Wednesday night’s Yankees-Red Sox bench- and bullpen-clearing brawl at Fenway Park was just the latest act in one of baseball’s longest-running plays.
As Billy Joel sang in his 1989 smash hit:
“We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”
Hard-sliding baserunners from Ty Cobb to Chase Utley and hard-throwing pitchers from Walter Johnson to Roger Clemens have always been part of baseball.
Wednesday’s brawl came after a pitch from Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly hit Yankees DH Tyler Austin, who four innings earlier had made a controversial slide — one reminiscent of Hall of Famer Cobb — into shortstop Brock Holt.
“The basepaths belonged to me, the runner,” Cobb once said. “I always went into a bag full speed, feet first. I had sharp spikes on my shoes. If the baseman stood where he had no business to be and got hurt, that was his fault.”
The brawl was viewed over and over on TV and websites, and baseball suddenly seemed a lot more interesting to casual fans.
Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, who was involved in many Yankees-Red Sox skirmishes, fired off a series of #YankeesvsRedSox tweets including: “Sliding with the cleats up is a no-no in baseball. That means fight fight fight!”
Chipper Jones, recently elected to the Hall of Fame after a 19-year career with the Braves, echoed the sentiment in a tweet of his own: “U slide in with ur spikes up and catch a piece, ur gonna get thrown at young fella. That’s how baseball works. It polices itself, whether people like it or not. That will never change. Love the spirit in both squads though.”
In another tweet, Martinez said: ”The only thing I would had done different than Joe Kelly tonight is I would’ve hit Tyler Austin at his previous at- bat. Other than that, Kelly executed perfectly.”
Major League Baseball has invoked sliding rules to protect players from injury, although some believe the rules go too far.
“We’re babying the game way too much nowadays,” Martinez tweeted.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS
“I wouldn’t mind a brawl if it started at second base,” former Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. “As a fan, I don’t mind boys being boys. If the guy slides into second and you don’t like it and you want to whack him, c’est la vie.
“But I’m not a proponent of the idea of pitchers’ retaliation. I think it’s stupid,” added Valentine, 67. “When the first guy that ever threw a ball at a hitter, if everyone stood up and told him it was stupid, we wouldn’t have that situation. Eventually, some lawyer is going to get a hold of this and get some pitcher for premeditated manslaughter.”
No charges, but Kelly faces a six-game suspension for drilling Austin, who was suspended for five games for charging the mound and fighting. The bad blood may leave a stain.
“I don’t think it’s good for baseball because people can get hurt,” former Yankees player and manager Lou Piniella said from his Florida home. “These players are making a lot of money and these teams have a lot of money invested in these players. From a financial standpoint, brawls aren’t good for the game at all. But from the fans’ standpoint, to see some excitement on the field and see that the teams are competing at their maximum to win, that’s probably a win-win for them.”
Piniella, 74, has experienced firsthand the fire of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. He triggered a memorable brawl between the two teams on May 20, 1976, when he and Boston catcher Carlton Fisk tangled after Piniella tried to dislodge the ball from Fisk’s glove on a tag play at home plate. Neither Piniella’s slide nor Fisk’s tag to the head were particularly gentle.
In the all-out melee on the field involving players from both dugouts, Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles threw Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee hard to the ground, damaging his left (throwing) shoulder permanently. Lee never threw as hard again.
“I was involved in some of them, so I’m guilty of these things, too. Do as I say, not as I did, OK?” Piniella said. His nickname, “Sweet Lou,” belied his feisty persona as a player and manager. “When I was with the Yankees, we got into some serious confrontations on the field with the Red Sox. There were people that got hurt, Bill Lee, to mention one, when Nettles picked him up and body-slammed him to the ground. So there are consequences from these things.”
Piniella, who was involved in a couple of bench-clearing incidents against the Yankees when he managed the Seattle Mariners, said he understands the genesis of most brawls. “You have to protect your own players and that’s what usually happens in those circumstances,” he said. “Somebody gets thrown at, somebody gets slid into very hard and all of a sudden the other team retaliates. But the problem is, injuries occur, and people get fined and suspended. The fines are OK. Suspensions aren’t, though, because that hurts the teams. Don’t take matters into your own hands. You’ve got to let the baseball executives handle it. That’s what Joe Torre [MLB’s chief baseball officer] gets paid for. Let him do it. I don’t condone the fights on the field. I can see why they happen, but you’ve got to let cooler heads prevail.”
