Lott: Baseball deserves better than its current culture of retaliation

The response to Sunday’s brawl between the Blue Jays and Rangers was predictably partisan. Not that rational fans on both sides of the divide showed blind support for their team’s bellicose behaviour, but generally speaking, the bad blood was reduced to a simple, and simple-minded, equation.

Jays fans rebuked Matt Bush for hitting Jose Bautista with a pitch and Rougned Odor for punching Bautista in the face after Bautista’s overzealous slide into second base.

Rangers fans demonized Bautista for famously flipping his bat after a monumental home run – hey guys, it happened seven months ago, OK? – and for gaining his own measure of revenge by sliding hard into Odor after Bush hit him with a pitch on Sunday.

The Bautista slide triggered three events:

  • initially, it appeared to break up a double play;

  • but since it was illegal under a new rule, it guaranteed that a double play would be imposed on the Jays;

  • and it sparked one of those bench-clearing brawls that lots of fans seem to enjoy and that “baseball people” believe is an essential and honourable tit-for-tat tradition.

If you’ve read this far, you probably know what happened next: an ugly fracas that was a tad more hazardous than the typical pick-a-partner-and-dance baseball mixer. Odor got in a couple of solid swipes on Bautista’s beard before Adrian Beltre stepped in with a bear hug that immobilized Bautista. Meanwhile, Kevin Pillar and Josh Donaldson tried to redress their teammate’s grievance.

I quickly tapped out an indignant tweet, then erased it and gave my judgment some time to percolate. The game played out as I expected. Toronto lost two of its top players, Bautista and Donaldson, via ejection. The only time Jesse Chavez hit his spot was when he nailed Prince Fielder in the thigh and got himself tossed. The Jays lost 7-6.

So after the game, I tweeted this:

And then, it was on.

The Twitter debate that followed was spirited but generally reasonable.

But I was warned …

… about this.

***

I always appreciate a thoughtful argument. But let’s face it, many fans, players, coaches, managers and ex-players-turned-commentators hold fast to the “grow a pair” argument. What it says is simply this: If an opponent does something on the field that offends your delicate sensibilities, you retaliate, no matter the cost.

You retaliate by hitting a batter because one of your guys got hit. You retaliate by throwing at a hitter who showed you disrespect by admiring a home run. You retaliate with a hard take-out slide at second base. You retaliate against the take-out slide by punching the runner in the face.

I have adult children. I tried to teach them, many years ago, not to buy into the old eye-for-an-eye axiom. That resolving disputes through violence was not only counterproductive but dishonourable. That our base instincts rarely settle conflicts in a good way.

But then we look at history, and current events, and yes, baseball, and we see that some people simply cannot help themselves.

So in baseball, we perseverate on the term “disrespect.”

Dammit, don’t flip that bat, because you’re disrespecting me, although, yes, I put that pitch on a tee and you did what you’re supposed to do.

And if one of my batters gets hit by a pitch, and the planets are properly aligned, then I have the inalienable right to hit one of your batters. Otherwise, I’m disrespecting my own teammates.

And if at some point, all of this results in a brawl – and players get hurt or ejected – then that is the natural order of things, and so what if the injuries or ejections affect a pennant race?

Let us dissect the Jays-Rangers contretemps.

The HBP: It is irrelevant that Matt Bush was in jail when Bautista flipped his bat in Game 5 of the ALDS. No matter who was pitching for Texas, the message from on high would have been clear. Hit Bautista, even if it means putting the tying run on base in a one-run game in the eighth inning.

The timing: Yes, Bautista was right when he said it was “pretty cowardly” to wait until his last at-bat of the season against the Rangers to nail him for an offence that pricked their sensitivities last October.

The warning: Bush hit Bautista on his first pitch in the eighth inning. Plate ump Dan Iassogna immediately warned both benches. But why the warning? Iassogna had already determined that a pitcher deliberately hit a batter. Why not eject Bush immediately for hitting Bautista and then warn both benches?  Sadly, this process is normal in MLB and often, it makes no sense.

The score: Thanks to a sloppy curveball by Chavez to Ian Desmond in the seventh, Texas led 7-6. But in the interests of revenge, the Rangers were willing to risk a loss. And with his slide, Bautista was willing to undermine a possible winning rally.

