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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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