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October 13, 2008

Prospectus Today

Of Beanballs and Street Brawls

by Joe Sheehan

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The Dodgers and Phillies admittedly had a tough act to follow, but what they gave us was a pretty uninspiring evening as compared to the excitement of Saturday night and Sunday morning. The Dodgers' attacked Jamie Moyer with five first-inning hits capped by a Blake DeWitt triple; a five-run rally that ended the drama early. The Phillies pushed back a bit, even creating some mild excitement in the seventh, but Cory Wade pitched out of it to lock down the game.

The lack of baseball drama left plenty of space for other kinds to take center stage. Following up on Friday's knockdown of Russell Martin, the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda threw a pitch over Shane Victorino's head in the third. Victorino took exception, gesturing pointedly to Kuroda. After grounding out to end the inning, Victorino again engaged Kuroda, apparently trying to to tell the right-hander that if he was going to throw at Victorino, to not throw at his head. At this point, the benches lightly cleared—picture the vacationers at a Catskills resort converging on the dining hall at mealtime—and despite the best efforts of Davey Lopes and Larry Bowa to spark something more, there were no punches thrown.

This is where the game loses me. I don't love everything about baseball, and one area I've never quite come around to grasping is the pseudo-macho "code" surrounding throwing at hitters and the reactions to that. Don't get me wrong—I know that pitchers need to work inside, and a fair amount of the increased offense over the past 15 years is the effect of hitters standing closer to the plate and taking away the outside corner. To counter that, pitchers are supposed to jam hitters, work the inside of the plate to throw unhittable strikes, and go further inside to create some discomfort in the batter. Hey, I pitched, too.

That fairly normal give-and-take has become distorted, however. Batters, hovering over the plate, now dive to the ground on pitches three inches off the inside corner and shoulder-high. There was a game earlier this season—the specifics escape me, although I believe I wrote about it—in which a batter took offense on a pitch that, while very high, cut the heart of the plate. Every pitch that causes this kind of drama is met with profanity, glares, bat-waving, and the kind of posturing you'd expect in some minor league wrestling venue. In some cases, pitchers are trying to affect the behavior of hitters; in some, pitchers are displaying a lack of control. Regardless, the chest-beating and drama that so often accompanies a wayward fastball is uncalled for.

The follow-on actions to this stuff have never made sense to me, either, although I suppose this speaks more to my nature than anything else. The idea is that pitchers have to protect their hitters, so if your teammate has been backed off, knocked down, or hit, then you have to back off, knock down, or hit an opposition player. The player that you hit should be comparable in importance, and you should try to do so in a way that doesn't unduly damage your team's chance of winning—say, with two outs and no one on, which is when the Kuroda/Victorino exchange took place. Pitchers have to do this, lest they be regarded as less than...

See, I can't even write about this, because I don't understand it. The macho tenets of sports have always been lost on me, and if you want to say that made me less of a teammate, I won't argue. I always react badly to these sequences—they did X to us, so we have to do X to them—because they're irrational at their core. You don't beat bad with more bad, and even if you did, what would be the point? What is the end goal of these sequences? To show that you're as tough as the other guy? Yeah, we get it, when you're a Met, you're a Met. Now play ball.

As an aside, I react similarly to the sophomoric antics reported gleefully each year, where rookies are forced to dress in embarrassing fashion as the team travels from location to location. It's childish and demeaning and beneath everyone involved. Why the hell should Clayton Kershaw be shamed for the enjoyment of Brad Penny? Because someone did it to Penny forever ago? We chuckle at behavior that would be considered actionable in other workplaces, and I think it's because we want to believe we're watching kids play a game, and when they act like kids, it feeds that fantasy.

In truth, MLB clubhouses are a workplace, and the fields an office, and it strikes me that we hold the most disdain for the players who treat both as such. The smartest players, the ones with the least use for the illusion that it's more than that, tend to be treated as outcasts. The players for whom it's just a good job, such as Jeff Kent, are ridiculed for their lack of passion. Those are the ones, however, who have the best grasp of the industry as a whole. You can be great at your job, you can be worth every penny you earn, you can contribute to the enjoyment of millions, and you can do all of that while acting like an adult and expecting the same of your peers.

Baseball isn't a test of manhood, and the tendency of the participants to treat it as such on occasion is disappointing. Throwing a baseball at someone with the intent to threaten or injure isn't tactical, it's idiotic. Overreacting to baseballs that clearly are not thrown with that intent—hey, Dodgers fans, you don't try and hit someone with a 78-mph curveball—is the same. We don't need rule changes; we need a culture change in which everyone involved recognizes that the other guy is just doing his job, and stops interpreting every ill-gripped four-seamer as an act of aggression.

It would also help if the people around the game stopped treating these incidents as important. The post-game interviews last night weren't of Blake DeWitt and Hiroki Kuroda, the game's heroes, but of Victorino and Martin. Maybe that's what sells, but the game deserves better.

We deserve better. Now play ball.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Hiroki Kuroda

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