The old-school refrain about baseball’s beanball wars is that the players and the game should be left to police themselves. That sounds great in theory, doesn’t it?
But in practice, the frontier justice is often dangerous chaos. The Tigers and Yankees -- two teams well-stocked with respected veterans, from Miguel Cabrera to Todd Frazier to CC Sabathia -- played in the same game Thursday, participated in the same events, and the interpretations of the two sides about what took place could not have been more different.
What resulted was a series of brawls that led to the mass penalties handed down by the commissioner’s office on Friday evening, discipline that may hurt the Yankees’ chances of catching the Red Sox in the AL East. Gary Sanchez got a four-game suspension and catcher Austin Romine two games. Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers was hit with a seven-game suspension, reliever Alex Wilson four games and manager Brad Ausmus one.
At the very least, the two teams are incredibly fortunate that as the situation spun out of control -- and as each side rendered its own justice and policed the game in a way it believed appropriate -- somehow nobody was seriously injured with the beanballs and the three benches-clearing incidents.
What happened should be an example to players around the sport that the act of retaliation with the thrown baseball is incredibly dangerous, invites an inevitable response -- an eye for an eye -- and is especially stupid because they’re all members of the same players' association. They are union brethren; they should be invested in each other’s well-being enough to resolve their differences in some manner other than assault. This is like steelworkers bashing each other with pipe because of disagreements over who is supposed to clean up the lunch room.
The Tigers and Yankees would probably agree on one point: Gary Sanchez wrecked Detroit daily with his power, crushing a 493-foot homer earlier in the week and blasting another in the fourth inning on Thursday.
But each side has very different views of just about everything that happened after that. The Tigers’ Michael Fulmer drilled Sanchez in the fifth inning. Fulmer and Detroit manager Brad Ausmus both said this was not intentional. Girardi said later that of course it was intentional; Yankees players yelled this at Fulmer on the field.
The Yankees retaliated, with Tommy Kahnle throwing a fastball behind Cabrera. After Kahnle was ejected, Austin Romine yelled at Cabrera that the purpose pitch wasn’t about Cabrera. To Cabrera -- the target of that fastball -- it sure as hell felt personal, and he threw the first punches. Romine answered.
As the first brawl played out, Sanchez threw sucker punches at Cabrera and then Detroit third baseman Nick Castellanos. The Tigers were furious about this after the game, but Sanchez and the Yankees may have felt differently; after all, it was Sanchez who was drilled initially in this game.
One inning later, Dellin Betances bounced a fastball off the head of Tigers catcher James McCann. Betances pleaded his case with the umpires that with the score tied at 6-all, there was no way he did this on purpose. Ausmus and McCann both seemed to be gesturing that Betances should be ejected -- and he was. Both Ausmus and McCann said after the game they didn’t think Betances hit McCann in the head intentionally -- and apparently Joe Torre agreed, because Betances wasn’t suspended.
David Robertson hit a batter, but wasn’t ejected. The Yankees seemed to think the retaliation for the day was over -- but Tigers reliever Wilson felt otherwise, telling reporters after the game, “At that point in the game, it was something that had to be handled.” He drilled Frazier, and was ejected. Frazier yelled at Wilson and other Tigers about what happened; Ausmus screamed two words at Brett Gardner, and Gardner tried to get at the Detroit manager.
The totals at the end of the game: three benches-clearing incidents, eight ejections, four batters hit, including one in the head.
What no one seemed to take into account in any of this is that others on the field might not act as they expect them to act. Yankees manager Girardi blamed the umpires for their handling of this, for not warning or ejecting Fulmer -- and he assumed that Kahnle would be given one freebie aimed at Cabrera. Plate umpire Carlos Torres saw intent in Kahnle’s pitch -- who could argue with that? -- and Girardi went nuts. But as we saw in the Boston-Baltimore beanball wars earlier this year, umpires aren’t always predictable in how they see these situations. Girardi should know this.
Pitchers are expected to retaliate as part of the code, but there is one inherent flaw in all of that: Pitchers don’t always throw the ball where they aim. Only Betances knows if he targeted McCann and intended to hit him in the butt or legs; if he did, he missed badly and drilled a peer in the head with a 98 mph fastball. Earlier this year, Boston’s Matt Barnes appeared to try to hit Manny Machado on purpose -- and almost hit him in the face.
The errant beanball is like a baseball version of Russian roulette, and through the years there have been myriad casualties. A fastball cost Ray Chapman his life, ruined the career of Tony Conigliaro, curtailed the greatness of Dickie Thon.
But this ugly tradition continues through the generations, on and on, with too few stepping in and acting like grownups.
If you want some real insight into the absurdity of how the "old school" views Thursday’s events, consider this: Sanchez was criticized by other players for the punches that he threw at defenseless opponents -- Cabrera and Castellanos. But according to the "unwritten rules," the pitchers who threw retaliation fastballs at defenseless hitters -- under the guise of "protecting teammates" -- are deemed to have handled it the right way.
As Mark Teixeira said on Michael Kay's show Thursday, baseball’s tolerance of this seems to go one step further than other professional sports. Maybe only another beanball death or prominent maiming will force the players to collectively evolve beyond their old-school thinking.