Benches-Clearing, Brawling Knuckleheads

Last night, the Rays and the Red Sox got into it at Fenway Park. Most of the kerfufflement centered around Rays’ pitcher David Price, who hit with pitches David Ortiz, Mike Carp, Don Orsillo in the broadcast booth, two vendors, and a ball girl (twice).* All with the blessing of the umpiring crew. Now while we can never, ever say with certainty that a major-league pitcher threw at a batter with intent, we can say this: David Price certainly threw at all these people with intent. Especially the vendors.

So a kerfufflement broke out. It wasn’t really a “fight,” as real fights are actually quite rare in baseball, and thus spectacularly covered when they occur. In this case, the benches cleared after Price had hit his second batter of the night, even after having been warned when he plunked Ortiz, and both teams spilled their rosters onto the field. Though David Ortiz certainly looked like he wouldn’t have minded having a go at Price, teammates from both sides got in between the two to prevent anything physical from taking place. Though both teams were riled up (and, in my opinion, reasonably so, especially from the Red Sox’ point of view), play resumed without bloodshed.

But it did bring up some interesting ethical questions I’ve had to tackle with The Knucklehead over the years. Specifically, at what point does loyalty to teammates take precedence over loyalty to your own moral convictions? You might feel joining in a benches-clearing brawl is wrong, or sending a “purpose pitch” to an opposing batter is a classless thing to do. But if your teammates at times require these actions in solidarity with the team, can you still afford the “luxury” of your own personal ethics?

Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m differentiating the Major League, professional game from the youth version. Under no circumstances should fights on the field be tolerated at the youth level, and that needs to be clearly stated to the players. Similarly, no coach should ever call for a youth player to throw at an opponent. If any kid hears a coach tell him to throw at another player, or try to take someone out with a hard slide, the child should be told he has two options. Politely refuse. Or say, “yes, Coach,” and then not do it anyway, if the child is (justifiably) too intimidated to confront the adult standing over him. In both cases, he should tell  at least one other adult before the next game what his coach told him to do. There is no place for this at the youth level, at least not while adults are teaching the game.

But to deny this goes on at the professional level is to deny reality, and any kid who routinely watches adult baseball knows this. Kids daydream all the time about being Major League players. So let’s talk to our knuckleheads about what options these grown players have when pressured by teammates. To do that, it helps to understand exactly what is going on in most of those benches-clearing incidents.

Baseball “fights” are usually like fights among dogs in a pack. They’re mostly for show, and they involve a lot of posturing and intimidation. But rarely does anyone get hurt, because both dogs and ballplayers both know that real injury isn’t going to do anyone any good in the long run. Baseball brawls are pressure-relief valves. Yes, there are exceptions, but even when things turn physical, mostly it comes in the form of wrestling around. It usually looks pretty silly, and that’s a good thing. It’s a sign of civilization.

The unwritten rules tell players that when the benches clear, they cannot remain in the dugout. To do so is seen as worse than cowardly; it’s seen as lack of commitment to the team, a cardinal sin in any team sport. Players remember who runs out and who doesn’t. At that point, nobody cares what your personal feelings are. The pressure to join in is unrelenting. Are you part of this team, or are you not? It doesn’t matter if whoever started the fight is an idiot. It doesn’t matter if it’s your least-respected teammate. Once it’s on, it’s on for all.

This can lead to some odd situations. In the highly entertaining and informative book, The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, & Bench-Clearing Brawls by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, we discover:

The thrill that accompanies baseball fights can be felt throughout the ballpark, but nowhere more keenly than the dugouts. For relievers in the bullpen, on the other hand, any simmering animosity that serves as the prelude to a brawl is largely lost. Before a game’s middle innings, relievers are often doing nothing more involved than spitting sunflower seeds and passing time: when called upon to join a fight, they enter cold, usually with little idea about what’s actually going on.

There’s also the matter of getting there. Should a scrum form in the middle of the diamond, bullpen-bound relievers must traverse the breadth of the field to reach it, often running alongside the men they’ll soon be expected to fight. “That’s the strangest thing about baseball fights,” said [former player] Jack McDowell. “Relievers will jump out of the bullpen and run together until they get to the pile, and within two minutes they may be brawling, but it’s not like they stop right there and fight. How stupid is it that you’re running in with these guys?” (pp. 231-232)

If you’re a pitcher at the professional level, you’re also sooner or later going to have to deal with the fact that there will be times your teammates will expect you to throw at an opposing player. Some pitchers will do this on their own if they feel a hitter has previously shown them up, maybe by a slow trot around the bases after a home run, or admiring their handiwork a little too long (Manny Ramirez used to do this all the time, and I was always amazed that opposing pitchers let him get away with that). Some pitchers do this against players who have had success against them, which I find particularly childish in a sore-loser kind of way. I don’t like throwing at hitters intentionally. I think it’s classless, it’s unethical, it’s childish. But mostly, it’s bad baseball. The result of hitting a batter is they get on base. Now you have another baserunner to deal with, not to mention a potential run. Exactly who is punishing whom?

