Die Hard Traditions: Baseball and the Beanball

Arguably, there is no organization in the world more averse to changing it’s traditions than Major League Baseball. There are plenty that need to be addressed, and many of them will be down the line. But the time has come for baseball to address the problem of the beanball, once and for all.

The Latest Incident

The latest incident, in which Hunter Strickland nailed Bryce Harper with a 98 MPH fastball, should be the catalyst for action. Yes, the pitch did not seriously hurt Harper. But what if he had hit him in the hand or the head? Harper would have been out for many weeks, and that’s the best-case scenario. It could have ended his season or career. Fans in all parks come to watch Harper, one of the games biggest stars, not Strickland. Beyond the obvious safety and health issues, it is not good for the game to lose stars, whether to an injury or suspension, because of a pitcher who got lit up for a couple of dingers two years ago.

Nothing was more infuriating than having watched great pitchers like Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who threw high heat, be some of the biggest offenders in hitting batters. They both had some of the best control, as evidenced by their outstanding walks-per-nine-innings ratios. Yet, they continuously hit batters, which was always chalked up to being part of the game and establishing their presence of authority on the mound. Do we think the fans were pleased when Martinez put both Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano out of a game in the same inning with pitches on the hands (beyond the Boston Red Sox fans)? It was all especially difficult to stomach because Clemens and Martinez were AL pitchers who rarely ever had to step in the box and face a few pitches themselves.

The Solution

Today, we see escalations of beanball wars (see: Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles) for any number of reasons, from taking the pitcher yard last at-bat, to sliding hard into second, to “we don’t like your bat flip or trot around the bases when you jack one out”. Predictably, this results in retaliation, as another batter gets hit, and ultimately we have a bench
clearing brawl. This is where it can be fixed, and the NHL provides the example for the solution.

Fighting in hockey has been validated as an action that polices the game. When the NHL briefly outlawed fighting several years ago, the result was loose sticks, broken hands and cracked wrists. Fighting quickly returned and a funny thing happened; we relearned that if you take a run at a star or play loose with your stick, you’ll find yourself squared up with the toughest pugilist on the ice. They had their fight and that was usually where it ended; all the nonsense largely disappeared.

No More Protection For Pitchers

Giants catcher Buster Posey made no effort to stop Harper when he charged Strickland on the mound, but that was an anomaly because the catcher’s mandate is to keep the batters from the pitchers. That needs to stop. The time has come to let the pitcher and batter square off, out there in the infield, for everybody to watch. Like hockey, a “Third Man In” rule would ensure heavy suspensions for anyone who jumps in. Mano a mano.

Enforcers

One additional rule would be to allow for a fight under the right conditions. Clemens would have never feared fighting Jeter, who was much smaller. Strickland would be all in for a scrap with a little guy like Dustin Pedroia. But if a strapping backup catcher or outfielder were to pinch run for Pedroia and go to the mound after the first pitch, Strickland would have a fair fight and would have to throw hay makers with his pitching hand, yet another deterrent. Remember, Wayne Gretzky was always able to stay healthy and out of the fray because Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley would crush anyone that ever tried to take a shot at him.

Strickland and Harper are both big guys, so no designated fighter is required with those two. But there is risk to a star like Harper hurting a hand and missing time, so that’s why you may want to have a couple of big, solid, backup players, who are happy to play that role in the majors. It would be quite similar to the NHL enforcer in that regard; time for all teams to keep a third catcher.

Implement The Change

Do we have to keep watching more of this nonsense and wait until pitchers, who are bigger, stronger, and throw harder than ever, eventually seriously hurt somebody? Let them fight it out and defend themselves. The odds are that there will be a lot less of this garbage. If it doesn’t act as a deterrent, then at least there will be some good fights to watch. Anyone being honest would admit there would be huge entertainment value in that.


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