Torre, who issued the suspensions to Kelly and Austin that are under appeal, acknowledged that the game has changed regarding brushbacks. “I got knocked down in every city my first week in the big leagues ,” Torre, 77, said in a recent interview. “Those pitchers certainly didn’t have a chance to dislike me yet. But they literally threw at my head to see if I could get out of the way and where I’d stand in the box the next time up. Even though guys had control, if you were too comfortable against them, they’d do something about it.”
But rarely did those knock-down pitches result in drag-out brawls. “Even when you were competitive, you didn’t see the anger you sometimes see now,” Torre noted. “Today, unfortunately, every time somebody hits someone, it’s looked on as on purpose, or that somebody had a plan in mind.”
Torre experienced major bench-clearing incidents as Yankees manager against the Red Sox and Mets. He brought that perspective to Los Angeles. “I was managing the Dodgers in ’08 and we were playing the Red Sox in spring training. We hit Manny and I sort of exhaled when nothing happened,” Torre recalled. “I said, ‘Boy, that’s a relief!’ Nobody was accusing us of anything. It was just a hit batsman. There’s no question it’s different nowadays.”
A DIFFERENT GAME
Jim Kaat, a contemporary of Torre’s who pitched for 25 years in the major leagues, said rule changes regarding inside pitches and sliding into bases have made today’s players “much more sensitive.’’
“When they get a pitch up and in, they react to it because they’re not accustomed to seeing it. Baseball has taken that pitch away from pitchers and I don’t think enough attention has been paid to that,” Kaat, 79, said from his Florida home.
The former Yankees broadcaster, who now does work for the MLB Network, believes today’s sluggers have become fearless.
“It’s really affected the swings and the home runs,” Kaat said. “If a pitcher does come inside, he gets warned and you’ll see a hitter overreact. Now, if a pitch is above the shoulders, that’s reason to get alarmed. Pitchers should be able to command their pitches better than that. But the problem today, especially late in games, is you have these hard-throwing relievers who don’t have much command. With all due respect to Joe Kelly, he’s got an electric arm but by his own admission, he doesn’t have great command. So if he starts thinking about knocking a hitter down, boy, that’s dangerous. He might miss by a foot, and if you’re a hitter, you’ve got to react to that.”
Kaat said he did not see Wednesday night’s Yankees-Red Sox game so he didn’t know if Austin’s slide was dangerous. But he said that in his era, “Players like Frank Robinson, Don Baylor and my old [Twins] teammate Bob Allison were going to barrel into you at second base and the other team knew that. They didn’t slide dirty but they slid hard. If someone slid dirty, the guys on the other team knew it and they handled it themselves. I don’t think there were that many brawls because, in general, the players weren’t as sensitive and we did a better job of policing it ourselves and protecting our teammates.”
So while Kelly’s pitch to Austin was a show of solidarity for the slide into Holt, the nuances of today’s rules and the infrequency of so-called purpose pitches led to a full-scale fracas that, according to Valentine, showed the sport in an unfavorable light.
“When the pitcher gets involved throwing at hitters to retaliate, it gets way out of hand,” Valentine said. “It’s the worst face that we could possibly show for baseball and it’s the worst thing that we can have our children think is proper.”
Notable baseball fights
May 16, 2016, Blue Jays at Rangers: After a hard slide at second base, Rougned Odor shoved Toronto’s Jose Baustista, then landed a solid right punch to his head that triggered a brawl. Odor suspended eight games.
April 11, 2013, Dodgers at Padres: L.A. pitcher Zack Greinke fractured his left collarbone in a bench-clearing brawl after he hit Carlos Quentin with a pitch.
