Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On brawls and their place in baseball

Baseball is and always has been the gentleman in the room. The other sports are seen as violent and chaotic but baseball is viewed through a different lens; it’s orderly and neat, the players take their turns and good times are had all ’round. This shows through in a lot of the players and coaches who are said to have an ‘old school’ mentality. Brian McCann has famously had a problem with players showboating, which is a gentlemanly pursuit even if he goes about it in ways that are decidedly less gentle. Old school managers abhor disrespect to the game from their players and they are expected to conduct themselves with a certain professionalism on and off the field. The idealized ballplayer is expected to exude a certain humble stoicism; he shouldn’t celebrate his successes nor become visibly frustrated with his failures and he should willfully give 100% of his effort on every play regardless of the score or the team’s place in the standings. The managers who espouse these ideals tend to use words like ‘gritty’ to describe their ideal players; they’ll do what it takes to make the play or to get the hit. These are all fine ideals, and ones that undoubtedly can form the personality of a successful baseball player, and no one ever is trying to argue that anything I’ve written so far is bad. The problem with “old-school” baseball is that it’s not proving to be very gentlemanly at all. If anything, the directives of some managers seem to amount to two men kicking each other in the shins and ankles until a fight breaks out. Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers, of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, are both advocates of violence in the game, with Towers (the general manager) going so far as to say that any pitcher was not welcome on the team if he wasn’t willing to intentionally hit an opposing player with a pitch out of retaliation for a previous incident.

There have been three significant brawls between last season and the games played so far this year. The two 2013 incidents both involved the Los Angeles Dodgers and both involved Zack Greinke. In one of the fights, the coaches also came to blows, resulting in suspensions to Gibson and Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly. The other was against Bud Black‘s San Diego Padres squad, but it seems like the heavy lifting, responsibility wise, on that one rests pretty firmly with Carlos Quentin. Finally, suspensions were handed out Tuesday resulting from a tussle between Clint Hurdle‘s Pittsburgh Pirates and Ron Roenicke‘s Milwaukee Brewers that occurred on Easter Sunday. In all the fights, and all the ones preceding those ones, it’s obviously the player in the heat of the moment that makes the decision to start a fight (usually) by rushing the mound. It’s not as if the coach whispers in his ear or gives him a signal from the dugout when he wants him to charge the opposing pitcher and break his clavicle, but there is something to be said for Gibson and Mattingly’s teams appearing on this exclusive list. Both are well-known to encourage a ‘gritty’ and ‘old school’ style of play, and while the D’Backs are brazen about their beanball tactics, the Dodgers are no strangers to retaliatory pitches themselves. Last year’s fights were both caused by retaliatory pitches, and Sunday’s brawl was a result of anger over Carlos Gomez admiring another home run.

These attitudes are referred to as “old-school” for a reason. I’m not about to argue that it’s because they’re outdated (despite my opinions on the matter) but the fact is that these ideals were far more representative of both the playerbase and the fanbase as a whole about 30 years ago than they are today. There are still plenty of people who feel that way about the game, but they’ve ceased to be a majority. That most of these managers are aging athletes looking back through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia does little to help the matter, but baseball has evolved since then to include a far more diverse collection of attitudes and outlooks both in it’s players and it’s fans. As a result of this increasing interest in the game, MLB began to take in more and more money and this has had a trickle-down effect on player salaries. Players have always been an investment for a team, but the capital required to make that investment has grown exponentially.

Less importantly than the attitude toward eye-for-an-eye style violence, the gritty, hard-nosed competitive mindset makes for a riskier investment from the team’s perspective. Time missed for, say, breaking a collarbone in a fight, is still time missed and stats not accumulated; that has a very real effect on a Major League Baseball player’s earning potential. With the escalating cost that player injuries represent to the companies that are these teams, avoiding pointless injuries is of paramount concern. Teams are spending millions of dollars to try and find ways to prevent their pitchers from hurting themselves just by doing their jobs. No front office accountant is happy about the team’s honor when they’re paying a player’s salary and bills while they rehab an injury they got because some guy was swearing at them.

 I must, at this point, acknowledge the elephant in the room. Brawls are common to all sports and any team of competitive athletes would rush the field if they felt a member of their team was in danger like this demonstration during game 3 of the 2013 ALDS, for instance. In addition to instructing their players to attempt to seriously injure opposing players, it is also coach’s job to encourage the competitive fire in their players that made them all Major Leaguers to begin with. It’s a fine line that a field marshal must toe, trying to keep a room full of confident and energetic young men from crossing the line while simultaneously trying to force them to press themselves right up against the very same line with everything they’ve got. It’s no small mystery that the competitive atmosphere and the personalities of the athletes in question occasionally spill over into some heated altercations, but one of the manager’s actual duties is to “keep the players in line.” It’s one thing to say that managers cannot and will not succeed in taming the cocky swagger that has made Carlos Gomez so notable, but when Mattingly and Gibson are being suspended for getting off the bench and literally coming to blows it definitely raises a question about just what kind of mindset they are instilling in their charges.

I am not suggesting that any manager is encouraging their players to get into fights, and I acknowledge that the same heated confrontation that initially caused the altercation was what riled up Gibson and Mattingly to the degree they got to last year. These are men, after all, not feelingless robots exacting perfect strategy and congratulatory butt taps. However, it’s difficult not to draw the line directly from these massive brawls and the type of ‘gritty’, ‘hard-nosed’, ‘old-school’ baseball mentality espoused by most of the managers whose teams caused the biggest fuss. With the emphasis placed on beanballs and a disregard for one’s health by managers like Gibson, Mattingly and Hurdle, is it any small wonder that their clubs are the ones most teetering on the edge, that they are the teams that could no longer contain their rage and had it spill onto the field in a childish, babyman tantrum? Sunday’s donnybrook left one Buc, the pictured Travis Snider, with quite a shiner. It could have been much worse, Carlos Quentin’s outburst fractured Greinke’s collarbone, requiring a significant DL stint in his first season in Dodger blue. I understand that there’s a fire there, but when your boss has paid 150 million dollars for the services of a pitcher over a significant period of time, it is undoubtedly a manager’s job to do anything and everything possible to prevent that pitcher from being injured. I’m not suggesting that preventing these brawls in the moment is something any manager could be capable of, but perhaps fostering these kind of violent machinations beneath the surface of the game’s gentlemanly veneer is also allowing these kinds of violent rages to simmer until they’ve reached a boiling point that they just wouldn’t have otherwise.

In the end, this isn’t about Moneyball or Sabermetrics or Playing the Game the Right Way or when you should or shouldn’t bunt. This shouldn’t have to be “old-school” versus “new-school.” This is about being a decent human being, a good employee and a good role model for both other players and, more importantly, the millions of youth watching at home. This isn’t about WAR; this is about childish battles and role models should not let emotions get the better of them and punch people in the face on television.

Tags: Don Mattingly Kirk Gibson

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