That’s Baseball

Poets celebrate baseball’s clean geometry, the sharp contrast of lush green outfield and dusty red basepaths. They may have missed the transition from the languid serenity of games past to open warfare as new rivalries empty bench after bench. Tigers now loathe the Twins, Jay hate the Braves. Red Sox vs Yankees? Hardly a blip on the screen.

Lets take Oriole’s Manny Machado sliding into second spikes high, carving beloved Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s leg into Salisbury steak. It happens; that’s baseball. Then, two days later, the Sox’ pitcher, Matt Barnes either lost control of a fastball high and inside, or threw at Machado’s head. Again, it happens. Again, that’s baseball.

That last paragraph is mildly factual and intentionally provocative because the situation between Pedroia, Machado, and Barnes, the Orioles and the Red Sox represents the curious and oddly anachronistic nature of the game while also revealing quite a lot about its contemporary nuances. It’s tempting to idealize baseball, quoting George Will, “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals”, or, letting oneself become completely rhapsodic, quoting James Earl Jones’ great speech in Field of Dreams:

“Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around”, you’ll say, “It’s only $20 per person”. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

He was not wrong, but baseball is also red in tooth and claw, more than a game to the men who take it up as a profession. There is much on the line every time a player takes the field; every play is attached to the statistics that measure his value, every play could end his career. Two teams face each other with the legacy of hard feelings barely contained in their last meeting. These two teams are the Red Sox or the Orioles, but they are also made up of men who have worked for years to develop skills that set them apart from other men, skills that include all the elements the fan sees from the stands and some that only players see. The smallest fissure, the slightest crack allows one player an edge over another; weakness or cowardness is immediately sensed and parlayed into advantage. One game is played out inning-by-inning and recorded on the scoreboard; the other, a complicated and shifting balance of power goes largely undocumented.

Beanballs, brushbacks, hard tagging, taunting, posing, running up a score, coming into a base with spokes flashing are all part of the dubious cotillion players call respect. Enter Machado and Pedroia.

Let’s begin with Pedroia. He is more than an excellent ballplayer, although he is that in spades. Pedroia was Rookie of the Year in 2007, American League MVP in 2008, only the third player in history to win those honors back-to-back. An All Star, Golden Glove, Silver Bat, Defensive Player of the Year, and perennial nominee for the Heart and Hustle Award, Pedroia is also the last active member of the Red Sox team that broke the “Curse of the Bambino”, the Red Sox team that won the World Series in 2004 and again in 2007, his rookie year. For all of that, Dustin Pedroia, capable, steady, and consistent was the nice kid among a phalanx of very large personalities who were pleased to refer to themselves as a band of idiots. That charmed team was loose and confident, eminently skilled but gifted with a goofy resilience that allowed them to come back from a three game deficit in the ALCS in 2004, finally pushing the New York Yankees from their pedestal. With the exception of a single year plagued by injury, Pedroia has been a star; in the past four years, he has become the clubhouse leader and the face of the Red Sox. At this point in his career, the closest comparison to Pedroia in terms of the respect with which he is held would be would be the Yankee’s “Captain”, Derek Jeter.

And Machado? In the first place, he’s really good, an All-Star third baseman and shortstop, the best fielding third baseman for the Orioles since Brooks Robinson, which is to say the best since divinity touched earth and played the hot corner. The guy can hit too; in his second year in the majors, Machado tied Ty Cobb’s record, having racked up 40 multi-hit games before the age of 21 and is always capable of boosting a ball four hundred and fifty feet to the upper decks above center field. Phenomenal fielder and way above average hitter, Machado should be a lock for a Hall of Fame career … if he can avoid a third surgery on his knees. He went under the knife after dislocating his left knee in 2013 and his right knee in 2014.

And, he may have a problem with anger management.

Returning to the Orioles in 2014 after that first surgery, Machado had two terrible, very bad days in games against the Oakland A’s. Attempting to reach third base, Machado was tagged with some vigor by third baseman, Josh Donaldson, and responded verbally with some lack of discretion. Already miffed (not a baseball term), Machado took exception to Donaldson’s tag with such animation that the benches cleared and uncomplimentary exchanges between the teams ensued. Then, when Machado came up in the eighth inning, pitcher Wi-Yin Chen blew him back from the plate with a pitch that would have caught him in the chest.

