Jon Niese didn't mean any harm when he released the pitch that broke Jason Heyward's jaw in two places Wednesday. Every gesture he made after Heyward collapsed to the ground and began spitting blood reflected concern. Niese walked toward the plate to see what had happened and, after his catcher nudged him away from the scene, stood fidgeting at the edge of the mound, unable to look away from the prone Heyward for more than a few seconds at a time.
"Obviously no intent, but I just felt bad,'' Niese said later. "It's every pitcher and every hitter's worst nightmare. I just hope he's OK."
No matter how regretful he felt, Niese's mistake carried too little consequence for him. Every pitcher who hits a batter's head, with malice or not, should have to leave the game and miss his next appearance.
MLB can address intent, as it already does, ratcheting up the suspensions and levying fines on headhunters. But the "oops'' get-out-of-jail-free card doesn't make sense anymore, if it ever did. What we know now about head injuries demands stronger repercussions for every hit-by-pitch above the neck. The NFL is trying to re-craft fundamentals of its game to make the sport appear less damaging to the brain. Baseball can reduce risk with a lot less drama; all it has to do in relation to beanballs is enforce competence.
Don Mattingly said it best when he dismissed Ian Kennedy's argument that he had not intentionally hit Yasiel Puig on the nose during a June game that spiraled into hockey at its worst: "If you can't pitch inside without hitting somebody in the head, then you shouldn't pitch inside."
Mattingly was explaining his pitcher's retaliation, baseball's version of frontier justice. He certainly didn't want Bud Selig and his posse to saddle up for another cause. But the costs of a 90 mph fastball to the head are too high to justify the status quo.
Heyward is expected to miss four to six weeks, but that's almost beside the point. A player who cracks a bone below the neck might be out even longer. The issue is long-term damage from any blow to the head. When the ball hit Heyward's face, the force jostled his brain, almost certainly sending it into a collision with his skull.
He may not have sustained a concussion, but researchers have found evidence that any trauma to the brain, especially if it's repeated, can lead to the depression and early-onset dementia encountered by many retired football players. The next time Heyward crashes into a wall to make a catch, he could aggravate damage done by the Niese fastball.
Baseball already comes down marginally harder on pitchers who intentionally throw above the shoulders. In the last three years, according to records kept by MLB since 2000, intentionally throwing near someone's head all but guaranteed a suspension of six games or more for a starter, whereas deliberately throwing at any other part of the body generally merited five games on the shelf. Until 2011, the records did not consistently note whether the ball was aimed above the shoulders.
Neither the six- nor the five-game suspension amounts to much. Usually, the rotation just needs a little shuffle, and the pitcher just gets extra rest before his next start. The player, under terms of the collective-bargaining agreement, can be fined but not docked his pay for the duration of the suspension.
The intentional pitches to the head should yield penalties that create real havoc with a staff, maybe 15 games out plus steep fines. The mistaken ones should bring at least six games, plus the immediate ejection. The players' union can't rightly quibble with this, since it would protect the well-being of its members.
Those members, however, might protest. Too many of them remain infatuated with baseball's creaky traditions and those moments when its finesse yields to contact-sport machismo. They still revere codes devised when players covered their bills by working in lumber mills in the offseason, and didn't have phones in their homes, much less an iPad in every lap. Niese's catcher, John Buck, had just taken advantage of this stunning workplace innovation called paternity leave. See if you can guess how many starts Walter Johnson missed while following through on Lamaze class.
The idea of suspending someone like Niese, who erred rather than attacked, would deeply offend pitchers who feel entitled to the inside of the plate and anyone with a narrow sense of righteousness. But this wouldn't be the first time that safety concerns trumped the strictest definition of fairness in a sport.
Back in the mid-1990s, when several world-class cyclists died in their sleep, apparently because their blood had thickened from abuse of EPO, the sport found itself in a hideous quandary. No reliable tests for EPO existed, and the best screening measured only abnormally high hematocrit levels -- the proportion of oxygen-carrying red-blood cells. So officials set a hematocrit barrier of 50 percent for anyone who wanted to start a stage of a race. A 50 percent measurement suggested doping, but it did not prove guilt. It said only one thing definitively: Under workplace safety rules, the rider had to be declared ineligible that day. It was a penalty that did not connote condemnation.
Suspending a pitcher for mistakenly hitting someone on the head would obviously carry some censure. The guy didn't do his job properly. So he'd get a little time off to pull himself together, maybe work on his control.
The discipline wouldn't eliminate moments like the bloody smashing of Heyward's jaw, which made for quite a show. When he finally drew his imposing body up and walked to the dugout, tapping his heart with his fist, it was impossible not to be stirred, to think as we always do when an athlete excels, "How did he do that?''
But seconds later, you have to wonder if the next guy will get up at all, or what such a blow could ultimately do to Heyward's mind. The simultaneous pity for Niese, every bit as powerful a feeling, couldn't overwhelm the thought that he should have been leaving the field, too.