The dumbest tradition in sports is the one we watched play out between the hours of 9:45 p.m. Wednesday and 1:15 p.m. Thursday afternoon. For half a night and half a day, the public sphere morphed from a place where baseball teams are chided for employing domestic abusers to a place where they are mirthfully encouraged to resolve their conflicts by hurling a projectile at another human being.
“Will there be fireworks?” Phillies play-by-play man Tom McCarthy asked on Thursday afternoon as the broadcast’s synthesized theme music announced the start of another game.
It was a question that a majority of viewers had been wondering aloud since the sixth inning of the previous night, when Cardinals pitcher Génesis Cabrera hit Bryce Harper in the face with a ghastly 97-mph fastball. As the clip of the incident went viral, countless otherwise self-respecting adults found themselves unable to contain their inner high school cafeteria lunchtable. Some noted with urgency that the following day’s game would be the Phillies’ last chance to avenge their teammate. Others noted with concern that ace Aaron Nola would need to be the one to expose himself to ejection.
Whatever the circumstances, the most important pitch of the game would be the one that is best served cold. Harper may have escaped without major injury, and Cabrera may have apologized profusely, but a deed had been done. All that was left was the reckoning.
This is baseball’s code, and it has been from the beginning, to the extent that the Supreme Court of California once noted in a ruling that, “For better or worse, being intentionally thrown at is a fundamental part and inherent risk of the sport of baseball.” The problem is that far too many of us act as if it is for the better.
To be clear, I use the word “us” for a reason. Ten years ago, when I was reporting on baseball full-time, I would have read something like this and laughed myself out of the room. It’s like anything, I suppose. The further you remove yourself from the emotional day-to-day of an environment, the sillier its silly parts can seem.
I know you don’t come to the sports pages to get scolded, so don’t mistake the tone. I don’t feel passionately about it. I understand why a lot of people view payback pitches a sacrosanct part of the game. Sports exist in large part as a constructive outlet for a civilized society’s inescapable primal urges. Like fighting in hockey, there is something helplessly endearing about the notion of a world where a person or group of people remain in charge of defending their own honor. If Alexander Hamilton had the option of throwing a baseball at Aaron Burr, maybe history would be different.
At the same time, you don’t hear a heck of a lot of clamoring from today’s youth for a return to the golden ages of dueling and stoning. I understand the logic that holds these sorts of checks and balances to be necessary. But you’d be hard-pressed to find an instance when an eye-for-an-eye left us with a better world to see. There aren’t a lot of universal truths one can apply to societies, but one of them is that the kids tend to end up all right if you expose them to less violence.
And let’s be honest. Violence is exactly what many of us tuned into Thursday’s game hoping to see. Even as I sit here objectively concluding that payback pitches are stupid, there’s a little glimmer of something inside of me that wouldn’t mind if it happened. At the same time, those little glimmers grant us our greatest power as humans. We’re the only species that can subject them to reason, and, thus, we’re the only species that can hope to escape them.
Again, I understand if you aren’t interested in consuming your entertainment within a rigid ethical framework. At the end of the day, anybody who steps between the chalk lines is a willing participant who understands the game’s unwritten rules, which means it isn’t barbarism to be entertained by it. As the Supreme Court of California noted, the game is the game.
Still, we can make the game better, and this would be a good place to start. As we increasingly expect our athletes and organizations to reflect the virtues of our society, does it really make sense to encourage on-the-field behavior that contains vestiges of the impulses that we condemn?
As is always the case in these situations, the onus rests first on the institution. Baseball has taken steps to reduce its frontier justice, but the sixth inning on Wednesday night showed that it has a longer way to go. As Joe Girardi noted passionately on the field and in the postgame interview room, Cabrera should have been ejected after hitting his second batter with a pitch.
“If a guy hits a guy in the face and a guy in the ribs with two pitches, he’s got to go,” Girardi said. “If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go just for the safety of the players.”
He’s right. Hit two batters in the body with a fastball, and you should get an automatic ejection. Hitting even one above the neck should warrant a boot, too. If baseball really wants to protect its players, it should tack on a one-game suspension.
Whatever the case, a purpose pitch isn’t the kind of thing that is made in the name of safety. Baseball’s code is ingrained that we were left to wonder about the Hector Neris fastball that hit Nolan Arenado in the ninth inning of a tie game. If Neris did it on purpose, it only speaks to the absurdity of the tradition.
If we didn’t have to wonder, the sport would be better off for it.