Bautista’s response: The Jays desperately needed runners. But Bautista put revenge first. He slid hard and past Odor, who threw wildly to first. Bautista knew full well that under the new rules, he would have triggered an inning-ending double play and aborted a potential rally.

The culture: It comes down to this. In baseball, retaliation trumps everything else. Donaldson nicely articulated the conflict when he talked about rushing headlong into the fray, thereby potentially depriving himself of another chance to help his team win: “We feel like we have to protect our guys, especially when something like this happens. It’s kind of an unfortunate incident for everybody.”

It’s the tradition that’s unfortunate. Retaliation sets a rotten example. It is easy and crude. It can cause injury. If baseball players truly see themselves as alpha-males, they would best serve that image by resisting the impulse to lower themselves to the level of an opponent who’s behaving like a petulant child.

In short, be bigger than that. Suck it up and move on. Show your best side to the kids you want to influence. And show your team you’re invested in their best opportunity to win.

Neither team did that on Sunday.

  • Barry

    This is the first article on the matter in which I agree with everything said.

    RE: Bush’s jail time — for the most part, it’s irrelevant, but as I said in the other thread, I have to wonder about the judgment the Rangers showed in picking a guy on parole to be the one doling out “justice.” Had the brawl happened after the HBP and Bush been involved in initial fisticuffs, it might have become a legal issue for him. The Rangers didn’t serve him well by putting him in that potential position.

    Final note: The one guy who I think came off well was Prince Fielder, who took the HBP and was clearly displeased, but just shook his head, gave his WTF smile, and walked to first. He thought it was ridiculous but he was done with it.

  • Steve02

    So much agree with you, John. This is the main reason I tuned out hockey years ago because I felt this eye-for-an-eye culture (you hit our guy, we hit you back) was no model for myself or my kids. It’s not quite as prevalent in baseball tho I think MLB could do a better job enforcing it in-games because I think Umpires take a backwards approach.

  • Stolen Prayers

    Well thought out article, John.

    I remember listening to a Sunday Night Baseball game between the Sox and Yankees where some Sox pitcher hit a Yankee which triggered bench warnings. The Yankees radio guys spent the next 3 innings complaining that CC (probably) couldn’t take revenge. It was sickening and dumb.

  • Matty

    Retaliation is meant to cause harm, is this just being discovered all of a sudden?

    Also, baseball is not real life, sports are not real life, playing sports conjures up a lot of emotion that manifests in physical violence all the time, from the pros to the beer leagues. As long as there is competition and testosterone this will never change.

    Parents, keep little Johnny and Suzy away from team sports if you can’t handle the possibility of violence

  • mktoronto

    John, thank you for articulating what I was trying to say last night. It doesn’t have to be this way and it’s going to take some people to stand up and stop the retaliation cycle. I had hoped that would be us.

  • 0noggin

    Earlier in the game, Encarnacion was hit by a pitch that was nowhere near the plate, and given the situation, I thought a warning might be in order. But no, nothing happened. To me, this was just part of a much broader pattern of umpiring in the series that heavily favored the Rangers and which factored into what happened yesterday. I don’t know if the umps had money on the game, but even long before that incident, and even before both Leiper and Gibbons had been tossed earlier in the game, it certainly looked like there was something rotten in how the game was being officiated. Even the strike zones weren’t consistent.

    • Muskoka's Own

      I also thought that after Edwin got hit there should’ve been a warning. It was quite high and the timing, first pitch after Bautista’s base-clearing double (I think first pitch), was very suspect.

  • muleorastromule

    I’d weigh in but I was kind of getting into a Joe Cocker song on the radio today so I think I’ve reached the age where I’m starting to turn into Goose Gossage.

  • Barry

    I’m trying to guess at what the suspensions will be.

    For Odor, who undoubtedly gets the longest sit-down: The longest relevant suspension under Garagiola Jr. was 8 games to Carlos Quentin, but he broke Greinke’s collarbone. Aside from that, JGJr’s longest penalties for position players have been five-gamers. He might take Odor’s history of on-field violence into account, but I think 5 games is a good bet.

