Beanballs and Bench Clearing Brawls: Where Does MLB Draw the Line?

Hard slide

Aggressive base running, take-out slides, and the emptying of benches, overshadowed a game that saw Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer win his thirteenth game of the season, and become the first pitcher since 1986 to start their season 13-0. Scherzer, who was staked to an early 4 run lead, cruised through 6 2/3 innings while striking out 8 Jays batters. Unfortunately it would be a hard, take-out slide by Colby Rasmus in the 4th inning, and a pitch off of Torii Hunter’s left shoulder that would be the post-game focus.

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Rasmus, who is often praised for his hard style of play on the bases, slid cleats first into Omar Infante while trying to break up a double play. Infante was hurt on the play and forced to leave from the game with what is being called a shin contusion; he will be re-evaluated on Thursday. It should be noted that Rasmus was advancing to 2nd, following being hit by a pitch during his at bat by Max Scherzer. Keep that in mind. Two innings later, newly recalled Todd Redmond would plunk Torii Hunter with a 91 mph fastball on his lead shoulder. Hunter was visibly irate about being hit, and immediately headed toward the mound to have some words with Redmond. Although both team’s benches and bullpens would clear, cooler heads would prevail and the rest of the game would end without incident.

In their post-game interviews, both teams had very different takes on what had occurred. The consensus from the Tigers was that it was a blatantly dirty slide. Max Scherzer believes that the league should get involved and Rasmus should be suspended for the incident. Torii Hunter, who was hit by the Redmond pitch, said that he wasn’t mad about getting hit by Redmond, he was more upset with what had transpired at 2nd base with Infante and Rasmus:

“To come in like that, that’s fine. It’s no big deal. I was just mad,” Hunter said. “It hurt, first of all, he came up and in, and [Rasmus] took out my second baseman. So I kind of vented.”

When asked whether he thought it was a dirty play, Rasmus responded:

“I just treated it like any other time I’m on first base. I was coming in hard trying to break up the double-play,I didn’t mean for nothing bad to happen but it’s no different than any time I ever come in. Obviously they’re going to be upset but that’s just part of the game.”

Just part of the game… That’s the argument that is used when defending aggressive and borderline dirty plays in baseball. It’s a similar argument to the age old “boys will be boys” defense. But when does that defense become archaic and in need of update? Does it take a career ending injury? Does it take an ugly brawl? or will it be something much worse? Even in today’s game fans love players who play with an edge, we love the fact that these guys are willing to do whatever it takes in order to score a run, or get a win.

Unfortunately for baseball it becomes a case of both wanting the cake, as well as eating the cake. What I mean is, as fans we want players who are willing to go that extra mile in order to ensure a win, but we want to make sure that they don’t go TOO far outside the lines in order to do so. We love the concept of that “throwback” player, the guy who aggressively breaks up double plays, who plays with no regard for their body; or anyone else’s. With baseball it’s hard to escape the “just part of the game” mentality because the history of the game is rife with players and moments that define the “whatever it takes” mentality. Flip through any book on the history of the game and you will get a quick education on brush back pitches, sliding cleat high, different ways of doctoring baseballs, and other blatant ways of cheating (see PED’s).

rollins

One of the more controversial practices in baseball is the “brushback” pitch and the “beanball.” Throwing at a batter is how a pitcher polices the game; it’s the equivalent to the enforcer in hockey. If an opposing hitter is crowding the plate, the pitcher throws inside to “brush” him off the plate; thus establishing the inside corner as his territory. If an opposing pitcher hits one of his teams’ batters, it is assumed that he will return the favour at some point during the game. As barbaric as that sounds, it’s one of the most practiced of the unwritten rules in the game. Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale summed it up like this:

“My own little rule was two for one. If one of my teammates got knocked down, then I knocked down two on the other team.”

Drysdale would know a thing or two about the brush back pitch; his 154 hit batters is still the N.L record. The brush-back pitch is still a widely used tactic when it comes to both pitching strategy and policing of the game. Throwing inside or up and in is not just reserved to getting control of the inside corner, but also as a tool for personal revenge. This season just reached the halfway point and we’ve already had two bench clearing brawls that resulted in injuries and lengthy suspensions.

greinke quentin

In April, Carlos Quentin charged the mound after being hit by a pitch from Zack Greinke. In doing so, Quentin tackled Greinke causing Greinke to fracture his collarbone. Quentin received an 8 game suspension and Greinke missed roughly a month recovering. It should be noted that Greinke had hit Quenitn on more than one occasion in the past. However this time around it would appear that it was more unintentional than intentional. Greinke was protecting a one run lead with the tying runner on base, and he was ahead of Quentin in the count. Furthermore, Greinke hit Quentin with a breaking pitch. It’s common knowledge that you don’t intentionally throw at a batter when you’re ahead of him in the count, and you don’t use a curveball to do so. It wouldn’t be the only time Greinke was involved in a “bean ball” incident though.

