Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beanball Wars

During Spring Training, Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez threw at former teammate Troy Tulowitzki, a move Colorado manager Jim Tracy called "the most gutless act I have seen in 35 years of professional baseball." I think that's a bit strong, and probably hypocritical, as unless Tracy is fairly unique in managerial history, he's almost certainly ordered one of his pitchers to hit someone at some point. Like Tracy though, I didn't like what Jimenez did, and I thought the five-game suspension he received as a result was entirely justified. I also knew it wouldn't be the last time the Indians were involved in that sort of thing, because players being purposely hit with pitches is a long-standing baseball "tradition."

Sure enough, it didn't take long for Beanball to rear its ugly head again, as Shin-Soo Choo took issue Saturday night with being hit by a pitch for the third time already this season, and had some choice words for Kansas City pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. When the Royals came to bat in the bottom of the inning, Cleveland's young starting pitcher Jeanmar Gomez wasted no time getting payback by hitting Mike Moustakas in the back. Moustakas wasn't happy about that, and for the second time in the inning, both benches (and bullpens) cleared.

Gomez was kicked out of the game immediately, and potentially faces a suspension similar to the one dished out to Jimenez. Indians manager Manny Acta was ejected too, along with Tribe's 3B, Jack Hannahan, who was oddly heated about the entire situation. No one else was hit or brushed back the rest of the night, neither of the beaned players suffered any injury worse than a bad bruise, and aside from Choo being heartily booed by the Kansas City faithful for the rest of the game, there was no further tension from the incidents.

This sort of thing is generally accepted as being "part of the game." It's a part of the game many players and fans seem happy about. Jack Hannahan later commented, "You hit our studs, we hit yours. That's the way baseball has always been played. That's the way it should be played." Indians closer Chris Perez tweeted similar sentiments, "You hit us, we hit you, period." Players know how it goes, many of them know when they're about to be hit, and by the time they reach first base, many can laugh it off. Being hit by a pitch is no joke though. Most beanings end in only a bruise, but they can be much, much worse. Every season players miss time with injuries from being hit. In 1920, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by an errant pitch.

Hannahan's quote hits on the main justifications given for the continued practice of retaliation, "That's the way baseball has always been played." I would argue that anytime your best defense amounts to that line of reasoning, you ought to give up the argument completely. If baseball simply did things "the way they've always been done," African-Americans would still be banned, players would have no collective-bargaining rights and would play forever at the mercy of whatever team held their first contract, and the Marlins wouldn't have been allowed to build this. The game changes; most of those changes are for the best. If the practice of players angrily throwing at opponents is to continue, I think a much stronger defense is required.

As I already pointed out, many players are in favor of the retaliatory hit-by-pitch remaining a part of the game, beanball defenders consider the practice a way for players to police one another. I do think there's something to the idea of, "if the players don't mind, why should anyone else?" argument and I don't think their collective opinion should be entirely ignored. However, I also think there's a limit to how far you can take that line of thinking. At some point, we as a culture outgrew the wild west system of justice. We have police in this country so that we are not solely dependent on everyone policing themselves.

Professional athletes, like any large group of people, can't always be trusted to do what's in their own best interest. Pride and money are both major factors in players' lapses in this sort of judgement. Athletes are supposed to "act like men" and players who miss extended time may receive smaller contract offers. That is why other responsible parties must sometimes step in and determine what is best. In recent years, as the full effects of concussions have become better understood, MLB and the NFL have both instituted stricter policies about when a player can return after suffering a head injury. If this decision were left to the players, most of them would return far too soon, potentially inflicting far greater long-term damage on themselves.

Many feel that if a team does not retaliate, other teams will see them as soft, easily pushed around. Choo had good reason to be upset when Sanchez hit him last night, even though I'm sure it was unintentional, it was a Sanchez pitch that broke Choo's thumb last year, costing him over two months of the season. Gomez may have felt he had to hit someone, young pitchers often feel it is their duty to retaliate, for fear of losing the respect of their manager and teammates. They may have good reason for such fear. The macho culture of professional sports isn't going anywhere. Players cannot be expected to reject en masse the way the game has been taught to them. Baseball has a commissioner and league offices; they should be handing out stiffer penalties to serve as a greater deterrent.

Players who are seen as having intentionally hit an opponent should be punished, the standard five-game suspension for starting pitchers isn't enough. Critics complain that it is impossible to know whether a hit-by-pitch was intentional or not, and to some extent, that is true. It would be a judgement call. Baseball already has any number of judgement calls though, and manages to get by.

Baseball is the best game on Earth. There are so many things about it to love. The beanball isn't one of them.

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