June 12, 2013, D-Backs at Dodgers: Ian Kennedy hit Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke in the head in retaliation for earlier incidents in the game. In the ensuing fracus, coaches Mark McGwire (Dodgers) and Matt Williams (Diamondbacks) faced off. McGwire suspended two games.
Aug. 10, 2010, Cardinals at Reds: Instigated by callous comments from the Reds’ Brandon Phillips the previous night, Cards catcher Yadier Molina provoked a bench-clearing altercation in which Jason LaRue was repeatedly kicked in the face by the Reds’ Johnny Cueto. LaRue suffered a concussion that forced him to retire a month later.
Aug. 11, 2009, Tigers at Red Sox: After being hit on the elbow, Boston’s Kevin Youkilis charged Rick Porcello, who threw his helmet, then tackled Porcello as benches emptied.
May 20, 2006, Cubs at White Sox: A.J. Pierzynski barreled into Cubs catcher Michael Barrett on a sacrifice fly. Pierzynski emphatically slapped the plate to emphasize that he was safe and bumped Barrett, who responded with a solid right to the jaw. Barrett suspended 10 games.
July 24, 2004, Yankees at Red Sox: After Bronson Arroyo plunked Alex Rodriguez, Sox catcher Jason Varitek and A-Rod jawed before Varitek punched him and benches cleared.
Oct. 11, 2003, Yankees at Red Sox: In ALCS Game 3, Pedro Martinez hit Karim Garcia in the back. Garcia then took out Boston’s Todd Walker while breaking up a double play. Later, when Roger Clemens threw high to Manny Ramirez, Ramirez shouted at Clemens, causing both benches to clear. Yankees bench Don Zimmer (age 72) went right after Martinez, who grabbed Zimmer’s face and pushed him to the ground. In the ninth inning, Yankees reliever Jeff Nelson and Garcia got in a fight with a Fenway Park groundskeeper in the bullpen.
April 22, 2000, Tigers at White Sox: Detroit’s Dean Palmer charged the mound and threw his helmet after being plunked by Chicago’s Jim Parque. Fights broke out all over the infield. Sixteen players, coaches and managers were suspended and nine others fined.
May 19, 1998, Orioles at Yankees: After Armando Benitez drilled Tino Martinez in the back, both teams scuffled into the Orioles dugout. Graeme Lloyd threw haymakers at Benitez, and Darryl Strawberry also landed punches. Benitez was suspended eight games.
Aug. 4, 1993, White Sox at Rangers: Robin Ventura charged the mound after being hit by Nolan Ryan. Ryan put Ventura in a headlock and punched him in the head and face six times.
Sept. 6, 1993, Red Sox at White Sox: Red Sox pitcher Aaron Sele came at George Bell twice, with Bell charging the mound and throwing a punch that Sele ducked. Mo Vaughn charged over from first base and knocked Bell to the ground.
Aug. 12, 1984, Padres at Braves: Pascual Perez hit Padres leadoff hitter Alan Wiggins, which set a tone. Perez batted in the second and Ed Whitson came inside, starting fight No. 1. The Padres threw at Perez in all four of his at-bats, and benches cleared in the fifth, eighth and ninth innings.
May 2, 1976, Red Sox at Yankees: It began when Lou Piniella tried to knock over Carlton Fisk in a home-plate collision. Benches cleared while Piniella and Fisk wrestled. Graig Nettles and Boston pitcher Bill Lee fought so hard that Lee suffered a separated left shoulder.
Oct. 8, 1973, Reds at Mets: In NLCS Game 3, Pete Rose slid hard into Bud Harrelson at second base while trying to break up a double play. Harrelson felt the slide was unnecessary and the benches cleared as the two players grappled.
Aug, 22, 1965, Dodgers at Giants: Perhaps baseball’s ugliest on-field moment. Juan Marichal came to bat in the third inning, after hitting Maury Wills and Ron Fairly earlier. L.A. catcher Johnny Roseboro wanted Sandy Koufax to hit Marichal with a pitch. Koufax declined, but Roseboro’s return throws were so close to Marichal’s ear that he slammed Roseboro on the head with his bat. Marichal was suspended eight games and fined $1,750.