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Time to evolve how we brawl: A path to better fights in baseball

06.13.13 at 11:37 pm ET
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Guest columnist Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 ‘€“ with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’€™ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.

The hitter is fuming. He’€™s not quite sure what’€™s causing more pain; the fastball he just wore in the ribs or the humiliation of getting shown up in front of 40,000 fans.

He peers out at the pitcher and the two lock eyes. Nothing is said. The energy of the moment takes over and all is understood. The two players simultaneously sprint towards one another, meeting halfway between the mound and the plate.

All other members of each team know the drill — they don’€™t jump in. The catcher is a spectator, hands behind his back. The umpires assume their position. The one-on-one battle is on and it doesn’€™t stop until one man falls. Only at that point can the men in black step into the fray. The bruised-up athletes dust themselves off, are ejected and the game continues.

That’€™s the efficient way to settle a baseball beef. Instead, here’€™s how it goes down. Hitter pimps a homerun. Pitcher smokes him in the back (if his command is any good) during his next at-bat. Hitter glares out at pitcher; nothing happens. The pitcher on the hitter’€™s team retaliates and back-and-forth we go. Maybe the benches clear at some point, maybe we are talking about the issues between the two teams in the weeks and months to come.

Hockey knows this dance well; nobody gets his butt kicked without his consent. Baseball can learn the steps of said dance if willing to stand outside its cozy little box. In the NHL, the players go mano-a-mano and the fight is over when someone hits the ice and the referees step in to break it up. When Marty McSorley and Bob Probert squared off, both guys were stitched up and back on the ice the next shift.

In a 1993 brawl between the NY Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, injured Knick Greg Anthony ran onto the court in street clothes and sucker punched Kevin Johnson as part of one of the most chaotic fights in recent sports memory. The incident convinced commissioner David Stern to implement some harsh rule changes including a maximum fine of $20,000 for leaving the bench during a fight and a suspension of at least one game.

I’€™m not suggesting that we emulate the NBA. I like the hockey format better. The players tend to police themselves. MLB players can do the same and hold each other accountable for adhering to the honor code of not ‘€œjumping’€ a player from the other team.

Clubhouse debate: What happens if Pedro Martinez is on the mound and Wily Mo Pena is in the box? Do we let that fight happen without stepping in to protect Pedro?

The answer is an overwhelming yes. The code has to be strict. The result is that the pitcher will think twice before delivering that pitch near the melon of the beast in the batter’€™s box.  And if the pitcher decides to proceed without caution, he’€™ll have to pay the piper for the world to witness.

The idea here is to protect the health and well-being of both the players and the game. It’€™s plausible that baseball fans would rather see one super juicy fight a month between two individuals who really want to get after it than a bunch of random pushing and shoving. False bravado and manufactured venom are both exhausting and inauthentic.

So what happens when the hitter and pitcher, or any two players for that matter, have mismatched expectations? What if the pitcher really doesn’€™t mean to hit a batter, let alone engage in fisticuffs?  We’€™ll just have to rely on energy. Again, this unspoken agreement works well on the ice. So maybe a quick countenance check-in is in order before the decision to throw down is final.

Don’€™t get me wrong; we can’€™t be exactly like hockey in this regard. There are far too many variables, i.e., no penalties short of ejection. But we can figure this out.

When 50-plus guys get in the middle of the field and start to awkwardly shove one another around, waiting for the one reckless individual to come throw a wild haymaker, it puts every man in danger of landing on the DL. Let’€™s look at this analytically. If we change the unwritten rules of baseball to promote the one-on-one fight, the gang-style rumble falls by the wayside. Theoretically, we would see fewer ejections, fines, suspensions and, yes, injuries.

In theory, the reason why the masses take the field is to break up a brawl before serious harm occurs; those not directly involved are supposed to make the situation safer. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect and the chaos is a torn ACL waiting to happen. Looking at Tuesday night’€™s Dodgers-D-backs brawl, you have Puig, Bellasario, Hinske, Mattingly, Gibson, Trammel, Howell ‘€¦ everybody was in the line of fire.

I illuminate all of this because folks will inevitably point to the danger of letting two guys fight. The question I’€™m asking is, what’€™s the danger of NOT letting two guys fight? Pitchers don’€™t have the pinpoint command to throw up and in, never miss and avoid taking someone’€™s nose off. That’€™s the real danger. Sooner or later, a baseball will deliver a devastating right hook and it won’€™t be pretty.

Fans who attend professional hockey games feel slighted and leave less satisfied when they don’€™t see a heavyweight bout. I hypothesize that it would be good for the game of baseball if the fans, spending their hard-earned money to be entertained, got to see the guys with the beef go at it. Fans love the smack talk on twitter and through various media channels; I just don’€™t think it’€™s the main event.

We know Dusty Baker is on my the side of this debate. He recently stated emphatically, ‘€œJust put them in a room, let them box and let it be over with. I always said this, let it be like hockey, let them fight, someone hits the ground and it’s over with. I’m serious about that.’€

Concern about escalation — and potential injury to third parties with no real stake in the actual fight — was clearly on Dusty’€™s mind. Anybody think the recent bad blood is over? I reckon more bean-ball wars are coming in the wake of the recent baseball skirmishes.

That likelihood is absurd. More times than not, the men on the field don’€™t really want to fight. If they did, they would. And when they really want to, they do and you can’€™t stop them. Nine out of 10 bench-clearing brawls result in nothing more than men waiting to get held back, with no punches thrown.

The powers that be will undoubtedly make the case that ours is a gentleman’€™s game. They will say that we aren’€™t hockey and that baseball fans don’€™t want to see that. If that’€™s truly the case, then why did every baseball highlight show on TV, radio, podcast, etc., lead with the Dodgers-D-backs fight?

This is the not our grandfather’€™s game. It’€™s okay for us to evolve if it makes our game better.  And if some would object on the grounds of sanctified tradition, well, what could be more traditional than an embrace of the very hand-to-hand combat that is in our genes as part of our evolutionary past? Traditionalists can cling to that while also, perhaps, enjoying the fact that their favorite player didn’€™t require season-ending surgery for an injury incurred standing on the periphery of a brawl.

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