but there are incentives to discourage it. 

There will be negative externalities to that choice: teams who lose a best player to a hit-by-pitch will feel powerless, and the first team to throw at a player will have an upper hand. In Game 1 of the 2013 NLCS, the Cardinals’ Joe Kelly broke Hanley Ramirez’s rib with a 95-MPH fastball in the first inning, and then closer Carlos Martinez hit Ramirez in the hand in the ninth inning with an even harder pitch. After hitting .500 with six extra-base hits in the NLDS, Ramirez hit .133 in the NLCS because of his broken rib and the Dodgers lost the series. The Dodgers likely felt the only way to balance the situation was to drill the Cardinals’ best player. There are scenarios that call for another player getting hit, but they’re seldom justified.  

The risk of throwing at players and the ensuing fallout outnumber those when the players properly police themselves. It only takes one player to exacerbate tensions, and then everybody is at risk again. It’s time that baseball considered international hockey’s approach to fighting: Fight if you want to fight, but you’re getting a game misconduct, a fine and suspension if you do.

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Perhaps commissioner Rob Manfred will be embarrassed that the fight will dominate the day’s headlines and consider trying to correct the game’s most pointless and potent danger to its players. Maybe he’ll read old Gandhi quotes and realize “an eye for an eye is making the whole world blind.” Or maybe he’ll capitulate to traditionalists again and hand out lukewarm suspensions for the pathetic spectacle that took place in Detroit.

Ideally, he’d think about how he’d survive in a fight to the death against professional athletes; I bet he’d try to avoid those pitchers.

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