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April 28, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Fighting

by Derek Zumsteg

Baseball has suspended 16 players and fined nine as a result of the White Sox/Tigers brawls that marred Saturday's game. Baseball Vice President Frank Robinson is quoted as saying, "Altercations like the one that took place in Chicago last week show a lack of sportsmanship. It sends the wrong message to our fans--particularly young people. Fighting is not an acceptable part of the game."

Isn't it?

There's a fine line between playing physical baseball, even rolling up the cuffs and exchanging blows over a hard slide or chin music, and brawls like this. I myself am confused: I don't see wrong in taking out the second baseman on a double play, but not with a David Justice style catch-and-drag. When I watched Randy Johnson get into a brawl with Milwaukee, standing head-and-shoulders above the melee and punching out Brewers like he was playing the whack-a-gopher at Chuck E. Cheese, I loved it. But watching Darryl Strawberry charge out of the Yankee dugout time after time, turning scuffles into full-scale fights, chasing his mark through dugouts, repulsed me. Is there an easy distinction to be made?

The NBA dealt with its violence problem not by enforcing rules to prevent the physically abusive play that sparks confrontations, or by banning Karl Malone's Injure-a-Matic elbows, but by enacting new rules against using fists. The result was players using headbutts or forearms. The NHL has always had a strange relationship with fighting, appearing to tacitly encourage it for attendence purposes, but also because it served a purpose. For years, Wayne Gretzky essentially had a personal protector on the Los Angeles Kings, and if you took Gretzky out, you would pay a severe penalty. It established a limit to physical play, in that you should not hit any harder than you were willing to be hit, repeatedly. Hockey has now paid the price with the disaster of Marty McSorley, who may soon be doing his ESPN Up Close interviews from a cushy Canadian prison cell.

Baseball can and should act to prevent the kind of disaster that looms. Smart suspensions, like the ones handed out Thursday, are a good step in that direction. Further enforcement should be equally clear, but also directed: players who, like Strawberry, start, escalate and keep brawls going should face much stiffer punishments than others.

I also think there should be massive fines for leaving bullpens and clubhouses. There's no reason those players need to be on the field. I'm actually against dugout fines, for a single reason. If you watch brawls carefully, what largely occurs is this: two players start going at it and then their teammates and coaches restrain them. Other players find someone who's about their size, gauge whether or not the guy is a threat to go Darryl, and then act cool. Generally, I think this separation works to keep a single hothead from charging the mound unrestrained.

More than anything, though, players need to realize that if they're at all valuable to their team, the worst thing they can do is get suspended for inciting a brawl and forcing Jeff Reboulet into the lineup. No matter how much it hurts to get plunked, success is the best revenge.

Which, now that I think about it, explains why the Tigers were so pumped about their role in this mess. A series of brawls that end in a draw is going to be better than most of their on-field results this year.

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