Baseball seems to be adding new meaning to the term box score. Last Friday night, which happened to be the 70th anniversary of Ray Chapman's death from a Carl Mays beanball, Chicago White Sox pitcher Greg Hibbard stung Texas Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele with a pitch in the fifth inning of the first game of a doubleheader at Arlington Stadium. Buechele charged the mound, precipitating a bench-clearing confrontation, and even Chicago manager Jeff Torborg's son, Greg, who is serving as a bullpen catcher while waiting to enter law school this fall, joined the fray. Everybody, it seems, is getting into the act.
The Rangers-White Sox brawl was the third such incident in baseball within a nine-day span and the 10th of the season. All of them started when a batter took umbrage at a pitch and went after the opposing pitcher. The night before Chicago and Texas squared off, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Pedro Guerrero threw a punch at Danny Darwin of the Houston Astros as the two were jawing at first base, with umpire Bob Davidson standing between them. Guerrero was displeased because the inning before Darwin had thrown him a fastball high and tight.
On Aug. 9, three New York Mets and four Philadelphia Phillies were ejected following a 20-minute fight that began when New York pitcher Dwight Gooden charged Phillie pitcher Pat Combs alter Combs hit him in the knee with a pitch. Gooden could not have been that surprised about being hit—earlier in the game he had hit two Phillies, Tommy Herr and Dickie Thon, whose beaning by Mike Torrez of the Mets in 1984 nearly ended his career. Says Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas, "It seems like a day doesn't go by anymore without a brawl. It's getting worse than hockey. What I'm afraid is going to happen is that one of these days a player is really going to get hurt in one of these fights."
Thomas is particularly sensitive because his Phillies have been involved in two bench-clearers in one month. In addition to the Mets melee, the Phillies had one with the Cincinnati Reds on July 20, when pitcher Norm Charlton of the Reds charged Dennis Cook after Cook hit him with a pitch. In terms of sheer brutality, though, the fight with the Mets far exceeded the one with Cincinnati. Nearly every player on both teams was involved, and at one point umpire Joe West was seen holding off Philadelphia leftfielder Von Hayes with one arm and throwing Cook to the ground with the other. Among the more frightening scenes were Phillie catcher Darren Daulton repeatedly punching Gooden in the back of the head and two Phillies choking New York infielder Tom O'Malley.
August 26, 1990
"The next time I'm ready to score, we'll see what happens at home plate," said New York's Darryl Strawberry. "I won't forget what Daulton did. He's good at sucker-punching. If [a Phillie] throws at me, I'm going after the catcher."
"Tell him to pack a lunch," Daulton said in response to the threat. "If he thinks the whole league is intimidated because his name is Darryl Strawberry, well, he's got the wrong guy here."
Is this baseball or professional wrestling? Perhaps box scores, which have been expanded in the last few years, should now include elapsed time of fight, number of punches landed and maybe even a tale of the tape for the participants in the main event. Then again, these brawls should not be made light of.
"Boys will be boys," said Texas manager Bobby Valentine after his team's set-to with the White Sox. But these boys could easily become disabled boys. Dumb luck is the only reason this season's brawls haven't produced any significant injuries. The Mets were especially lucky, considering that one of their stars, Strawberry, was the center of violence. He was endangering not only New York's chances in the National League East race but his own impending free agent prospects as well.
Sometimes it's hard to tell who or what is responsible for these things. The Chicago-Texas tilt may have begun with an innocuous home run by 145-pound White Sox rookie Craig Grebeck off Nolan Ryan the week before. When Grebeck came up in the third inning last Friday night, Ryan hit him in the left side with a pitch. Asked if there was a message in that pitch and other close ones, Ryan said, "Might have been." In the eye-for-an-eye world of baseball, the hitting of Chicago's third baseman entitled Hibbard to hit the Rangers' third baseman, Buechele, and that's when the brawl started.
While it may be difficult to determine who starts the fights, it's easy to pinpoint who can stop them: the league presidents. After a particularly ugly engagement between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Seattle Mariners on June 30, American League president Bobby Brown handed down five-game suspensions to Brewers pitcher Bob Sebra, who admitted he hit the Mariners' Tracy Jones on purpose, and Milwaukee manager Tom Trebelhorn, who, it appeared to some, had served more as an inciter than a peacemaker, and three-game suspensions to three other Brewers and four Mariners. Everybody was also given small fines.
Another manager, Joe Morgan of the Boston Red Sox, was suspended for three games for his part in a bench-clearing fracas in Cleveland on June 3. The previous night, Indians relief ace Doug Jones had thrown close to catcher Tony Pena's head and Pena had pronounced that the Red Sox would get even. Sure enough, in the first inning of the next day's game, Roger Clemens hit Cleveland's leadoff batter, Stanley Jefferson, in the elbow with his second pitch. After the game Morgan said, "I loved it. We got even, didn't we? We, as a team, voted 34-0."