McGwireWilliams

Two months to the day (June 11th) of the Quentin incident, Greinke was plunked near the head by Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy, Kennedy then hit Yasiel Puig in the head which led to another bench clearing brawl. Luckily there were no injuries this time around, but there were some suspensions handed out to players and coaches. Kennedy would receive the lengthiest of the suspensions handed out (10 games). Perhaps this was because Kennedy threw not at one, but two batters, and mainly their heads at that. Another thought is that it could also do with Kennedy’s reputation for hitting batters; Puig was Kennedy’s 41st hit batter since 2010.

Sometimes guys get thrown at for entirely different reasons. Jose Mesa had a long serving feud with Omar Vizquel regarding Vizquels comments about Mesa’s perfomance during the 1997 World Series in Vizquel’s autobiography “Omar! My Life On and Off the Field:”

“The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose’s own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him. Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game.”

The response from Mesa was pure anger and hatred. He vowed revenge, promising to hit Vizquel in every future at bat:

“Even my little boy told me to get him. If I face him 10 more times, I’ll hit him 10 times. I want to kill him.”

Mesa lived up to his promise, as he beaned Vizquel in each of the next three times he faced him. It wasn’t until the 3rd beaning of Vizquel that MLB suspended Mesa for 4 games; Mesa also subsequently announced the feud as over.

Smack talk and chirping aren’t the only ways to get a fastball aimed at your head. Some batters get hit for admiring their home runs, some get hit for stealing signs, and others get hit for winking at the pitcher. Bryce Harper infamously got thrown at by Cole Hamels in 2012 following a straight steal of home. Hamels openly admitted to hitting Harper on purpose, when asked why he responded:

“That’s something I grew up watching, that’s kind of what happened. So I’m just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it. I remember when I was a rookie the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything because that’s the way baseball is.”

Basically he hit Harper because Harper, a rookie, had shown him up. 30 years ago that would be common practice, today it warrants a suspension; Hamels was suspended 5 games. In keeping with the unwritten rules of the game, following Hamels plunking of Harper, Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann also intentionally hit Hamels with a pitch when Hamels came up to bat. You hit one of my guys… I hit one of yours.

Rasmus’ take out slide to break up the double play tonight was aggressive, but compared to the way the bases use to be ran; it was fairly tame. Aggressive running on the base paths have been documented throughout the game and goes all the way back to the beginning of the Modern era of baseball; the Deadball Era. Back in the days before the home run was king, a bunt single and two stolen bases was the way the game was played. Players also took advantage of only having one umpire and would slide cleats high into the base in order to jar or force the ball loose. There was no one better at this than the great Ty Cobb (another Tiger… shocking).

cobb stealing third

Cobb was fearless on the bases and a complete nightmare for anyone receiving a throw while he was on the move. To say he was proud of his base running ways is an understatement; an unofficial biography he helped write is called “The Tiger Wore Spikes.”

cobb stealing home

Take out slides like the one Colby Rasmus performed tonight are an integral part of how the game is played. They are a last ditch effort to break up a potential double play. It’s a play that EVERY team uses, and is probably seen multiple times in each game played. The whole purpose of a take out slide is EXACTLY what it sounds like; to TAKE that player OUT of the play. Yes it is a dangerous aspect of the game, but so is blocking for a running back in football, and blocking a shot in hockey. Breaking up double plays by using a take out slide is a fundamental part of base running. However, you never want to slide to injure the opposing player, but it will happen occasionally. Tony Fernandez had his 1987 season ended when Bill Madlock broke his ribs on a take out slide. Personally I think that Rasmus was late on the slide, and shouldn’t have slid at that moment. I don’t believe he intended to hurt Infante intentionally, I do however believe his wholehearted intent was to take Infante’s legs out from under him. It should be noted that Rajai Davis was the player who hit the ball and the Tigers probably wouldn’t have turned the double play anyway. An unfortunate play, but a baseball play none the less.

The aggressiveness of the take out slide can be thrown in the same category as “railroading” the catcher at home plate. You’ve probably all witnessed one while watching the morning highlights. The most infamous example was Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse during the 1970 All Star game.Rose ran right through Fosse, who was blocking the plate, in order to score the game winning run.

