Baseball Brawl Ethics [UPDATED]

I noted in the Morning Warm-Up that last night’s Red Sox-Yankee rumble put me in a good mood. I should elaborate: it’s not because I like seeing a New York Yankee player get a fat lip, although I do. It is because such episodes are usually rife with ethics good and bad, and this one was no exception. Here it is again…

It began with an earlier play. Yankee rookie DH Tyler Austin employed an illegal slide when he was forced at second base. A few years ago, the Dodgers’ Chase Utley broke a shortstop’s leg while sliding into him hard to break up a double play. The ugly injury was on national TV, because it was in the play-offs, and Major League Baseball enacted a major rule change.

From the beginning of professional baseball, runners had been allowed to plow into infielders trying to make the pivot at second base and complete a double play like linebackers blitzing a quarterback. The resulting collisions often wrecked knees, ankles and careers, and a ridiculous tradition developed. Umpires allowed infielders to come off the bag before they actually received the ball for the force-out, as long as they were close to the base. The out was called anyway: it was known as the “neighborhood play,” because the infielder’s foot was in the neighborhood of second. After Utley’s slide, baseball made the attempt to interfere with the double play by slamming into the fielder illegal, with the consequence being that the double play was called complete whether the relay throw to first was completed or not.

Ethically, I applauded the rule change. For one thing, the take-out slide was already illegal: runners aren’t allowed to interfere with fielders according to the original rules, but take-out slides were tolerated, indeed encouraged anyway. As often happens when rules are ignored, integrity suffered, resulting in that absurd “neighborhood” convention. The so-called baseball purists complained, and still are complaining, but trading illegal-but-allowed hard slides that required calling imaginary outs and needlessly injured players for some gratuitous violence in a non-violent sport was always an unwise exchange.

So now a baserunner bearing down on second base when a double-play may be in progress has to slide  at the base, not at the fielder. But last night, Austin had his leg high as he slid, and spiked second baseman Brock Holt, Holt, who never threw to first, had words with the Yankee, and both dugouts emptied, though no punches were thrown. It was an illegal slide, no question about it, but because Holt wasn’t interfered with, the umpires did nothing. No penalty out was called. Austin wasn’t thrown out of the game.

This is when the ancient baseball code kicked in. A Yankee had tried to hurt a Red Sox player with an illegal slide, and had gotten away scot-free. If the Sox did nothing to retaliate, they would be showing weakness. I have literally  seen this plot a thousand times. I said to my wife, watching the game with me, “The Red Sox are going to throw at Austin, and there will be a fight.”

Sure enough, Sox reliever Joe Kelly, who throws pitches between 96 and 100 mph, threw a fastball into Austin’s back  later in the game. Austin charged the mound, as you can see, and all heck broke loose.

Ethics notes:

  • Austin charging the mound was unprofessional. He knew, or should have known, that he was going to be hit. Indeed, he had to be hit, and the whole situation was his fault. Baseball etiquette dictated that he take his medicine, trot to first, and end the cycle.

On the MLB channel, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez blandly endorsed Kelly’s hitting Austin, even saying that he liked the fact that Kelly persisted after missing the batter with an earlier  pitch. “You have to hit him to protect your team mate,” Pedro said. “If you don’t, you can’t show your face in the clubhouse.” Martinez was the last of the true beanball specialists.

  • “Mad Dog” Christopher Russo, an amusing, if abrasive, baseball pundit, argued that Austin’s illegal slide should not have required retaliation “because Holt hadn’t been hurt.” You know my reaction to that: he doesn’t understand moral luck. Holt easily could have been hurt, and seriously. That he was lucky doesn’t mitigate Austin’s conduct at all.

The message the Red Sox needed to send was “Don’t do that, or you’ll regret it.”

  • If I knew that Kelly’s pitch was coming, if not from Kelly, from some Red Sox pitcher, then the umpires knew. They should have warned both teams immediately that any retaliation, even pitches that might be seen as intentional efforts to hit batters, would result in ejections.

There was another baseball fight yesterday:

In yesterday’s game between the San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies,  Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado charged the mound after a fastball from San Diego Padres starter Luis Perdomo sailed behind him, setting off a brawl that resulted in five ejections. This was a different enactment of the code. The Rockies pitchers had hit several Padres players in the series, and whether it was intentional or not, baseball tradition demanded that the Padres  express their defiance and lack of submission In this scenario, the “code” requires that the offending team’s star be hit. Again, Arenado should have known it was coming. The problem was that Perdomo, unlike Kelly, was incompetent. Throwing behind a batter is considered a real threat, especially when the pitch comes in high, like this one did. Arenado, who is huge, went after Perdomo, who hurled his glove at him, and then tried to run.