The next day, in the spirit of temperance, Machado hit the A’s catcher, Derek Norris, in the head with his backswing. Baseball being baseball, pitcher Fernando Abad threw twice at Machado’s recently repaired knee; Machado’s response was to throw his bat at Donaldson, and the benches met again.

So, he may be a hot head. But … I’m not sure he’s a jerk. The slide into Pedroia looks bad, to be sure, but it doesn’t look intentional. Machado’s behavior as he connected with Pedroia, quickly trying to hold him up, doesn’t look mean-spirited, and a review of the action indicates that Machado began the slide late, awkwardly, and always aware of the damage that could be done to his knees, may have been trying to avoid jamming his leg into the bag.

It’s possible.

Most of the furor about the incident has followed Barnes’ almost lobotomizing Machado in retaliation for the injury done to Pedroia and Pedroia’s unusual charity toward Machado. Managers, players, and sports hosts have almost uniformly defended Barnes’ action as part of the unwritten code of baseball. In its most polished form, the sentiment argues that teammates stand up for each other. In practice, it generally means that pitchers throw at batters in response to any number of perceived provocations.

“You hit our guy; we hit your guy” is at least rough justice. Primitive but understandable. “You pose after hitting a home run; our guy throws at your head”? Not so noble. “You flip your bat? Time to straighten you out.” “You’re a promising rookie. Time to bring you down to earth — literally”. Equally regrettable.

Any other unwritten rules that can earn you a Spaulding in the ear? Well, don’t step on the pitcher’s mound; that’s likely to rile a pitcher who considers it his turf. By the same token, don’t show disrespect for the pitcher by stepping into the batter’s box while the pitcher is warming up. Almost any behavior that casts aspersion on the pitcher, the pitcher’s character, the pitcher’s ability, the pitcher’s moustache is likely to result in a retributive delivery from the aggrieved hurler.

And, lest it go unmentioned, that ball is travelling at more than ninety miles an hour.

My son and I visited the Louisville Slugger museum and factory, walking past the hundred and twenty-foot replica of Babe Ruth’s bat in order to see how bats are made and to gawk at the bats hefted by our idols. The trip would have been more than worthwhile had it only included a long look at the bat used by Joe DiMaggio in his 56 game hit streak, but it also offered the opportunity to stand in a simulated batter’s box so as to see what a hundred mile an hour pitch would look like coming at us. A replica of Randy Johnson, six feet and ten inches of pitching fury, launched the pitch as we stood in.

There’s not much to say after an experience such as that; I don’t know how to put whimpering, slack-jawed terror into words. The possibility of being hit, and perhaps hit again is one of the many factors that have prevented me from acting on my boyhood dream of playing in the Big Leagues. In his excellent account of the story behind baseball stories, I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love, Tim Kurkjian recalls interviews with players who have been “beaned”; they are terrified and traumatized, but some return and step in anyway. Unbelievable.

As far as I can tell, Craig Biggio holds the unwanted record of most frequently hit in the course of a season, having been dinged thirty-four times in 1977. Over the course of his career, Biggio was hit by a pitched ball two hundred and eighty-five times which may have something to do with the way his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame describes him Characterized as a “gritty spark plug who ignited the Astros offense for twenty seasons,” Biggio crowded the plate, daring pitchers to try to brush him back, which they obviously did several hundred times. He never picked a fight or charged the mound, leaving it to his own pitchers to even the score when it was clear that turnabout was needed.

That’s what some players and fans consider an essential part of baseball, grit and retaliation. Get hit with a pitch? Don’t rub it. Wait for your pitcher to hit one of theirs.

I think the stakes are too high and an adjustment has to be made before someone gets killed. Bench clearing brawls, hurrah. The more the merrier. Assault with deadly weapons? Can we talk?

Maybe in a time in which a high school sophomore throws at 93 miles per hour, the time has come to remember Ray Chapman, beaned by Carl Mays in 1920, dead the day after he was struck. Or Dickie Thorn, struck in the face in 1984, orbital bone shattered, partially blinded. Or rising Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro, slammed in the face, fracturing his cheekbone and causing his vision to so deteriorate that he was done at the age of 26. Or Mike Jorgensen, whose seizures after being hit in the face almost killed him. Or Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, after whom Mickey Mantle was named, skull shattered, knocked unconscious, essentially in a coma for ten days. Or Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, virtually blinded when struck by a fastball to the face.

Barnes’ bean ball missed Machado’s head by millimeters, hitting his bat behind his head. Let’s just consider ourselves lucky and hope players and managers can move beyond retaliatory combat.

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