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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB punishes Jose Urena, but are we sure of the crime?

Marlins pitcher Jose Urena leaves the field after

Marlins pitcher Jose Urena leaves the field after being ejected for hitting the Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. with a pitch during the first inning on Wednesday. Credit: AP/John Bazemore

The wording of Jose Urena’s six-game suspension, as handed down by the commissioner’s office, was legally questionable if not physically suspect. The statement cited the Marlins’ Urena for “intentionally hitting” Braves super-rookie Ronald Acuña Jr., and though the 97-mph fastball did nail him squarely on the left elbow, saying that Urena did it on purpose is impossible — without an admission of guilt, of course.

Granted, the optics were terrible, as were the circumstances. Acuña had led off three consecutive games with a home run, and Urena drilled him with the very first pitch of Wednesday’s game at Sun Trust Park.

The fastball was an unavoidable bullet, and having it crash into a spot as vulnerable as an elbow is an incredibly dangerous play.

Fortunately, X-rays were negative, and one of the game’s top young stars should be OK to continue his Rookie of the Year campaign and fuel the Braves’ surprising playoff run.

That’s the best resolution Major League Baseball could have hoped for. But punishing Urena — who has dealt with control issues — can be a slippery slope.

This wasn’t a case of Urena retaliating for a wronged teammate, as so often happens, or defying an umpire’s warning. It was his opening pitch, and despite the allegedly incriminating trajectory, reasonable doubt still exists as to whether Urena meant to hit Acuña. As expected, Urena denied that the pitch was intentional and issued the standard response that he merely was trying to pitch inside against a hot hitter. He surely was doing that.

So objectively speaking, what crime can be proved? Egregiously poor command? Because hitters are the targets in this relationship, they maintain that pitchers who can’t control where the ball is going shouldn’t be pitching inside in the first place. They insist it’s too dangerous for everyone involved.

But from a pitcher’s standpoint, brushing back hitters or even knocking them down with high fastballs — not hitting them, obviously — is a practice as old as the sport itself, done for a competitive edge.

Former Met Keith Hernandez, now an SNY analyst, reminded everyone of this in the wake of Acuña’s plunking, first during the game broadcast before doubling-down the following day after receiving an avalanche of criticism.

“They’re killing you. You lost three games. He’s hit three home runs. You got to hit him,” Hernandez said Wednesday night during the Mets-Orioles telecast. “I’m sorry, people aren’t going to like that. You know, you got to hit him, knock him down. I mean, seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him. You never throw at anybody’s head or neck. You hit him in the back. You hit him in the fanny.”

Nobody can argue with Hernandez’s credentials. He’s a 17-year vet, the 1979 MVP and a key member of the ’86 Mets. He also played during an era in which hitters anticipated that behavior from their mound adversaries. Fastballs weren’t just pitches. They were warning shots, and sometimes weapons.

It doesn’t seem to us that Hernandez was trying to offend anyone. He was speaking from experience. The problem is, the sport is caught between those who view the game as Hernandez does, in that more traditional sense, and MLB’s efforts to police against the most damaging threats, such as collision-inducing takeout slides and, in Urena’s case, pitchers potentially injuring hitters.

Urena likely wanted to rattle Acuña, but purposely hitting someone is not so easy to do. Just ask former Met Shawn Estes, who missed Roger Clemens on his retaliation mission, throwing behind him instead. Maybe Urena thought he had the perfect alibi by using his first pitch, but after the umpires huddled, he was ejected, becoming only the fourth starter since 1920 to be tossed after hitting his first batter.

What Urena was trying to do to Acuña, however, wasn’t all that different from Luis Severino flipping Mookie Betts with his opening pitch earlier this month at Fenway Park. The key significance, obviously, was that Severino didn’t hit Betts, just buzzed him with a high fastball that knocked him to the dirt. That was a potentially dangerous play, too, and Red Sox manager Alex Cora got himself ejected for sticking up for Betts in that situation.

Betts has killed the Yankees this season, hitting .412 (21-for-51) with two homers, 10 RBIs and a 1.225 OPS in 13 games, so Severino tried to make him uncomfortable. That’s something that past Yankees teams never really did with David Ortiz, who habitually crushed them.

Afterward, Severino denied doing that in retaliation for Brett Gardner being hit in the top of that inning, and also said there was no sinister intent.

“Mookie is a great guy,” Severino said. “And if I’m going to hit somebody, I’m not going to the head. That’s not right.”

Maybe the fastball just took off on Severino, but even if he was pinpointing that spot below Betts’ chin, there was a time when that wouldn’t have been so outrageous, as Hernandez alluded to in his comments. The good news is that Betts came away with nothing more serious than a dirty uniform.

But the larger issue remains. Doling out punishment for retaliatory pitches and the chaos they create — as well as injuries — usually is a matter of clear-cut justice. The Urena case, however, is now attaching intent to something as inexact as what could be meant as a brushback pitch. What Urena did definitely didn’t look right, but can we be so ironclad certain he was that wrong?

Steinbrenner

was upset about

’98 Opening Night loss

The Yankees’ total of 114 wins during the 1998 regular season was a cause for celebration.

But it was the loss on Opening Night — and the resulting ire from George Steinbrenner — that serves as one of my most memorable moments from that record-setting year.

The Yankees opened on the West Coast as MLB tried to avoid April’s foul weather in the East. But the plan backfired as El Niño drenched California with freakish rains and chilly 50-degree temps, making the newly renovated Edison Field a soggy mess for the season opener with the Angels.

So when the Yankees lost, 4-1, after a spring training that featured Steinbrenner jokingly asking Joe Torre if an American League team had ever finished 162-0, I thought it might be a good time to check in with The Boss down in Tampa.

Was it ever. Steinbrenner’s mood was as bad as the weather, and he didn’t hold back.

“I’m worried that our guys are reading their press clippings,” Steinbrenner said over the phone that day. “You still have to go out on the field and do the job. Nobody’s going to hand anything to them.

“This team is very well put together . . . and everybody says it’s so well done. But you still have to work hard. They haven’t won a thing yet. They’re 0-1, behind the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in our division right now. Maybe this is a little shocker. Maybe they’ll come back a little more focused.”

Trailing the Devil Rays always was particularly galling for Tampa native Steinbrenner, and it got worse before it got better, with the Yankees losing four of their first five games.

In recalling those events before Saturday’s ’98 celebration in the Bronx, Torre cited an emotional clubhouse meeting that week in Seattle that might have turned out to be the most successful in MLB history.

“To me, winning is a byproduct of doing everything right,” Torre said Saturday. “Don’t lose this game — make somebody beat you.”

Those words sunk in. The Yankees won eight straight and took over first place on April 30, and the rest is history.

The 63-win Devil Rays, by the way, finished last — 51 games behind the Yankees.

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