A baseball brawl almost always originates in something sinful—pride, jealousy, mishandled anger. The brawl itself, too, typically showcases some characteristics that Major League Baseball would rather not promote. Still, there is usually something good here: heroes around the story of the brawl, if not in the story of the brawl, as ESPN’s Sam Miller put it at Baseball Prospectus in 2016. Sunday’s Reds-Pirates throwdown was no different.
This list isn’t exclusively made up of heroic moments; some, in fact, were closer to the opposite. However, each was notable—by one definition of the word or another—and so here, then, is an analysis of baseball’s best brawl of the season so far:
Derek Dietrich’s Stare of Admiration
We elevate the bat flip as baseball’s best celebratory technique. That’s fair enough—it’s joyful and creative and clearly emotive, not to mention endlessly gif-able. It deserves its spot as baseball’s best. The game’s most brutal celebratory technique, however, is its simplest. This would be the stare of admiration, displayed beautifully in the second inning on Sunday by Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich:
No, it doesn’t have the flash and fever of a bat flip. It doesn’t need it. “I’ve been here before,” it says. (Which, in this case: Derek Dietrich, 61 HRs in seven major league seasons, hasn’t been here before that much. But it’s okay! The stats don’t matter here. The swagger does.) “I know how good this is. Look at it. Bask in its glory. Bathe in the warmth of its triumph. This is a masterpiece, and I am the master.” It does not invite the manic glee of a bat flip. Instead, it asks you to consider the home run as you might a painting in a museum: quietly, reverently, studiously, to fully appreciate its artistry.
It’s not as openly aggressive as staring down the pitcher. In its way, though, it’s even more adversarial—the hitter doesn’t even have to explicitly acknowledge the pitcher, and he’ll still manage to thoroughly embarrass him. It’s the kind of thing that’ll make a guy angry. It’s the kind of thing that’ll make him throw behind you, which is exactly what happened in the fourth inning, when Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer got his second opportunity to face Dietrich.
Yasiel Puig’s Return
Initially, this brawl looked pretty ordinary. The exposition was clear. Umpire Jeff Kellogg issued a warning to Archer. Cincinnati skipper David Bell came out to argue, one thing led to another… and, soon, the dugouts had cleared, red-and-yellow uniforms blending together in a pulsatile mass, peppered with nothing more physical than mild shoving. Oh, sure, there was plenty of yelling, and a hat or two went flying. But this looked like it was going to be the extent of the action. Both sides’ bluster had played out, and now they had started to part, with the key antagonists restrained by their teammates. It looked like the typical basebrawl—lotta sound, lotta fury, very little real activity.
Then Yasiel Puig took matters into his hands.
Puig had initially jumped right into the center here. But Joey Votto held him back, assisted by Pittsburgh’s Melky Cabrera, in an embrace that could have been heartwarming in any other context:
Aw. Shortly after Puig had been pushed over to the sidelines, the whole thing started to break up. This, for instance, is not a brawl image. This is decidedly post-brawl. If there is clear team division, with only a few stragglers left stranded on the opposite side of the uniform line, and if there is enough of a break in the action for a guy to put his hands on his hips, the melee is officially winding down:
So Votto released his grip on Puig. It was over, right? Wrong. Puig went diving back in, and the brawl was back on. It takes a special enthusiasm to re-ignite a fire that’s died all the way down to the embers. If Puig doesn’t bring that, though, no one does:
Call it enthusiasm. Call it lunacy. Either way, there’s Puig—functionally on his own, having broken free of the inter-team cautionary restraints of Votto and Cabrera, making the decision to go up against an entire phalanx of Pirates.
Tucker Barnhart’s Valiant Effort
By any reasonable standard, Puig shouldn’t have put himself in the middle of this. It would be a recipe for disaster or, at the very least, ejection. Votto and Cabrera seemed to know this, which is why they held him back. Puig seemed to know this, which is why he waited until his teammate had eased his grip to break out and run back in. If Votto had a chance to tell him no, Puig apparently realized, he was going to.
And Tucker Barnhart knew this, which is why he tried to make one last effort to stop him.
Barnhart is, of course, the prostrate figure holding the outfielder’s right foot in the screenshot above. He couldn’t stop Puig. No one could have stopped Puig. But Barnhart knew he had to try—even if it ended with nothing more than a helpless dive at his feet, a commitment to try, never minding that it looked destined to fail.
Felipe Vázquez, Keone Kela, and Amir Garrett’s Simple Involvement
A strong contender for the best part of any basebrawl is the bullpen’s dutiful jog out to the action. By the time they get out there, it might be over. By the time they get halfway there, it might be over. But they still have to make the effort. It’s a symbolic gesture, but it’s an important one. It’s just how a brawl works.
In this one, though, not only did bullpens empty with time for them to get involved, they emptied with time for their pitchers to be ejected. Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vázquez and Keone Kela got in the middle of the scrum, along with Cincinnati’s Amir Garrett, and all three relievers were made to pay for it. (In being thrown out, they joined Bell and Puig.) None of their activity had Puig’s verve, exactly, but it’s still notable. It was a commitment to making the bullpen’s symbolic brawl gesture into a substantive one. A multi-reliever ejection is a sign of not just texture in a fight, but longevity, too—truly a special combination.
The Pirates’ Uniforms
Anything Pittsburgh does in these throwbacks is automatically five to seven times cooler than it would be otherwise. Including a fight.