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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB must come down harder on vigilante justice, on-field violence

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Hunter

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Hunter Strickland of the San Francisco Giants throw punches at one another after Strickland hit Harper with a pitch in the top of the eighth inning at AT&T Park on May 29, 2017, in San Francisco. Credit: Getty Images / Thearon W. Henderson

BALTIMORE — Buck Showalter likes to cite lessons from his late father, Bill, when asked about baseball’s current events. So he had another one ready in the aftermath of Monday’s chaotic mound battle between Giants reliever Hunter Strickland and the Nationals’ Bryce Harper.

Showalter’s dad was a school principal in the tiny panhandle town of Century, Florida (pop. 1,698), during much simpler times. When a dispute arose between two kids, he gave each a pair of boxing gloves to settle the score. Right then and there.

“In two minutes, they tired themselves out,” Showalter said before Tuesday night’s game against the Yankees. “It was over.”

The moral of the story? Better to address the problem head-on, and definitively, rather than let the bad feelings linger, multiply, and keep having to put out the same fires over and over again. Now that Showalter is on Major League Baseball’s newly staffed Competition Committee — one of three active managers, along with Joe Girardi and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts — maybe he should impart that advice to commissioner Rob Manfred.

Because Manfred and his chief lieutenant, Joe Torre, clearly could use some old-fashioned logic to stem the sort of violence that resulted after Strickland purposely drilled Harper on the right hip with a 97-mph pitch. Apparently as revenge for Harper taking him deep twice during the 2014 playoffs.

That’s nuts. Seriously. What Strickland did is way beyond premeditation. And MLB is incredibly lucky that no one was severely hurt in the melee, or that Harper had anything broken by that tracer bullet. So naturally, the commissioner’s office came down hard on the offenders, doing everything within its power to prevent such an ugly event from happening again, right?

Wrong. Strickland received a six-game suspension for “intentionally” nailing Harper, “inciting” the brawl and fighting. As for Harper, the Nats’ franchise player, he got four games for charging the mound, throwing his helmet and fighting. Both are appealing.

It wasn’t enough. Going in, our best guess was 10 games for Strickland, five for Harper. Minimum. That at least would get some attention and maybe make players — especially pitchers — think twice before targeting others, either with a fastball or body part. In fairness to Harper, he had good reason to be furious. That doesn’t excuse attacking an opponent, and repeatedly punching him in the face — hence the penalty — but we can understand his motivation.

Strickland’s vengeful stunt, however, is the kind of dangerous behavior that must be curtailed. And a six-game suspension isn’t a deterrent. If it’s on the books that using hitters for premeditated target practice comes with an automatic 10-game ban, or more, then teams might get more proactive in laying down the law with their own players. Perhaps managers will instruct their pitchers to knock off the vigilante justice, or face in-house disciplinary action.

It’s worth trying. Already this season, Red Sox pitchers have taken multiple shots at the Orioles’ Manny Machado, another of the game’s top young stars, throwing at his head one day and behind him another night, both times in misguided attempts at revenge. The Orioles, showing unusual restraint in this overheated climate, did not retaliate.

“I’d like to see guys suspended,” Showalter said, “and the reason being given is stupidity.”

Whether this problem can be eradicated is open to debate. And Girardi isn’t so sure a zero-tolerance policy is possible, even for the greater good of keeping the game’s marquee players in one piece. The Yankees’ manager concedes that emotions run hot in such a competitive atmosphere, and policing unruly conduct occasionally must fall to the players themselves.

“I think it’s still going to be there,” Girardi said. “You can tell them what to do, but instincts take over.”

Girardi is a staunch advocate of teammates protecting each other, and he clammed up quick when asked about Giants catcher Buster Posey not moving a muscle to restrain Harper from bull-rushing the mound, saying only “No comment.” Maybe the bigger question here is how much does MLB legitimately want to stifle its own brand of full-contact entertainment? The Strickland-Harper video was everywhere you looked over a 24-hour span, and nicely filled in the gap before pitches, rather than punches, could be thrown again around the league.

But this isn’t about draining the emotion from the game. It’s about removing the senseless, and entirely preventable, violence. Before someone really gets hurt.

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