With the sport of boxing on people’s minds lately, maybe fight fans — based on what we’ve witnessed this season — should buy a ticket to a baseball game.
Twice already, players have thrown real, spectacular punches. And in one bout, Roughned Odor vs. Jose Bautista, it was a miracle that there wasn’t a knockout, judging by the sheer force of Odor’s right hook connecting with Bautista’s face.
This past week, a similar situation arose when notorious Royals instigator Yordano Ventura drilled perennial MVP candidate Manny Machado of the Orioles in the back with a 99-mph fastball. Machado stormed the mound and threw a few glancing blows before the two were separated.
We’ve always been of the mindset that despite the dusty, age-old book of unwritten rules that governs the game, trading beanballs and punches is no good for anyone. Maybe it’s fun for fans to watch, just as hockey fights are a drawing card for that sport, but Major League Baseball doesn’t want its high-priced stars targeting each other, under any circumstances, at the risk of losing the most bankable assets.
The question then becomes, can this behavior be nudged out of baseball completely, with more severe suspensions and expensive fines? Or as Noah Syndergaard discovered last month, the umpires wielding a quick trigger finger on (potentially) harmful conduct?
Some believe that despite the earlier flare-ups this season, the commissioner’s office already has made solid progress on the issue.
“I heard these questions 40 years ago,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Thursday at Yankee Stadium. “I think that Major League Baseball is doing a better job trying to take the onus off of retaliation and trying to legislate some things that are going to make an impact.
“There’s a difference between pitching inside and throwing at somebody. At times that line is blurred, and Major League Baseball steps in. But I think they’re much more proactive in trying to deal with some of the things instead of leaving it to [having] somebody go out there and trying to hit somebody in the ribs, and as a retaliation, you end up hitting them in the head.”
Scioscia, 57 and the longest-tenured active manager, has seen this issue from just about every angle — first during his 13 years as a Dodgers catcher in a playing career that ended in 1992.
The sport used to have more of a Wild West feel between the lines, and any resentment or hostility resulted in more batters being plunked on purpose or physical payback on the basepaths. As players and managers liked to say, it was crucial to let the game police itself, whatever the casualty count.
MLB sensitive to issue
But that’s not something MLB seems all that interested in anymore, and the umpiring crews, basically an extension of baseball’s home office, have attempted to avoid these escalations by setting up pre-series meetings with managers and a liberal dose of in-game warnings.
Syndergaard was ejected for merely throwing a 99-mph fastball behind Chase Utley, the vengeful pitch coming a little more than seven months after Utley’s vicious slide broke Ruben Tejada’s leg in the NLDS. While many saw that as an overreaction from fill-in umpire Adam Hamari, on loan from the minors, it also was an indication of how sensitive MLB is to these incidents.
“I think there are a lot less because of some of the penalties and what Major League Baseball has tried to do,” Joe Girardi said Thursday. “They’ve tried to jump ahead of it before it happens. But as long as there’s competition and emotion, it’s never going to completely leave.
“We want to see the competition and we want to see the emotions. But sometimes they boil over and something like [Ventura-Machado] happens. You don’t want to see players suspended, but it’s better than not having any emotions in the game at all.”
Girardi’s latter point was taken a step further in some circles after the Baltimore brawl, with managers such as the Orioles’ Buck Showalter and the Cubs’ Joe Maddon applauding Machado for taking justice into his own hands. Ventura has infuriated plenty of people throughout the majors with his antics, and Maddon told reporters in Philadelphia that Machado’s mound charge was “absolutely warranted.”
“I used to tell my guys, ‘You got two options. Go to first [base] or go to the mound. Those are your two options. Don’t point fingers and wait for someone to hold you back. Either go to first or go to the mound. It’s very simple.”
The problem isn’t so much the punches as what initiates those haymakers, and most times it has to do with a pitcher firing rawhide-laced bullets at the guy in the batter’s box. Regardless of the motivation — blind rage or having a teammate’s back — this part of the game has outlived its usefulness. Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson were romanticized for their intimidation tactics, and if that meant a few bruises to reclaim their part of the plate, so be it. But as Scioscia mentioned, there’s a distinction between pitching aggressively and denting batters out of spite. With Ventura and Syndergaard hurling projectiles at triple-digit speeds, that’s taking these staredowns to a very dangerous place.
“Ninety-nine is no joke,” Machado told reporters after Tuesday’s confrontation at Camden Yards. “You can ruin somebody’s career like that.”
And the price for hurling a pitch like that, it seems, remains considerably higher than throwing a punch. Ventura received a nine-game suspension for Tuesday’s purpose pellet — two more than his penalty for instigating last season’s bench-clearing brawl between the Royals and White Sox. All Ventura did that day was yell at Adam Eaton, but it came on the heels of drilling the A’s Brett Lawrie with a 99-mph pitch in a previous series, so MLB’s disciplinary wing already was wise to his provocative behavior.
Losing Machado hurts more
For a starting pitcher, nine games translates to one missed start, and for the Royals, some slight rotation-shuffling. From a team perspective, Machado getting four games for the punch is a more costly blow. Suspended players can’t be replaced on the 25-man roster during the penalty and Machado is hitting .306 with 16 home runs and a .976 OPS.
Ventura’s history as a multiple offender of inciting opponents certainly factored into the nine-game ban, and Machado, despite slinging the first punch, actually was responding to the initial aggression. MLB determined that Ventura “intentionally threw” at Machado, who was punished, in part, for charging the mound. Additionally, both were disciplined under the general umbrella term of “fighting.”
Girardi also was in pinstripes during one of the most infamous brawls, the ’98 clash between the Yankees and Orioles in the Bronx. Armando Benitez lit the fuse by drilling Tino Martinez in the back, and after the benches and bullpens emptied, the lasting image is Darryl Strawberry taking on what seems like half of the Orioles’ team in the Baltimore dugout.
Those types of incidents have a different feel as a player, fueled by adrenaline and competitive fire. As the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo told The Washington Post this past week, he believes when on-field tempers flare, as they did during the Ventura-Machado spectacle, “I honestly think it’s good for baseball.”
GMs and managers, however, tend to think a little more big- picture. Once the genie is out of the bottle in these melees, there’s no predicting the extent of the damage, from that night’s game to the following week or even an entire season.
“You worry about guys maybe getting hit in the hand or that sort of thing, where you’re going to lose them for a while,” Girardi said. “Or a pitcher is going to be suspended, and if it’s a starter, it really changes everything you do if you don’t have off days. It can really screw up your whole roster.”
The punches thrown thus far this season, as well as the angry pitches, won’t be the last for Major League Baseball. What they add to the game’s entertainment remains up for debate. As far as the sport’s bottom line, however, preventing the players from attacking each other, with balls or fists, has to stay high on the priority list.