Fowles: Baseball’s shameful code of retribution has no place in the modern game

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Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The game of baseball is defined by being a “non-contact” sport. It’s rules mean that players barely touch each other, a fact that only becomes truer with time. The powers that be have been actively trying to eliminate bodies violently colliding, instituting the new slide rule, and measures to avoid leg-breaking home plate collisions. Baseball actively looks to avoid the brutal blows and body checks of the hockey rink, and doesn’t have the same concussion epidemic as its NFL counterpart. In fact, so many fans I know come to this game precisely for that reason—because it doesn’t evoke injurious combat, or cash in on gratuitous damage.

It’s because of this that violence in baseball, whether executed on the field or off, always feels entirely jarring. When Chase Utley injures Ruben Tejada with a hard slide into second, Jonathan Papelbon chokes Bryce Harper in the dugout, or an on-field brawl breaks out in Globe Life Park, we (should) generally feel uncomfortable and unnerved by the whole thing. That’s not why we’re here, we think. This is supposed to be a slow, meandering, civilized game. We’re supposed to exist and cheer under the illusion of widespread gentlemanliness.

I certainly won’t claim that baseball fans are universally a bunch of empathetic pacifists (you only need to look at my Twitter mentions to dispute that naïve idea,) but explicit direct hits, like the one we saw care of Rougned Odor on Sunday night, always feel alien in a game predicated on players only ever lightly touching each other. Sure, they get emotional, they get “hot headed,” but they don’t come to Roadhouse-style blows, right? The Game is better than that, right? It’s civilized, and intelligent, and above all that, right?

Yet this illusion of the “gentleman’s game” conceals an undercurrent of retribution that is coded into baseball itself. There are all those pesky unwritten rules that we keep hearing about, dictums that demand you act a certain way lest you get plunked with a fastball, or skewered with an aggressive slide. They’re part of the same rules that think sexist hazing is hilarious, that require rookies to always know their place, that endorse upstarts getting appropriately shamed, and ensure that Bautista’s celebratory bat flip gets the payback it “deserved.” These rules are toxic, damaging, distracting, and during Sunday’s match up with Rangers, they boiled over into an ugly discordant punch that is being played on a gleeful slo-mo loop by anyone who subscribes to this kind of archaic thinking.

If you were controversial enough to have an anti-violence stance during that game, brave enough to say that no one scuffling was in the right (except maybe Adrian Beltre,) you were told repeatedly you don’t understand how baseball works. It’s a game of revenge, apparently. One where, six months later, a team can get theirs and it’s entirely appropriate. And if you stared in uncomfortable disbelief as a group of men you admire brutalized each other in a frenzied pit of hostility, you just didn’t understand how baseball works, and should probably just look away.

“Bautista got what he deserved, Baustista was asking for it, Bautista needs to take it like a man, hashtag karma,” was the general pro-plunking and pro-punching stance. (Pretty sure that’s not the intended interpretation of the word karma, but okay, whatever bros.) Some of the brilliant minds that filled my Twitter mentions even went as far as to claim that this was a good lesson for children; “Don’t’ be openly proud of your accomplishments lest ye get hit in the ribs and punched squarely in the jaw, little one.” What kind of deranged, destructive viewpoint is that?

When baseball disputes happen, we’re expected to take a side—brand one team or man evil, the other one good, and then fight it out amongst the fanbases. We fail to foster any productive dialogue or nuance, understand how ingrained systems of institutional violence just beget more violence, and how a “pound of flesh” pitch is a sanctioned first step towards a punch in the face. We watch as high profile commentators like Gregg Zaun trot out their hallowed old school baseball ideals, claiming that this is just the way it is, the way its supposed to be, and everyone involved is simply a puppet in baseball’s grand, mythical stage play. (It’s likely no coincidence that Zaun, someone who was brutally hazed as a player, now happily endorses violence via his mainstream media platform.)

“I’m here to tell you that in this whole situation everybody did as they were supposed to do,” said Zaun post-game, following up with numerous additional “supposed tos” to drive his entirely weak point home.

When Zaun suggests if you’re “squeamish” you should just look away, I take great offense to that, just like I take offense to the idea that I don’t enjoy baseball violence simply because I don’t get it. This is my game as much as it is the game of those who view it through his fetishized old school lens. I am more than allowed to have an objection to escalating aggressive acts, sanctioned or otherwise, and to suggest that there’s got to be another, better way to play. (I’ve noted in the past that when violence is promoted as an appropriate dispute resolution in sports, that concept can bleed into all areas of our lives, with dire results.)

Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about manning up and settling scores as an excuse for egregious behavior. I’m tired of literal assault being excused in a game context. I came to baseball fandom precisely because it offered me a solace away from the ubiquity of violence, and I am allowed to express my disappointment when aggression rears its ugly head. When people talk about what a terrible example Bautista set via his celebratory gesture, or how bad for the children full-of-himself Bryce Harper is, I have to wonder why encouraging this kind of toxic, punishing, vengeful masculinity is somehow the better option. Why hitting people with pitches, slides, and fists is what is “supposed to happen.”