Keep in mind this was the All Star game, back before Bud Selig made the game actually worth something. But still…. IT’S THE ALL STAR GAME!! This would be like seeing a fight in the NHL All Star Game, or someone throw a real hit in the Pro Bowl… oh wait (RIP Sean Taylor)

The argument in Rose’s defense was that was how Rose always played the game; his nick name was Charlie Hustle after all. The argument against Rose’s actions (beside the fact it WAS THE ALL STAR GAME) was that he had injured Fosse; an injury that would derail his career. Even in today’s game the merits of blocking the plate and running the catcher are debated. In 2011, the Giants lost Buster Posey for the season with a broken leg after he was ran over blocking home by the Marlins Scott Cousins. Although he was remorseful for injuring the young Giants catcher, Cousins defended his decision by saying:

“If you hit them, you punish them and you punish yourself, but you have a chance of that ball coming out.”

As of 2012 the Giants front office has told Posey to refrain from blocking the plate in order to keep him from a potential career ending injury. Perhaps this is a move more teams should employ. I mean for every Pudge Rodriguez holding off a charging JT Snow, we have Buck Martinez and his horrific 9-2-7-2 double play.

One of the most notorious ways of getting a little “competitive edge” is by doctoring the baseball. Before 1920, it was legal to throw a spitball, in fact many pitchers threw a variant of the “spitter”. Unfortunately it would take the death of Indians SS Ray Chapman, who was struck in the head by a spit ball thrown from Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, before MLB outlawed the spit ball. This rule was grandfathered into the rule book which meant that any active pitcher who was still throwing the pitch could still throw the pitch until the retired. Seventeen pitchers in total were still allowed to throw the “spitter,” Burleigh Grimes would be the last of the group to throw it; he retired in 1934.

Now just because the spit ball was outlawed 90+ years ago does not mean modern day pitchers adhering to the rule. In May of this year, Miami Marlins pitcher Alex Sanabia was caught on camera openly spitting on the baseball while on the mound. The umpires of the game did not notice and Sanabia was surprisingly NOT suspended by MLB. He did have a good excuse though; he apparently DID NOT KNOW that it was ILLEGAL to SPIT on the baseball. I guess it’s hard not to know a rule that has been around longer than Yankee Stadium (old and new).

sanabia spit

Spitting isn’t the only way that pitchers have “doctored” balls. Pitchers will use just about anything in order to get a little more drop on their breaking pitches, or movement on their fastballs. One of the more traditional ways is by applying some vasoline or pine tar to the ball before delivering the pitch. Clearly pitchers aren’t just strolling to the mound with a travel size jar of Vasoline, instead they hide it in the brim of their hat, inside their glove, or elsewhere on the body. Pitchers have also been creative and started to use K-Y, Vagisil, and shaving cream in lieu of pine tar and petroleum jelly.

Doctoring a baseball is considered an “art,” and is prevalent through the history of the game, and still practiced today. In Game 2 of the 2006 World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, camera crews caught a brown substance on the pitching hand of Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers. Over the course of the inning announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver openly discussed the substance on Rogers hand, and upon closer examination it was revealed to look like pine tar. Instead of setting the hounds loose, Cardinals skipper Tony LaRussa nonchalantly asked the umpires to have Rogers wipe his hand clean.

rogers

If he wanted, LaRussa could have had an investigation on the field happen, and perhaps Rogers would have been ejected from the game and received a suspension. Instead he said nothing. Perhaps because the Cardinals pitchers were also doctoring the ball, and he didn’t need the additional focus on pitchers hands. That’s just my opinion though.

In 2012, Rays pitcher Joel Peralta was ejected from a game against the Washington Nationals and suspended for eight games when it was revealed that he was using pine tar to doctor the ball. The shady/smart side of the story is that Peralta had pitched for the Nationals in 2010, and had more than likely used his doctoring abilities while a member of the Nationals, so the Nats were well aware about what he may or may not be doing. The Rays were furious about this breech of the “code” and the breaking of one of baseballs MANY unwritten rules. Then Rays 1B Carlos Pena pulled no punches on how he felt about the situation:

“Someone called him out or betrayed him, someone who was his teammate. … I don’t think that’s good sportsmanship.”

Even as recent as May this year there have been more allegations of pitchers using foreign substances to load the ball up. In a game against the Blue Jays, Red Sox pitcher Clay Bucholz was caught touching a “sticky and shiny” substance on his non pitching arm and then proceeding with his pitch.

clay-buchholz-forearm

While Bucholz cruised to a dominant victory, Jays radio announcer and former big league pitcher Jack Morris accused Bucholz of doctoring the ball versus the Jays. Morris said:

“What do you think? Look at the pitches. Fastball at 94 that goes like that,” his hand darting swiftly down and away. “On a fastball?

