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.
- 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.