But there are also times in the professional game when teammates, and even managers will expect you to hit an opposing player, whether you want to or not. Maybe your best player has been thrown at, maybe even a pitch at his head, and your teammates demand retribution. If their pitcher is hitting, they’ll want you to plunk him, if not, a player of equal value in their lineup. You’re the only one who can provide that kind of retribution, nobody else is in a position to do that. If that’s something you don’t want to do, that puts you in a bind. What do you do when your manager looks at you and directly says, “Put him down”?

In my youth, my position would have been to stand my moral ground, no matter what. One’s ethics must be uncompromising. To give in, even an inch, is to betray yourself and the principles you stand for. If that ostracized you from your team, so be it. In fact, in my youth, I was kind of proud of that kind of commitment. Having fewer friends meant I was stronger than peer pressure. It was a cross I proudly bore.

I look back with some affection and bemusement at my younger self on his high horse. It’s not that that kid was wrong. That’s not necessarily a bad way to be at a certain time in your life, as annoying as it is to all around you. But I’ve grown, and I’ve learned this: the philosophical integrity of my views matters less to me than their real-world consequences. Being high and mighty may bring me the martyr’s smug self-satisfaction, but does that realistically do anyone else any good? These days, I’ve learned to consider my actual effect on others. So here’s what I would do.

Bench-clearing brawls are stupid, and the player who demands other teammates sink to his level is putting his own feelings over the team. If I sit on the bench and refuse to join in on the childishness, I’ll be in the right. But I’ll have lost any influence on my teammates. They will no longer respect me, or listen to my opinions. I will have forfeited an opportunity for leadership. Nothing will be learned. So I’m, going to run out there, but I’m not going to fight. There are plenty of other things to do. Like grab a hothead teammate and pull him out of there to take some gas out of the fire. And if he accuses me of getting in his way, I can yell back, “DUDE! You were this close to getting thrown out! We still need your bat in this game. If you’d taken a swing at [player X], you would have killed him! Then we lose you for the season!”

See? There are all kinds of ways you can support teammates without fighting. Grab onto one of your big guys (have a teammate help, if possible). That way, your big guy gets to save face by showing his opponents that it took TWO people to restrain him, especially if he really didn’t want to come to blows in the first place (a very common theme; many guys are looking for a way to back down, but don’t know how). Start dragging your pitcher or middle infielder back to the dugout. Just tell him later you saw some opposing players were punching throwing arms, and the team needs his. If you end up getting knocked down, or taking a punch or two to the ribs, even better. You get street (er, field) cred.

Then, after it all calms down, you get to throw in your two cents. About how stupid and reckless that was. And they’ll listen. They may not agree, but you’ll have a far louder voice than if you’d stayed off the field.

As far as throwing at a hitter, if your team wants you to do it, I’d do it. You can hit somebody in the thigh or the butt and won’t do any damage. There’s a great film of Babe Ruth getting hit in the arm by a pitch in Chicago, and as he trots to first base his “retaliation” is to laugh and lightly brush his arm, as if swatting off a pesky mosquito. Perfect. Do it calmly, with the first pitch, then get on with your work, or accept your ejection gracefully. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal. It’s baseball.” After that, when you get to the dugout, you can clearly tell your teammates that you did that for the team, and for no other reason.

If you’re asked to throw at a player’s head, then you refuse. That is a line no teammate has the right to ask you to cross.

Again, all this applies to the professional level only, and not the children’s game. But if you talk about this stuff with your knucklehead, you’re letting her see that it’s on your mind, too. That there are situations in life that will test your loyalties, and it never hurts to examine those in advance. Maybe you disagree with the way I’d handle these situations – that’s fine. But if you’re watching a game with your knucklehead, and this stuff comes up, she’s already wondering what the right response would be. By talking about your own reasoning, you’re showing her that she doesn’t have to be tied to peer pressure; you’re giving her a route to ethical decision-making of her own.

And when your knucklehead asks you why this behavior is allowed to adults, and not to kids? An honest shrug works best for me. “I don’t know, Knucks. We work hard as parents to teach kids the right way to play, and I’m proud of you when I see you on the field. These guys forgot it somewhere along the way. Maybe your generation will finally get it right.”

Tonight the Sox and Rays will go at it again. Maybe they’ll just play baseball, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a long weekend in Boston, all to be stirred up again when the Sox go to Florida later in the season.  But if you’re watching this weekend with somebody you love, consider asking these three questions before the games:

1. What do you think should happen?

2. What do you think will happen?

3. What would you do if you were there?

_________________

*Well, at least that’s how I remember it.

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