“He’s not the first guy to ever do it? You can get away with it. Gaylord [Perry] made a nice career out of it.”

Morris wasn’t the only former big league pitcher and Jays analyst to weigh in on what Bucholz may have been doing to the ball. Dirk Hayhurst also sided with Morris on the allegations against Bucholz. Yes, this could be a little bit of hometown bias, but you can’t argue that both guys probably know best about what pitchers are doing in order to get a competitive edge. Hayhurst, who has written two bestsellers, openly wrote about what type of stuff pitchers were using in his book “Out Of My League:”

“… then the real supplies came out: Various goops and stick’ems that some morally sensitive fans would call the use of cheating, while we in the business simply called having an edge.”

For a sport like baseball, it is getting increasingly harder to still embrace the style of play that the game was founded on, while dealing with what we know regarding injuries. Less than 50 years ago it was common practice to throw at a guys head if he dug in against a pitcher. These were the days before we truly understood the complications and long term effects of concussions. Personal health and long term injury is the main reason why pitchers receive fines and suspensions if they intentionally hit batters. It is the reason why MLB invoked the warning system when it came to pitching inside and hitting batters. It’s the reason why managers and front offices run the risk of fines and suspensions stemming from beanballs and bench clearing brawls. Baseball is running into a similar situation that hockey and football are finding themselves – how to “honour” their roots and play a hardnosed, throwback style of play, while maintaining a “safe working environment.”

In hockey, concussions have eliminated any type of hitting to the head. This is in a sport that just over a decade ago was praising the likes of Scott Stevens, and whose main take home media is called Rock em Sock em. If Stevens played today, he would be considered a serial killer when it comes to hits to the head. Pro football can echo that sentiment. The NFL is having a harder time trying to make their game safer. In a sport where players collide with near-car crash results, it’s increasingly hard to slow the game down in order to make it safe. In the past decade the NFL has taken drastic steps to better protect the Quarterbacks, as well as the ball carriers and receivers. Defensive players are the ones who pay the price now, as they can be penalized and fined for any hits near the head, as well as any second late hit on the QB.

You can’t blame the leagues for doing more to protect the short and long term health of their players. It’s no secret that today’s athlete is significantly faster and stronger than athletes in the past. The problem is when you take these athletes and put them in a sport that hasn’t been modified in 50+ years. Of course guys are going to have more injuries when they’re getting hit by faster and stronger players. Players breaking up double plays and railroading the catcher are SIGNIFICANTLY bigger and faster than players playing in the 50’s and 60’s. Just like players in the NHL and NFL are SIGNIFICANTLY bigger and stronger.

As much as we love to see players going out and giving their all on every play, you have to remember that there is more going on than just a hard slide at 2nd or a pitch moving up and in on a hitter. As long as we lobby for modern day players to play a gritty, old school style of play, we’re going to have an increasing amount of injuries. I believe that pitchers should be able to work inside to batters; I believe that they should be able to plunk a batter occasionally too. It’s no different than my belief that the NHL needs enforcers and fighting in the game. Players will police themselves better and play with more respect if they know that they might wear a 90 mph heater in the ribs if they get out of line.

Baseball has shown in the past that it can take a firm stance and outlaw a practice that could be detrimental to their player’s health. But even though they made the spitball illegal, it didn’t stop people from using it. Even in the game today it is still being used. It’s impossible to ban pitchers from hitting batters, and players sliding hard into bases, without completely remodelling the way the game is played. The best thing that the MLB can do is to continue to fine and suspend players who breach these rules. I know there haven’t been suspensions for hard slides yet, but that is something they could look at in the future. I know MLB has their plates full with all this biogenesis nonsense, but they should still take a look at how they can ensure player safety on the field, while not taking anything away from how the game is played.

A few final thoughts in respect to tonights game: Although I sympathize with Jim “Marlboro” Leyland and the Tigers, I do hope that they will be a little more hesitant before calling players dirty in the future; especially with their colourful past and present.

That being said, I can completely understand why Torii Hunter was so visibly enraged. Not only did he take a 90 mph fastball off the shoulder, but it was going for his head, and his teammate had been injured two innings. The Tigers also had a reason to be perturbed because before arriving in Toronto for this series, they were in Tampa Bay for three against the Rays. During that series Fernando Rodney threw up and in at Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera during Saturdays affair. The pitch, which barely missed big Miggys head, drew a very animated and displeased response from the Cabrera. In retaliation Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello promptly threw at the head of the Rays Ben Zobrist during the game on Sunday. Porcello received a 6 game suspension from MLB for his actions. But Porcello was merely following the old baseball code of “you throw at one of my guys, I throw at one of your guys.”

– $

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