Culture

Harper-Strickland Brawl

I’m mostly with David on this one. And I’m especially grateful for the Robin Ventura/Nolan Ryan clip. Ryan was a beast – a freak of nature who could still throw over 100 mph into his 40s. Ventura, who was a terrific player and a good guy, tells hilarious story about realizing, on about the third or fourth stride while “charging” the mound, that this might not be a great idea (you can see that his charge slows down about halfway to Ryan, who proceeds to beat his brains in).

As is always the case with the Nanny State, MLB makes things worse when it intercedes pro-actively in these things. The rule they imposed on throwing at hitters (when in the umpire’s judgment it is done intentionally) actually incentivizes a pitcher to throw at the hitter. When a pitch is deemed intentional in this regard, the ump issues a warning to both benches that the next such pitch will result in the ejection of the pitcher who throws it and his manager. Naturally, then, a pitcher’s motive is to be the first one to throw at a hitter – i.e., draw the warning rather than the ejection. This is especially so if the opposing pitcher likes to throw inside. A completely innocent pitch that merely brushes the hitter back (an absolutely essential part of pitching) could result in ejection. And it is not unusual for umpires, in this litigious age of ostentatious concern about player safety, to issue warnings when they make no sense. (If a hitter is plunked with an off-speed pitch, or on a 0-2 count with two runners on base in a tie game, no one who knows baseball could possibly think that intentional).

Every now and then there is going to be a brawl, which is the case in all competitive athletics. But it is better to let the players handle the matter under the unwritten codes that have existed forever. I part company with David in that I don’t have a problem with Harper’s being suspended (4 games, reduced to 3 in exchange for his dropping his appeal). To me, it’s akin to bumping an umpire. The umpire may have been a total jerk and, in the heat of the moment, have provoked the guy he’s arguing with to get too close. But there are some lines that cannot be crossed, no matter how bad the provocation, and the prohibition on physical contact with the umps/refs is one of them. (Exception To Every Rule: The Mets’ great defensive catcher in the 60s, Jerry Grote, at least once got back at an umpire who was absurdly squeezing his pitcher by calling for a high fastball and then being a little “slow” in getting his glove up to catch it, so ump was zinged on the mask. I confess I got a kick out of that.) So, while I think Harper was within the bounds of baseball propriety to charge the mound, brawling is to be discouraged so he had to be suspended briefly.

I agree with commentators who argue that Strickland should have been suspended longer than six games. He is the main culprit. Besides comparative fault, there is comparative value. Strickland is an above-average relief pitcher. (Admittedly, to this Met fan, an above-average reliever seems like Sandy Koufax these days.) Harper is the Nats’ best player and one of the best in the game: a fixture in the line-up and a very good outfielder. A 6-game suspension for Strickland is not enough because Harper’s team is hurt much worse by not having him for 3 games.

That said, and much as I admire how hard he plays every day, Harper can be a jackass in the way he shows up pitchers when he hits long home runs (though, to be fair, it has seemed to me that he does this less than he did when he was younger). In baseball before the ESPN-era, and especially in the era of great pitching in the 60s and 70s, a hitter wouldn’t dare stand in the batter’s box to admire home runs – he would automatically be hit the next time up (unless the game situation didn’t allow for it – in which case it would be the next time). Here of course, this was not Harper’s next time up, it was three years later. That’s too much water under the bridge, so not much mitigation for Strickland. I would have suspended Strickland for 4 games for every 1 game of Harper’s suspension. That would better reflect the equities of the situation.

Last thing, about the ESPN-era and its role (as much leader as follower) in the coarsening of the culture. I’m much less concerned about brawls that occur over the boys-will-be-boys stuff that has always happened in competitive athletics than the brawls that occur because the athletes are reared to be rude, crude and self-absorbed – in many ways, the opposite of what team sports should teach a kid. Between the collapse of manners, all the money they make, and social media, there may not be any reversing this trend. Small point but a telling one: Nothing makes me sadder than to watch celebrations after a goal at my son’s hockey games. Hockey is the ultimate team sport, and goals are celebrated by the teammates coming together and hugging on the ice because scoring is comparatively rare and, usually, the result of thrilling teamwork. Now, though, more and more, the kid who scores does the me-first celebration: He skates away from his teammates and celebrates himself … even though the guy who scores is often the player least responsible for the goal.

Seems that a lot of the bad stuff that happens in sports these days is caused by this kind of me, me, me: mugging for the camera; trash talk; idiotic “I’ve conquered you” celebrations over a sack in the 1st quarter, a strikeout in the 4th inning, a 3-point shot in a 20-point blowout. What kids are imbibing runs counter to the notion that competition is humbling: a test of your limits, of your awareness that you’re not as good as you look when it’s going well or as bad as when the wheels come off, and of your understanding that it’s only satisfying if the other guy is going through the same test. But as they say, “This is SportsCenter.”

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