EITHER VINCE McMahon has seized control of the National League East, or we are so far through the looking glass that life has begun to imitate sports marketing. Good luck picking the saner of the two options.
All day Monday, the phone lines at the local radio stations lit up like the 1970s as callers from across the Delaware Valley waited their turn to live vicariously through Cole Hamels. The previous night, the Phillies lefty cemented his status as a "true" Philadelphia athlete by tattooing Nationals rookie Bryce Harper's lower back with a 93-mph fastball, thus providing a much-needed diversion on an otherwise blase Monday morning. That Hamels-Harper provided us with a day of great radio is likely to be its enduring legacy. Because any search for a deeper meaning will only result in a headache.
Sure, we could utilize this space to ridicule the day-after comments made by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, but that would mean ridiculing a man who sounded as if he were reading off a script prepared by a half-drunk marketing executive looking to milk one more news cycle out of the organization's Tupperware-transparent "Take Back the Park" campaign. Speaking to the Washington Post, Rizzo blasted Hamels as "fake tough" and said that his purpose pitch was the most "classless, gutless chicken[bleep] act" in his 30 years of baseball, a statement so outrageous that writing about its outrageousness feels like pandering. Any adult with a functional long-term memory can rattle off a litany of events that rank higher on the chicken(bleep)-o-meter, from Roberto Alomar spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck to Marge Schott's lament about the weather in the wake of umpire John McSherry's death on the field to Albert Belle leveling Fernando Vina on the basepaths. And that was just 1996.
We also could examine the propriety of baseball's code that says the hurling of a rock-hard object at another human being is acceptable in certain circumstances. But it is their sport, and it is their code, and as long as both hitter and pitcher are willing parties, it is difficult to work oneself into a lather over the policy. Is pegging somebody with a baseball the most mature way to express displeasure? Of course not. But professional sports are not the most mature way to make a living. Nor, for that matter, is writing about them.
From this vantage point, Hamels' handling of the situation and its aftermath registers as a poorly executed statement, a view also held by Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel, the latter of whom took umbrage only with his pitcher's decision to admit his intent to reporters after the game.
"He could have been a little bit more discreet about it, or a little less honest," Manuel said.
Amaro was a bit more politically correct, saying, "That's not what we're about," but he also acknowledged that part of his disappointment stemmed from Hamels' comments.
At the time of the transgression, which occurred with two out and the bases empty in the first inning of the Phillies' 9-3 victory over the Nationals, it was still possible to envision a scenario in which the whole thing might make sense. Maybe Hamels wanted to fire up his team, which had spent much of the first month of the baseball season engaged in an activity that somewhat, but not quite, resembled the act of hitting a baseball. Maybe he took exception to something Harper said or did during the first two games of the series. Maybe he was bored.
Whatever the reality, nobody expected Hamels to tread anywhere close to it after the game. For those of you who don't spend their weekday evenings hanging out in major league clubhouses, these things usually play out in the following manner:
REPORTER A: What happened on the pitch to Harper?
PITCHER: (patronizing eyebrow raise and shake of head) I don't know what happened. I just lost control.
REPORTER B: Were you trying to send a message of some sort?
PITCHER: I'll let you guys worry about messages.
Hamels took a more direct approach.
"I was trying to hit him," he said. "I'm not going to deny it. I'm not trying to injure the guy. They're probably not going to like me for it, but I'm not going to say I wasn't trying to do it."
But Hamels did not specify what message he was trying to send. After admitting his intent to hit Harper, he declined to specify when he made the decision to do so, thus concealing the only bit of information that might lend a lick of context to the situation.
Instead, all we get is Rizzo growling like a professional wrestler on a jumbo screen, Hamels serving a five-game suspension that won't even cost him a start, and a 19-year-old kid who paints his face like a Blackwater contractor acting with more restraint than any of them. The most impactful ramification might be the legitimization of a rivalry that until Sunday seemed to exist only in the imaginations of the unfortunate folks charged with selling tickets to Nationals games. Really, though, what we are witnessing is the quintessential melodrama for the new media age: just enough star power and vitriol to Twitter away the day without any threat of a substantive issue to examine and contemplate.
Follow on Twitter @HighCheese.
Read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.