Though our animal brains are likely thrilled by the drama that went down in Texas on Sunday, our honed reason should always default to “violence, in whatever form, is a problem.” That means everyone involved had a part in that toxic stew, from Bush, to Bautista, to Odor, to Chavez. As hard as it is to admit, even Kevin Pillar and Josh Donaldson, with their admirable, bulldozing, “support your teammate” reactions, are uncomfortably in the wrong. As hard as it is to admit, hearing Pillar invoke eye for an eye and militaristic language yesterday doesn’t make me think he’s commendable, and just because someone did something worse, doesn’t make what you did any better. I can certainly empathize that they’re in the moment, that emotions are at eleven, and that loyalty is important, but someone at some point has to make a choice.

Though the theatre of it all understandably entertains and amuses, it shouldn’t be remotely controversial to suggest that every plot point in the narrative that played out on Sunday is worthy of our critique. We shouldn’t be jubilantly comparing this to great basebrawls and punches in sports history, or calling people heroes because they decided to join in the spat. Regardless of our affiliations, it was an ugly scene all around, and if you don’t think so you’re just using baseball to condone hurting another human being. You can tie yourself in knots trying to figure out who started it, who was asking for what, and who gets anointed with a label of “The Worst,” but in the end the side of right is always going to be, “don’t punch a guy in the face because of a game.”

If you take offence to that, maybe you just don’t understand baseball.

  • Matty

    So if I don’t agree with your take, I just don’t understand the game I guess.

    Lol, will you teach me Stacey?

    Competition at its highest… Stuff (embarrassing that I can’t swear on this site) happens.

  • Barry

    I used to think the rules of retribution made total sense. But that was when I was playing peewee ball. I held on to that opinion as long as I played in leagues. And I guess that’s what big leaguers do, too. They hold on to the views they had when they were 12 … because nothing about sports culture gives them an opportunity to mature.

    It was only after I stopped playing that I realized just how stupid it is that you can literally assault a person — and in an ostensibly non-contact sport, no less — and it’s seen as okay.

    If Rougned Odor were charged with assault there would be outrage. But how is that different from me punching a co-worker? Because baseball is a sport? So what?

    And the response to comments like this is usually “I’ll bet you loved it while it was happening.” You know what? I didn’t. I freakin’ hated it. The whole fracas looked stupid to me.

  • b4 the windup

    I agree with all of this, so much. I am still unsettled by what happened on Sunday. It was all the exact opposite, for me, of what baseball is and I wish I hadn’t seen it.

  • Neil S

    Having had plenty of time to think about this, it occurs to me that Odor’s punch is possible the only sure-to-be-penalized action that is even remotely justifiable. I don’t think he had any plan to punch Bautista out, or a plan to throw a punch at all. He just lost his head. Not an excuse, but at least it’s an explanation.

    Everything else that happened, though? The direct result of deliberate, reasoned, and awful choices. Bush, Chavez, Bautista, and Odor (for his throw, not the punch) all knowingly and unnecessarily endangered the safety of other players. None of those actions should have a place in a game. Unless, I suppose, you want to return to the days of Hal MacCrae takeout tackles or Ty Cobb jump-kicks. Because, frankly, there’s very little difference between these actions and those ones.

    You win your pride back by winning the game – that’s it.

    • b4 the windup

      “…it occurs to me that Odor’s punch is possible the only sure-to-be-penalized action that is even remotely justifiable”

      I want to respond to this because to me, Odor’s punch is the only moment that happened during it all that was NOT justifiable. All the rest of it, I’ve seen a thousand times before. I don’t like to see them throwing fastballs at each other but at least it fits with what I know as (a part of) baseball. It’s a hell of a thing, yes, but it’s a good step or two removed from being as violent and personal as a hard right-cross to another man’s cheekbone / head. Especially one that looked as cheap-a-shot as that one did. Cheap, in this case, meaning obviously unexpected.

      Unexpected because it’s something we almost never see in baseball. Pushing, shoving, a bit of wrestling around after the dugouts empty, sure. But a lined-up shot to the head from someone who obviously knows-well how to do it, to another player, never mind one of the great players in the league? No.

      The punch was bush-league, bully-boy garbage. Odor did not just lose his head at all. it’s more likely that he relished the opportunity to do physical damage to Bautista.

  • Paul22

    I love a good brawl, but I feel better when we win them. Back in the 60’s and 70’s you saw quite a bit of it, some of it really vicious stuff. Dont see much of it today since players make more money and they move around so much they are friends off the field with most of their opponents.

    NHL pretty much ruined the game by taking the fights and hits out of the game and going all European style on us, MLB starting to do the same. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • grrbear

    Cannot endorse Stacey May’s take enough. Tradition and emotion combined with testosterone produce the mindset that it’s okay to physically retaliate against behavior you don’t like. We don’t allow this in our workplaces, our schools, our public places, or even our homes. But it’s okay in baseball because that’s the way it’s always been done? Change is hard, I know, and many people fear it. Move past the fear and embrace maturity.