By Dirk Hayhurst
Manny Machado's head is awfully crowded lately, what with all the people who've crawled inside, trying to figure out what the malfunction is.
And, let's be honest, there has to be some kind of malfunction. How else can you justify throwing a bat 90 feet at another player?
Don't tell me it was an accident, Manny; that the bat slipped and you honestly meant to swing at a pitch that was already in the catcher's mitt. You can't be one of baseball's brightest young stars and play off the incident like you're also one of its dumbest -- that you not only temporarily lost your mind, but your instincts as a player, too?
This is what happens when baseball is left to police itself. When autocratic rulers come to power based not on age, maturity, experience, or wisdom, but based on production, success at a kids games and social clout. This is how you have the kind egregious stupidity you saw Manny Machado display this weekend passed off as an accident. Heck, even if you were to look at it from the premise of baseball's unwritten rules -- a concept that is overwhelmingly stupid in and of itself -- what Machado did was still dumb.
Let's rewind and put things in perspective, dissect how a simple tag play can be evolve into attempted assault with a 34-inch hunk of flying, flame tempered lumber.
Last Friday, June 6, Manny Machado was tagged out by Josh Donaldson while progressing to third base on infield groundball. It was a routine play for Donaldson; a ball hit in front of him, pulling him forward to field the ball on a good bounce, then make the a throw across the infield in concert with the direction his weight was already moving. It was all standard save for the fact that Manny Machado was passing in front of Donaldson while it was happening.
As any good runner would, Machado deviated out of the baseline to avoid getting tagged easily by Donaldson, and hopefully disrupt him from making a play in the process. Since Donaldson is programmed to get the lead runner and Machado was right in front of him, and his weight was already heading forward, he tagged Machado instead of making a cross-field throw.
Nothing out of the ordinary, at least not until Machado lost his balance, toppled over, threw his helmet and screamed in outrage that Donaldson's tag was malicious.
But Donaldson's tag was anything but malicious. If tags are like handshakes among men trying to show virility through grip strength, Donaldson's tag was on the sissified end of the spectrum. Players are taught to put tags on opposing players hard. Not because it's chance to dole out contact in an otherwise no-contact sport, and not because it's a chance hit someone without getting a flag on the play. It's because if a tag is made firmly and obviously, there is no debate about whether the tag was actually applied. A manager need not come out of the dugout to argue angles and replay doesn't get consulted. If a player is physically moved by the force a tag, there is no doubt it was made.
For argument's sake, let's take Machado's side for a second. Let's say that Donaldson's tag was a full on crosscheck. Even then, according to baseball's unwritten codes, Donaldson is in the clear. Why? Because he had the ball, was expected to make a firm tag, had more playing time than Machado, was older and was after a runner who left the running lane. All signs -- written and unwritten -- pointed to Donaldson's actions being legal.
It was only when Machado popped up off the ground and got in Donaldson's face that things got out of hand. Indeed, another of baseball's unwrittens kicked in -- the nuclear ones.
Teams think in a pack mentality. In fact, that's how unwritten rules are born in the first place. It may be more apt to say they suffer from a pack mentality, or at least from a crippling dependency on Group Think. In baseball, rules get invented by older guys. Younger guys find it easier to acquiesce than to challenge those rules. Heads are kept down, lines are fallen into, and preferences get passed off as things that have always been.
Given the chaotic nature of baseball, the competitive nature of those who play it, and ego required to endure its peaks and valleys, most players are insecure. If they are secure, give them two weeks worth of bad results and constant media scrutiny over their worth as a player and a person and that will change.
Confidence, bravado, machismo; it's all projected to help compensate for what isn't always naturally available. It's how lines like, act like you've been there before and fake it until you make it are canonized. When you examine those cannons, you realize there aren't a lot of people who've been there before if they have to act like it all the time, and many don't know what it looks or feels like to make it if they have to constantly fake it.
Imitating behavior, following others, blending it -- these are survival mechanisms in a high profile, high-risk environment like baseball. You don't question where rules come from, you just accept you don't know, focus on what you do, and, when in doubt, follow what everyone else does. Thus, when one of your star players flops on the ground soccer player style and throws his helmet like a petulant five year old, you don't hold a vote to discuss rushing on the field to brawl in his honor, you just do it because that's what everyone else doing.
Machado was clearly in the wrong to start a beef with Donaldson. But once he did, the big, red, launch button was pressed, and his team was militarized. From there, it became a matter of respect -- that infamous word the written rules say is taught by winning and losing, but the unwritten rules say can only be taught through physical violence.
But Machado didn't just bring his team on the field, he brought Donaldson's A's on as well. After all, another rule is that you always back up your teammate. The A's weren't just going to let Donaldson get trampled out there. Machado became baseball's Helen of Troy, the angry face that launched millions of dollars of athletic talent into battle.
Many pundits around the game have defended Machado for throwing his bat, his helmet, and getting into the face of Donaldson saying it's simple immaturity. And they're right, it is. Machado's young and brash, and while he may be too prideful to admit he was wrong now, in a couple years, he'll look back and realize there was no reason for him to get upset, and that it would have been better just to let it all go.
But that's not because baseball will have taught him an exclusive lesson, or that the policing of the sport works. That's because Machado got older. Boys become men in all walks of life, even, dare I say it, ones where fastballs to the head aren't learning tools. Baseball doesn't own the market on personal development. And thank God for that because baseball's maturing process looks a hell of a lot more like a doomsday device that insures everyone's mutual destruction than it does a balanced and functional member of society.
Donaldson was already thrown at and hit by Orioles' pitchers as retaliation for his offense against Machado. In turn, Machado was thrown at by A's pitchers as retaliation to retaliation.
Ironically, many of baseball's "mature" players who live and die on the baseball code (and oodles of fans who subscribe to its tenets) feel the issue would've be done if Machado had stood at the plate and worn the pitch like a man. He didn't. Instead Fernando Abad's pitch missed its mark, and Machado -- retaliating for the retaliation against his team's retaliation -- swung woefully and blatantly late as part of a poorly disguised excuse to launch his bat down the line in the direction of third baseman Alberto Callaspo.
Throwing bats at players… some people call that escalation. Buck Showalter calls it learning: "I thought Manny handled it better than someone with some experience [would]," he said. "It was also a good experience for him to have. He cares. It's a learning experience for all of us."
And what, Buck, have we all learned? That throwing bats that actually hit people is something less experienced players do? That because no one took a bat to the face, baseball's policing system works?
Or maybe it's that in the last three days the actions of your third baseman have set into motion things that clearly expose baseball's unwritten rules as the esoteric, hypocritical, destructive mess they really are, and, instead of breaking from what isn't working, it would rather close its eyes and pretend all is well.
While I do blame Machado for taking it this far, he didn't build the machine that assures team's mutual destruction. The players of today are victims of the players of the past. They are followers, not originators, hopelessly stuck in whims of those been there before players.
The reason this past weekend got out of hand is the same reason you can bet future games between the O's and A's will get out of hand. It's the same reason a game between anyone in this game will get out of hand: because baseball is hopelessly shackled to its eye for an eye style of justice, even when that puts the whole world on the DL over one man's mistake; because baseball will pridefully rationalize its right to pridefully rationalize; because the only thing baseball agrees on is that everyone must be taught to respect a set of rules no one can agree on.
And I'll give you four guess on how it's going to teach that respect. If you manage to dodge all four, you win a free trip to first base.
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Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB andMLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk atwww.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thegarfoose.