Ubaldo Jimenez and Troy Tulowitzki engaged in a war of words over the winter. When the former teammates met on a baseball field in the last week of spring training, the war of words escalated. Jimenez pitched inside to Tulowitzki, hitting him on the elbow with a 90+ miles per hour fastball. Tulowitzki charged the mound. Jimenez came forward to challenge him. Benches cleared. When order was restored, Jimenez was on the mound and Tulowitzki was at the hospital getting x-rays. The umpires made no ejections and issued no warnings.
After the game, Rockies manager Jim Tracy called Jimenez “gutless.” Jimenez said he did not intend to hit Tulowitzki. The Commissioner’s Office apparently disagreed, overruled the umpires and suspended Jimenez for five games, the equivalent of one start.
Change the names of the players. Change the teams involved. Change the circumstances leading to the beaning. It’s all about retaliation, a ritual as enmeshed in the fabric of baseball as stealing signs and never bunting to break up a no-hit bid. The Baseball Codes: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime, as baseball writer Jason Turbow called them in his best-selling book and on his on-going blog.
There’s a big difference, of course, between stealing signs and intentionally hurling a baseball more than 90 miles per hour at a player standing 60 feet, 6 inches away. The former may give the sign-stealing team an advantage in a game. The latter may seriously injure the batter, cutting short his season or his career. The danger is real and the practice needs to stop.
Ballplayers shouldn’t be permitted to do on a baseball field what could get them arrested if done on the street outside the ballpark. Throwing a baseball at someone at high speed with the intent to harm them is, at a minimum, assault and battery. It doesn’t matter if the person hit by the ball did something to anger the person who threw the ball, other than to provide a motive.
Moreover, it makes no sense for baseball to put their most expensive assets at risk. With utility guys making millions and superstars making hundreds of millions — all in guaranteed contracts — teams should be doing more to protect the health and safety of their players.
Other professional sports are slowly moving in that direction.
The NBA in the 1970s was a fighting sport, with players often throwing punches at each other on the court. The most famous punch, of course, was by Kermit Washington on Rudy Tomjanovich, causing Tomjanovich massive face and head injuries. But it took the NBA more than ten years to take serious measures against fighting.
The league instituted new rules in the 1990s prohibiting flagrant fouls and establishing a scaled system of punishment. A flagrant-1 foul is “unnecessary contact by a player against an opponent.” A flagrant-2 foul is “unnecessary and excessive contact.” Two flagrant-1 fouls in a game results in the player’s ejection. A player also accumulates points for each flagrant foul: one point for a flagrant-1; two points for a flagrant-2. A player with four or more points who commits a flagrant-2 foul is automatically suspended for two games. As of 2010, only one player had been suspended during the regular season for too many flagrant fouls. Noting that fights and flagrant fouls are way down, the NBA says the rules work as a deterrent.
Football, the ultimate contact sport, also has taken steps in recent years to protect players from the most damaging hits. Before 2010, the NFL usually just fined players for “devastating hits” and “head shots.” As the frequency of the hits and the severity of the resulting injuries increased, the NFL started suspending players for one, sometimes two, games. In a sixteen-game season, two games is 12.5 percent of the schedule.
Professional hockey’s been the slowest to change, as fighting is an integral part of the game in North America. But things are beginning to change at the amateur level, as concussions, and our understanding of them, have significantly increased. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, which oversee minor hockey leagues throughout North America, are considering an outright ban on fighting in order to protect the health and safety of their young players. If the ban takes shape, and how the NHL reacts to it, remains to be seen.
On a day when Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended for making allegedly inappropriate comments about Cuban leader Fidel Castro, I look back with some irony at Guillen’s behavior that, in my view, was much more damaging to baseball. In 2006, when Guillen was managing the White Sox, he banished a young pitcher to the minor leagues because he failed to properly retaliate after Texas Rangers’ pitchers twice plunked Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. “I don’t want to any of our hitters to get hurt, and I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Guillen told reporters after the game. The first part was undoubtedly true; the second part most certainly was not.
Yes, pitching up and in has always been part of baseball and it would be impossible, if not unwise, to try to outlaw it. But purposeful retaliation, which has the effect if not the intent, of seriously harming the batter, has no place in the game. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult to separate purposeful retaliation from unintentional inside pitching or a pitch that just got away. But that’s not a reason to do nothing, while the health and safety of players remains at risk.
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