If you think that Brown let his constituents off lightly, consider the action that was taken by National League president Bill White following the Mets-Phillies brawl. Only Philadelphia bullpen coach Mike Ryan received a suspension (for three days); Daulton, Strawberry and Tim Teufel were each fined $1,000; and five other players, including Gooden and Combs, received lesser fines. Says Don Drysdale, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was noted for his chin music, "You know what fines are? They're like blowing cotton. They don't mean a thing, not with the salaries these guys are getting."
The fines are hardly a deterrent. They certainly didn't deter Guerrero. For taking a swipe at Darwin, Guerrero was suspended by White for only one game and fined $1,000. Says White, "Indiscriminate on-field fighting has to stop." He's right, but one-game suspensions and $1,000 fines are not going to do it.
Although no official statistics are kept on the number of mound chargings, it's clear that hitters are much more sensitive than they once were. "They're a bunch of wimps," said Don Baylor, the Brewers' hitting coach, on CBS's pregame show last Saturday. Baylor holds the major league record for being hit by pitches (267). Asked once which one hurt the most, he said, "None of them."
If Baylor had a pitching counterpart in the old school, it would be Bob Gibson, the Cardinals Hall of Famer. Gibson was a firm believer in the brushback pitch, so much so that when he had to face his best friend, Bill White, after White was traded from the Cards to the Phillies, he hit him. Gibson also believed in getting even. In 1972, Tommy Hutton of Philadelphia hit a home run off Gibson, and Gibson vowed to make him pay. He never got the chance, though. Earlier this year, when Gibson and Hutton were both broadcasting a game in Toronto's SkyDome, Gibson picked up a baseball and hit Hutton right in the butt.
Much has changed in the time it took Gibson to retaliate. For one thing, charging the mound has become de rigueur for getting back at a pitcher. For another, umpires have shifted the strike zone a bit toward the outside, so hitters tend to lean over the plate more. The Charley LauWalt Hriniak school of batting, which has become all the rage, teaches hitters to lunge into pitches, thereby making them less able to duck away from inside pitches.
The aluminum bat used in high school and college ball has contributed to the situation as well. Because the pitch on the fists often results in a cheap single off an aluminum bat, pitchers seldom throw it and batters seldom see it. Says Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president of baseball operations, "The first thing we do when we get a young pitcher is reprogram him so that he'll pitch inside. The young hitters aren't reprogrammed, though. They have never seen the inside pitch before. They don't like it. And when it gets up high, they get scared and angry."
Then there's the economic factor. Because players today are making so much money, a hitter may see the inside pitch as a threat to his livelihood. Says Combs, "Hitters seem very defensive about pitches inside. Money may have a lot to do with it. They might feel that if a pitch hits them they could get hurt. But they could probably get hurt a lot easier fighting, so there are two ways to look at it."
Pitchers can be as culpable as hitters. Cincinnati's Nasty Boys—Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers—revel in intimidation. Some old-school pitching coaches pass along a bizarre code, which dictates that a pitcher throw at a hitter who 1) unexpectedly homers off him, or 2) has the misfortune to come up after one or more of his teammates has homered. (But as Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who was not averse to throwing inside, once said, "I think it's malicious to hit anyone because of your own inadequacies.") Finally, pitchers give the mindless excuse of "protecting my teammates." On the contrary, such so-called protection often serves to endanger teammates by provoking a brawl.
Can anything be done to curb the onslaught of fighting? Some baseball people favor quicker warnings to teams in incendiary circumstances, while others think warnings just lead to more trouble. American League umpiring supervisor Marty Springstead suggests a rule borrowed from hockey. "The third man to join in a fight gets an automatic ejection," says Springstead. "That might stop the bench-clearing brawls."
Former pitcher Ed Farmer, the advance scout for the Baltimore Orioles, offers this unique suggestion: "I would teach all my pitchers kung fu. First for balance. Then if anyone charged the mound, he could break the hitter's jaw. It would happen only once." Asked if he was serious, Farmer said, "Yes."
Brown espouses a somewhat different approach. Last year he told Brewers pitcher Mark Knudson, who was fined for fighting with outfielder Luis Polonia, a Yankee at the time, that he should have turned around and run from Polonia instead of standing on the mound and defending himself. That way, said Brown, there would have been no fight and no fine. "If it comes down to running or getting fined," says Knudson, "I'll take the fine. If you run, you're finished."
There will always be fights, but the situation this year is clearly out of hand. The real answer to curbing the fisticuffs is more stringent penalties. "Just let the batter and pitcher fight," says Pittsburgh Pirate coach Rich Donnelly. "Anybody else goes out there, he should be banned from baseball—for life. That would end it." Well, maybe the penalty should not be that severe, but certainly more stringent than a few days' suspension.
In the meantime, so many are risking so much for so little. Last Friday, after the doubleheader between the White Sox and Rangers, Buechele had second thoughts about having charged the mound, so he sent Hibbard a note of apology and a beer. If only this rash of irresponsibility could be handled so easily.