Foul. Kelly, who is also smaller than the batter he battered, responded the ethical way: he faced off against Austin, and signaled to bring it on. In the National League, where pitchers have to bat and face being hit themselves, there is accountability. In the American League, with the designated hitter, that is not the case. If a pitcher is going to throw at a batter, he is obligated to be willing and able to face his victim with honor and dignity.

Pedro had an interesting  take on the Arenado plunk. He said that hitting the other team’s star was the most effective way to keep a team from playing dirty, because the star tells his team, “Cut it out.  I don’t want to get hit any more.”

UPDATE: As a reader has noted elsewhere, I wrote about a very similar episode last year, also involving the Red Sox, and reached a seemingly different conclusion. I agree with both posts. I’ll explain why later, unless everyone sees the material distinctions.

15 thoughts on “Baseball Brawl Ethics [UPDATED]

  1. Still not sure what you mean when you say Austin “had”to be hit. That seems to be a 180 degree change from when you first posted on this issue.

  2. While I understand many of the dynamics here, I don’t like it.

    Hockey has a tradition of Enforcers (I think that is what they are called). Hockey is a contact sport. It is violent. Putting a bunch of people on ice at high speed, there will be violence, intentional or not.

    It is the intentional part that led to Enforcers. You check a good player; you take cheap shots; the Enforcer is thereto fight you and put you in your place as a warning to others. Fighting is actually part of the game. Fighting on ice is part of the game. Fighting while standing in shoes with thin metal blades, while standing on ice is part of the game. Crazy! But, they have a code about it; there’s tradition.

    Derek Boogaard was a great Enforcer. “Was,” because he was dead at 28, with lots of suspected head trauma as a contributing factor.

    I loved football; it is a great game; it is a violent game; I cringe at the violence; I despise the intentional cheap shots. Hockey is an exciting game; it is a violent game; I cringe at the fighting. I like basketball; it is a contact game, but is not inherently violent; I cringe at the show-boating and the grandstanding (and the Timberwolves improbable level of failure the last decade), but, despite the strategy of intentional fouls at the end of the game, those fouls are remarkably “sissy-fied” compared to the other examples here. I love baseball; it is a great game; it is not inherently violent and is less of a contact sport than basketball; violent collisions are possible; errant pitches are inevitable; I cringe at the accidental injury or the accidental bean-ball; I despise the practice of throwing a fastball at someone to prove a point; it is stupid. If the batter were serious, he would bring the bat to the mound.


  3. The DL is an abomination upon the face of the most perfect sport yet invented by mankind. Someday folks will look back incredulously and wonder what Finley was thinking.

    By the way, I agree with BOTH posts, past and present. You are being totally consistent, at least in my mind. The situations are materially different: the unwritten code specifies that revenge takes place on the next at bat of the targeted player. We have to know what to expect to prevent misunderstandings which could endanger the honor of both teams.

    Otherwise, someone could get hurt! /snark

  4. Ah, baseball. How I used to love the game; Mike Schmidt was my sports hero. But now, I think the unwritten code and unspoken rules need to go and MLB needs more rules against revenge. Take a page from the NFL and crack down hard on any attempts to maliciously hurt another player, even if “they deserved it.” Leave the dugout for a brawl, automatic fine and one game suspension. Throw behind a player, fine and immediate ejection. Slide with a foot high, called out and immediate ejection.

    And don’t give me “tradition”. Tradition is no excuse for bad behavior.

    • Exactly. I’ll go even further – leave the dugout for a brawl, you’re out for the next 10 games, 20 games, 50 games, whatever. Make it so guys are so terrified of coming out of the dugout they’re like glued to the bench. Same for throwing behind someone or coming in spikes up. Hockey could do the same thing. Football, the most violent sport and the one where many players are in hand to hand combat which might engender personal animosity, has managed to almost completely eliminate this problem, despite all of its other foibles.

      The penalties aren’t sufficiently harsh because, like hockey, deep down (or maybe not so deep down), they want to retain this part of the game.

      • In hockey, there is a fight every game, and sometimes several. In a baseball season, there will be typically less than ten, often fewer than that. When players leave the dugout, it is usually to hold back players, not fight. Aaron Judge, the biggest guy on the field in the Boston fight, was acting as a peacemaker and referee.

        Throwing behind a player and sliding spikes up can be punished right now. As I said, the umpires are often timid and negligent. The excuse is that they don’t know if such things are accidental or not. So what? Learn to slide, learn to pitch.

        • I guess I’m just nitpicking here, but, I watched the entire Capitals and Blue Jackets game last night and I didn’t see any fights.

          It’s probably true that most hockey games have at least one fight; however, there is not a “fight every game”.

          • Fair point: I accept your correction. When I was growing up in Boston, I abandoned pro hockey precisely because there was in fact, at least one fight every single game I watched. The rules have been tightened in the NHL since then.

