By Jeb Lund
Last week, Diamondbacks starting pitcher Ian Kennedy beaned Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig in the face. Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke responded by plunking catcher Miguel Montero in the back. Kennedy retaliated by plunking Greinke high on his shoulder. Both benches erupted in an orgy of ineffectual violence, and depending on your attitude, it was either a shameful display of retribution and masculine puffery or -- safety concerns aside -- mostly hilarious.
For a basebrawl of such large dimensions, the game's events defy easy judgment, though Lord knows that's stopped no one. Talking heads issued requisite opinions about disgusting acts of violence or "that's the way the game is played ... rub a li'l dirt on it ... gutty ... big stockings and flannel ... I had to watch baseball uphill when I was your age ... here, take my bindle and can of baked beans." There's also the Bob Costas version of this conversation, which combines both of those two attitudes, then mentions Mickey Mantle twice.
Tradition is good, and part of baseball's appeal is its timelessness, the ability to block out the scoreboard, pretend you can't hear 25,000 people going "nuhhh nuh-nuh-nuh nuh-nuh-nuhhhh" -- because apparently "Seven Nation Army" goes with everything now -- and imagine that you're watching a game in 1920. At the same time, the "back in my day" voices don't take into account that baseball players use to be much more fungible. Players were treated like indentured servants and spare parts, and when the price of human bodies is that low, it's easy to have a low opinion of their preservation. It's worth asking ourselves whether we should preserve traditions that arose at least in part based on contempt or disregard.
Further, with stars now paid vastly larger sums and with baseball competing against a sports-entertainment marketplace with orders of magnitude more viewing options, maintaining the body integrity of players becomes all the more vital. Though the Rays currently exhibit one of their spells of realizing that they don't have to stop at scoring only one run per game, for most of the season, losing Evan Longoria means losing half their offense. If Giancarlo Stanton were knocked out for a season by one malicious pitch, the Marlins would lose 90 percent of their reasons for anyone to attend a game -- after, of course, free tickets, "it's raining at the beach," wanting to see your NL team put up numbers like a video game set to God Mode, a suicide-prep checklist and schadenfreude.
Likewise, those outraged with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks' conduct make and miss some valid points. Throwing at someone's head is gross, in the same crunching, mortal and cruel way that a goon deliberately boarding a guy or a flying safety going helmet-to-chin on an oblivious receiver is gross. If Kennedy's pitch locations were deliberate, then the guy is a creep.
But … Kennedy's reaction to his plunking Puig is one of genuine dismay, if not for human concerns then for the fact that he had two strikes on the guy. Over at SB Nation, Mike Bates makes the case that Kennedy's high HBP numbers are a symptom of overall control issues. And humorless scolds who want to luxuriate in how much they can be ashamed of other people have to contend with the fact that, though it was clearly accidental, Greinke kicked off the escalation of violence and attack-counterattack by plunking Cody Ross in the fifth.
Moreover, what would those people have baseball do, exactly? The line of thought that potential solutions are too complex or can have unintended consequences is just as reductive and stupid in sports as it is in politics, but in this case, "someone do something!" really is fraught with negative outcomes. Pitchers have a right to the inside of the plate because, if nothing else, throwing in one of four primary directions is the most fundamental aspect of their jobs. Batters can be "gritty" by eating dirt or standing there and taking a beanball. Taking away the inside of the plate will make pitching pretty boring, unless you're the sort of person who can't enjoy a ballgame without OMG DINGERS~~~~!
Even tasking umpires with "extra vigilance" or zero-tolerance policies is at best a mixed bag. Umps already get to act as arbiters of what is malicious, and they get it wrong at about the same rate at which they get everything else wrong. If they're told to ring up pitchers more readily, that's a system rife with potential for manipulation. It's sort of a wonder already that some cynical Belichickian manager hasn't already done something like this. If faced with an ace pitcher who pitches inside as a greater than average part of his game, a manager could order his starter to drill a guy in the back in the first inning. For one thing, the gambit has ample plausible deniability -- it's the first inning, the pitcher hasn't settled down yet -- and if the ump warns both benches, suddenly that ace is hesitant to use the inside of the plate that he needs. If you want to be really cynical, on a purely violent level, there would be nothing stopping managers from bringing in their greenest rookie relievers in late innings and using their young arms and control issues to settle scores with limited consequences. Even though he's now in his seventh full season, how would anyone ascertain Andrew Miller's intent in hitting anyone?
Most of all, though, what we risk losing in baseball when we reduce beanballs and try to prevent brawls is, arguably, the funniest spectacle in modern sports. Football violence is already a lot like playing football. Forearm shivers in basketball look normal. Hockey players have an excuse for looking silly fighting each other: They're standing on skates and slipping backward. Baseball players prove that physical prowess in certain aspects bears no relation to the ability to fight without looking like a clown. Besides the "Oh, s---, what do I do now?" look that graces the face of every batter who reaches the pitcher's mound on a charge, the most iconic part of the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura beatdown is the fact that Ryan looks like he has fought an actual human being before.
While the Padres' Carlos Quentin broke Greinke's collarbone in a brawl earlier in the year, injuries like that are still an outlier. More often than not, injuries happen to pride and breaks happen to the illusion that these people are actual badasses. The Diamondbacks-Dodgers "melee" might as well serve as the Ur-text for these explosions of … not much, really. It not only featured every unintentionally comic aspect of baseball fights, but it executed every one of them with transcendent hilarity. There were the punches that sort of went at, like, I dunno, air? -- like two guys ineptly trying to high-five each other with closed fists. There were men yelling and trying very hard not to break free from their teammates who were "holding them back" in that put-upon, here-we-go-again bit of restraint theater. There were the guys who ran up to the scrum and clearly couldn't find an opponent and instead tried to kind of walk around exuding ambient intensity. There was yelling, and it always seems a pity that we can't hear these fights, because all the dialogue looks like it's probably just:
"Yeah, I'm dangerous!"
"I am more dangerous."
"Right now? I'm dangerous."
This fight even broke new comedic ground. Coaches waddling out in their totally superfluous jerseys is already funny enough, but Mark McGwire instantly generated a thousand roid-rage jokes while looking like an overbearing little league dad who is not going to take how you're treating Bennett sitting down. And then there was J.P. Howell, trying to throw Turner Ward over the dugout rail, I guess to eliminate him from the Royal Rumble and make sure he didn't get that title shot at 'Mania. If Bud Selig had come out and said, "Kirk Gibson ... you're fiiiiiiiiiiiiiired!" it would have been the greatest day in baseball history, and then we could have all gone out to the parking lot at Chavez Ravine and filled any Giants fans' cars with cement.
Bench-clearing brawls are usually masculinity kabuki for people who want to maintain the polite fiction that they don't have powerful incentives to do nothing more than be loud and point emphatically. They're dumb and unnecessary and usually pretty terrible, but they also make rudimentary sense when one angry batter is surrounded by nine players on the field. But preventing them might forever end events like the Diamondbacks-Dodgers clash, which became an instant classic of goofiness. We can't afford to lose moments like that. We owe ourselves these moments of so little done, by so many, for so few reasons. We owe it to history.
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