The Corner


Baseball Justice Means Being the Bigger Man

My colleague Mark Wright appears to have forgotten the wisdom of the age-old axiom, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” In fact, he seems to want to subvert that piece of advice and instead allow the world to operate under a definition of fairness that goes something like, “Two wrongs always make a right, and the second wrong is true justice.”

Some context. As Mark noted, the Washington Nationals–San Francisco Giants game on Monday night descended into a bench-clearing brawl after Giants relief pitcher Hunter Strickland hit Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper in the hip with a pitch.

Rather than taking his base, Harper proceeded to charge the mound, chuck his helmet — some say Harper intended to toss his helmet to the side; to me it looks much more like he was aiming the helmet right at Strickland but missed — and punch Strickland in the face, several times.

If that’s not a massive overreaction, I don’t know what is. But don’t misunderstand me — Strickland was clearly wrong to throw at Harper in the first place.

Strickland’s pitch into Harper’s hip was prompted not by a recent incident in which the outfielder picked a fight but by the 2014 NLDS playoff series, during which Harper hit not one, but two home runs off the Giants reliever. Considering that fact, Strickland was clearly in the wrong on Monday night. He deserves the six-game suspension he received from the MLB, and he should be disciplined by his team as well.

Some have argued that it’s “baseball justice” for Strickland to throw at Harper. Like Mark, I disagree with that assessment. If Harper had been “showboating” around the bases after his home runs or had tossed his bat and jumped in the air, I might be more sympathetic to this argument. As it was, Strickland was clearly angry about Harper showing him up and responded inappropriately by targeting the slugger the next time they faced off.

But here’s where that ancient, sage axiom comes into play: Two wrongs don’t make a right. Or, to put it a different way, the ends don’t justify the means.

While Strickland was certainly wrong — and the first wrong — Harper rejected the option of being the bigger man and instead descended to Strickland’s level. Strickland’s pitch was dirty, but Harper’s response was to hop into the mud and roll around.

I agree with Mark’s thesis that Harper was justified, but only in one sense. He had every right to be upset. But he chose the least effective way of making his case. If he truly believed Strickland was wrong, he would have a much stronger argument if he had chosen to cast a dirty look at the mound, maybe shake his head and, like an adult, take his base. Instead, he retaliated with brute force and earned himself a well-deserved four-game suspension.

Among the American sports, baseball is one of the most civilized, with complicated rules and its own intricate justice system, one that the players understand well. Harper could easily have taken first knowing with utmost certainty that Strickland would immediately be ejected from the game by the umpire and more than likely would be suspended and perhaps even fined by the MLB.

That is justice enough. Even better, it’s justice served without Harper dirtying his hands, outing himself as an over-emotional child who can’t remain in control, and garnering a suspension that will hurt his team. (It’s worth imagining, for a moment, what a classier player would have done. Does anyone think Derek Jeter would have charged the mound in this situation? Never. And that’s what separates revered players like Jeter from brawlers like Harper.)

If Mark’s interpretation of this fight and the “justice” of Harper’s attack is to be accepted, we’d have to embrace a society where, instead of going to jail and facing our well-established justice system, criminals are freely pummeled by the people they’ve harmed with no consequences. If, as Mark says, “sometimes you’ve got to fight when you’re a man,” then every man who has shot a gun at someone ought to be shot by his victim; every person who has been robbed is required by “justice” to take a baseball bat to the thief’s face.

But we live in a civilized society. Unlike the wilds of the Sahara Desert, we have a carefully established, flourishing justice system, one that, more often than not, ensures that the guilty pay and the innocent go free.

Baseball is the same way. It’s not like football, where each man takes justice into his own hands on every play, required to tackle anyone who hits him first. It’s a graceful sport, and one with its own unique code of conduct. Anyone who understands the game knows: Even if you’re justified in punching back, you choose to be the bigger man. You never charge the mound.

The best and most principled form of justice would’ve been for Harper to gracefully take first, steal second, steal third, score a run and, the next time he faced Strickland, hit the ball out of the park. Instead, he’ll be sitting on the bench. That’s justice.

Update: This post originally stated that Harper hit two home runs off Strickland in a 2014 NLCS game. The home runs were hit in two separate games of the 2014 NLDS.

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