            They actually keep stats on fights, and they are indeed going down. In 2001, over 40% of all NHL games had at least one fight. 172 games had more than one. It’s now down to 17%.

            Which is still ridiculous.

      • I think the problem with the leaving the dugout penalty is baseball is different from the other major sports in many ways. One being that you don’t have a balanced number of people on the field. So you could have 1 batter (and a couple of old coaches) battling 9 fielders based on those rules. No one is going to sit in the dugout through that. (Not to mention the batting team would end up with 8 more suspensions then the team already in the field).

  5. Two material differences. Machado’s slide into Pedoria was not intentional, Austin’s was. Second, the response should be proportional to the act and done as soon as possible to send the appropriate message. Machado was not thrown at for multiple days, then had a ball thrown at his head. To make matters worse, Chris Sale threw beyond Machado IN THE NEXT SERIES two weeks later… Austin was hit in the middle of his back in the same game. If Austin takes his lump and goes to first it’s squashed. That’s what lead to Machado’s expletive laced rant about the Sale pitch, there was no way for Machado to take his lump and move on, he was repeatedly and unexpectedly put in danger without actually being hit. Had they hit him in the same game he could take the base and it would have been over.

    Interestingly, in the April 6th Orioles/Yankees game we saw the unwritten rules play out how they are suppose to, with no fights and without making national news. Kevin Gausman hit Aaron Judge in the bottom of the first. In the next inning CC hit Chris Davis with a pitch, likely in retaliation. Davis acted like nothing happened and took his base. Two innings latter, Davis homers off CC and acts like it’s a normal home run, no stare down/bat flip/gamesmanship, just a professional getting payback the way they are suppose to. You can dislike the code, personally I don’t like players being thrown at intentionally, but when you see it worked out on the field the right way there is a certain logic to it.

    • Yes, and…

      1. Austin is a rookie, Machado is a veteran and a star. Rookies are supposed to show respect to veterans (like Holt) not disable them.

      2. Pedroia, who WAS hurt, blamed himself, not Machado, and didn’t want to be protected. This is why Machado wasn’t hit in that game. Pedroia didn’t feel it was intentional, and said so.

      3. I wrote that the tit-for-tat tradition and “code” is stupid. Up to a point it is, but not entirely, and I was stronger than I should be. Sometimes tit-for-tat is a valid method for enforcing a culture: you behave, and we will. In yesterday’s game, the Red Sox’s Jackie Bradley was sliding into second in another aborted DP attempt, and could have hurt Yankee SS Didi Gregorius, who was splayed akwardly by the bag. Bradley slid right to the base. The message: “This is how WE play.”

      4. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Red Sox-Yankeetown.” The Red Sox and Yankees have a 100 year blood feud. The Yankees took Babe Ruth. 1949. 1950. 1976, when Craig Nettles tore Bill Lee’s shoulder. Billy Martin. 1977. 1978, and Bucky Dent. 2003, and Aaron Boone. 2004, with the Sox humiliating NY. The two teams are Army-Navy, Harvard-Yale, North vs South, Godzilla vs Mothra. They DO try to show dominance over each other. It’s both mind games, and part of the show. That picture I used to start the post, Jason Varatek pushing his glove in Alex Rodriquez’s face, is a moment some writers point to as priming the 2004 Sox championship, telling NY, “We’re not your patsies, asshole.” The Orioles weren’t real contenders; the Red Sox had no reason to turn a bad slide into a war last season. Austin’s slide was already part of a war that has been going on intermittently for a Century.

      5. The fact that a similar slide not only hurt Pedroia, but is the reason he hasn’t played this year, also is relevant. The Red Sox have a reason to draw a line in the sand on that play.

      6. Just because a law/rule/code is stupid doesn’t mean that the culture can just ignore it.

      Yes, Davis handled that situation perfectly. The MLB channel highlighted his handling of being hit as well.

  6. I think one big thing is Austin doesn’t FEEL like he did anything wrong. He is going with his opinion that he made a professional baseball player slide and if contact was made he is coming across as it was accidental, or that’s just how the game is played. You could tell it right away, as he actually got angry that Holt said something to him. And has kept it up through all the statements afterwards. I’m not sure if the Yankees team actually believes that as well, or if they’re just covering for their player.

    If he had gotten up from that slide and apologized, a simple “Hey, sorry, didn’t mean to clip you there”, it probably would have just blown over. But he is stead-fastedly sticking with (wrongly to me) that his slide was fine and he’s angry he’s getting flack on it.

    • I agree that Austin doesn’t feel like he did anything wrong, but it’s beside the point in regards to him charging the mound. He spiked another teams player, he’s going to get hit. Fair or not, that’s how the game is policed and it’s his responsibility to take the pitch and move on. He’s young and immature, he took offence when he should have put himself in their shoes and realized that of course your teams pitcher is going to throw at the guy that flagrantly spikes your second baseman.

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