It is often said that baseball is a child’s game, but that doesn’t excuse professional baseball players holding on to childish traditions regarding the “right way to play the game” that are not right, frequently dangerous, and mind-numbingly stupid to boot.
Last week, beginning a weekend series in Baltimore, the Boston Red Sox were enmeshed in a close game., losing 2-0, with time running out. With the Orioles batting and Manny Machado (Non-baseball fans: he is the very young, very large, very talented O’s third-baseman, a joy to watch and already a super-star) on first, Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts fielded a slowly bouncing ground ball and flipped a weak throw to Dustin Pedroia (Non-baseball fans: he is the small, cocky, excellent Sox second baseman, the best fielder at his position in 2016, a former MVP, and the acknowledged leader of the team now that David Ortiz has retired). Pedroia caught the ball in a first baseman’s stretch, awkwardly, just in time to force out Machado: a double play was out of the question. Machado, however, came into the base hard, sliding late, and barreling right over the bag with his spikes raised. (It looks on the tape as if one foot was elevated when it hit the base.) Machado’s momentum took him into Pedroia, knocking him down and spiking him, as well as injuring his knee and ankle. Machado appeared to try to catch the Sox player after he passed over the base.
There was no question that Machado was out, but the Red Sox manager argued that the slide was illegal: since last year, runners are not allowed to try to break up double plays by intentionally sliding at opposing fielders. Late slides, slides not intended to allow the runner to get to second base, and sliding past teh base to upend the second baseman or shortstop will be called as obstruction, and the batter is then called out to complete the double play. The umpires disagreed with Farrell, and that is still being debated; it’s not relevant here. Pedroia, meanwhile, was led off the field, obviously injured.
After the game, Red Sox TV analysts and former players Jim Rice (Sox Hall of Fame Sox slugger) and Steve Lyons (an opinionated jackass) chuckled about what was coming. Ancient baseball tradition required, they explained, that the Red Sox “protect their player” who was injured by a careless, inept, or intentionally illegal slide. This meant, they explained, that a Red Sox pitcher in the next game was obligated to hit Machado with a pitch in retaliation. “He knows it!” said Rice. “He’ll be expecting it.” Lyons nodded and laughed. (Full disclosure: I hated Steve Lyons as a player, and I loathe him as an analyst.)
This is indeed an “unwritten law” of baseball, and one of the most unethical. I have seen it countless times, and the result is often fights and injuries, as well as suspensions for the pitcher’s involved and outright beanball wars. The theory is that you can’t let a team “intimidate” you, so a message must be sent. The message is “tit for tat” or “Mob Ethics”: you hurt one of ours, we hurt one of yours. Sometimes the situation requires a pitch directed at other team’s star player, when that team’s scrub injures the pitcher’s team’s star. In this case, the target was an easy call, for Machado was both the miscreant and is also the Orioles best player.
Pedroia, for his part, told reporters that he didn’t care whether it was an illegal slide, saying that the rule had been created to protect lesser fielders who didn’t have good footwork, so it didn’t apply to him. He exonerated Machado, saying that he had texted an apology, and that as far as he was concerned, the episode was over.
Never mind. Baseball tradition dictated that if the Red Sox didn’t hit Machado in retaliation, it would be betraying Pedroia and submitting to Orioles dominance. Understand: nobody apparently believed that the slide was intended as an aggressive message, but that didn’t matter. This was tradition. This was culture.
This was stupid.
Nothing happened in the next game, though. commentators (Rice, Lyons and others) speculated that this was because the Sox pitcher, Steven Wright, is a knuckleballer, and can throw a slow, 86 mph fastball at best. In other words, a pitch from Wright wouldn’t hurt enough. Wait: if everyone knows Machado wasn’t trying to hurt Pedroia, why does the pitch have to “hurt”? Isn’t having Wright deliver the vengeance perfect, sending the required, ancient, stupid messages (“You can’t intimidate us! You can’t hurt our leader and get away with it!”) symbolically and with little risk?
Guess not. Nothing happened, and some assumed that the episode was mercifully over.
Then, late in the next game, Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez faced Machado and threw three fastballs in a row (Rodriguez throws his cheese at 95 mph plus) in the general direction of the third baseman’s knees. He missed with all three pitchers, if hitting Machado was his intention. (Later, E-Rod said that he was just “pitching in.” This tells us nothing, because admitting that you tried to hit a batter with a pitch means an automatic fine and suspension.) In his following at bat, Machado came to bat against Sox relief pitcher Matt Barnes, who throws even harder than Rodriguez. Barnes threw a fastball that went behind Machado’s head, narrowly missing his skull and hitting his bat.
Barnes was immediately thrown out of the game.
From the dugout, the camera caught Pedroia shouting to Machado, “That wasn’t me! That was them! You should have been hit yesterday, on your first at bat! You know that. I know that!” After the game, Predroia, who couldn’t play in the game because of his injuries from Machado’s botched slide, expressed disgust with Barnes’ pitch without naming him, saying the entire sequence has been “mishandled.” Barnes has been suspended for four games and fined, serious punishment. He is appealing the suspension.
What’s going on here?
1. When anyone has questioned the tradition at work here, the answer from players and ex-players is inevitable, “It’s baseball.” It’s stupid baseball, at least in this case. This is an “Everybody Does it” excuse. Not good enough.
2. Is it possible, as Barnes swears (“You don’t throw at a player’s head. That’s a red line.”), that he wasn’t throwing at Machado to hit him? Sure, but what a coincidence, if he wasn’t! Since no pitcher ever admits that he was trying to hit a batter, even when everyone knows he was, Barnes’ professions of innocence were accepted like those of the lawyer whose pants caught fire in the middle of his closing argument claiming that his client wasn’t an arsonist and that her car spontaneously combusted.
3. Assuming that Barnes did “deliver the message,” who told him to? Not Pedroia, unless he is complete and diabolical phony (he isn’t.) Sox manager Farrell? Usually such attacks are ordered by the manager, but Barnes is a crucial arm in the injured Red Sox bullpen. Losing him, just as the team is preparing to play the hated Yankees, could hurt the team where it matters: its won and lost record. Could Farrell think that exacting revenge for an accidental injury to one of his players when that player has stated publicly that it was accident is more important than winning games? If so, he is an incompetent, irresponsible fool, and should be fired.
4. Now, incredibly enough, Boston sportswriters are criticizing Pedroia for being disloyal to a young player, Barnes, who was only standing up for him.
What is this, the third grade? A bad slide unintentionally injures a player, apologies are communicated, but a baseball “tradition” from the era where baseball was played by outlaw players who often tried to hurt each other demands revenge anyway. Only moral luck saved Machado from a potentially career-ending injury, and a promising young pitcher who may have just lost control of a pitch aimed lower has acquired a reputation for being a head-hunter.
Good job, everybody!