    For Bautista, maybe three games. Donaldson, 1 or 2 games. 1 game for Pillar, who was pretty aggressive in the fracas even if he couldn’t manage to land a punch — he at least remained true to form in that he swung at everything. Chavez might get a bit longer because he’s a pitcher. Bush … no idea; he wasn’t tossed from the game so JGJr might let him slide. 1 game for Gibby. Everyone else slides.

    Appeals might be handled strategically in order to avoid having all our guys sit at the same time.

  • drunk man walking

    Odor did exactly the same thing, hard unexpected push, then as the guy regained his balance, haymaker to the face, as he did to start the brawl in the minors against Vancouver. Regardless of the unwritten rule thing, repeated intentional brawl starting actions cannot be tolerated. If retaliation is intolerable, escalation is doubly so. MLB should send a message.

  • ThePowderedWhig

    Fantastic piece. Retaliation trumps everything because, well, it has in the past so it must continue.

    Odor punches Bautista, benches clear, hot takes galore! Left undiscussed: the Blue Jays lose again with a multi-run lead in the late innings, thus closing a first quarter of the season where they trail 7 games in the loss column despite leading the AL in multiple starting pitching categories. ESPN lists our starters’ ERA as 1.59 in the month of May, yet we’re only 8-6 this month.

    It’s not early anymore. Neither Bautista nor Edwin are in the top 12 players on the team in WAR (how is that even possible?) thru 39 games. Neither Martin nor Tulo are picking up the slack. The bullpen is a broken record. Unless we’re all expecting a repeat of last season’s absurd .800 baseball when scoring four-or-more, the fact remains we’re closer to a double digit deficit within the division than we are the lead…and we’re a quarter of the way in.

    But hey, back to the fight!!!

    • Barry

      Nothing in your comment is unfair or untrue, but at the same time, nothing in your comment is a “new” take. (Though Tulo has actually been “picking up the slack” for the last little while, so fingers are crossed that he might be back in form.)

      People are talking about the brawl because it was a rather serious situation, but also because we don’t see that sort of incident very often, and when we do, rarely is it the case that actual punches are thrown.

      So, what your post seems to suggest is that we focus instead on the same thing we’ve been talking about every day, which … why? Why not take a break from talking about the ongoing awfulness to talk about the fresh awfulness with all its sexy a-hole attachments? I’m sure we can get back to talking about our offence and bullpen soon enough. (Or, with any luck, we’ll lose the reasons to.)

      • ThePowderedWhig

        I did a poor job in my post of noting how retaliation trumped all, even improving the chances of a struggling team obtaining a W (as John Lott alluded to). My point was not simply to rehash what we all know about 2016, it was to put into context the actions baseball players take (took) when there is, really, far more at stake.

        Generally, I was more pissed off the Blue Jays had lost another winnable game than I was about the Rangers being morons.

  • Paul22

    Retaliation has always been part of baseball, although in recent years (last 20 anyways) players have too much to lose moneywise and most of them are friends off the fields since players move around more. I think brawls like we saw can bring a team together and provide a spark. However, I think you have to win the fights to get maximum benefit. Maybe not always.

    Bautista put his hands up after a violent shove by Odor. In MLB players rarely throw meaningful punches I doubt he expected to get punched and I doubt he planned to risk in broken hand in a FA year. Odor of course is not stranger to brawls.

    https://youtu.be/Wt5eZJWMELo

    Also, Bautistas slide has what has been taught to young baseball players everywhere for 100 years . Its called breaking up a DP and you slide late to initiate contact. The Utley and Coughlan slides last year that resulted in injuries have always been considered dirty always because unlike Bautista, they did not slide straight into the base but went way off line. So after 100 years, the Bautista slide, which made almost no contact and certainly no injury, has been considered against the rules (like a balk) and the penalty is the runner to 1B is considered out.
    After an earlier game he should know that.

    I don’t see how Bautista can get suspended for this, but he is Latino, and MLB likes to throw the book at them. Plus Jays are Canadian. Look for 5 games maybe

    With 1/4 of the season almost over, the Jays are playing 500 ball. The AL East is a lot tougher this year, a 2 month streak like last year may not be possible. Jays better start winning or we may find Bautista and Encarnacion on another team come July 31