by Paul West
Earlier this week, another self-appointed defender of baseball’s so-called unwritten rules risked the livelihoods of multiple fellow players with a reckless act. With the first pitch of the game, the Miami Marlins‘ Jose Urena threw a fastball directly at the lower back of Atlanta Braves‘ rookie Ronald Acuna, Jr., who had homered in five straight games. Acuna’s arm reflexively jutted back to protect himself, and the ball hit his elbow, causing the benches to empty and Acuna to miss that game and the next. X-Rays came back negative, and further tests will be done to make sure the elbow is fine; but, incredibly, there are still people who suggest that Urena did nothing wrong.
Countering this ‘old school’ viewpoint are people such as Todd Zeile–a former Major Leaguer, it should be noted–who opined, during a broadcast, that Urena’s act was, as others have pointed out, cowardly. Unless a batter is considered within their rights to return fire with the instrument of force at their disposal–namely, the bat, which hopefully few would advocate–then weaponizing a fastball because the batter is too good at their job is using your positional advantage to risk the health and livelihood of a batter who did you no physical harm.
Moreover, given the ‘beanball war’ mentality which persists in (thankfully dwindling) circles of the baseball world, Urena’s act put his teammates at risk of injury–in a subsequent melee, or via subsequent retaliation with weaponized baseballs. Or, as Zeile opined, “risking your teammates because you’re getting lit up.”
There are those who, mysteriously, posit the importance of commanding the inner half of the plate as somehow related to the deliberate attempt to injure an opponent; hitters ‘diving over the outer half’ and ‘not being afraid anymore’ is somehow seen as a major cause of an uptick in offense. To this, I pose a rhetorical question: isn’t it possible to pitch inside, command both edges of the plate, and create uncertainty in a batter without deliberately taking their health and livelihood into your hands? Of course, one may claim that a batter is never more uncertain or off-balance than when they fear being drilled by a fastball; and, of course, this is true. Football players used to pose a similar argument when defending WWF-style tackling tactics: if you make a receiver or ballcarrier fear for their life, they’re a) less likely to cross the middle b) more likely to fumble c) more likely to ‘hear footsteps’ and drop a pass. Football outlawed these tactics nonetheless, medical revelations made it apparent that player safety outweighed the importance of on-field intimidation. Lastly, there are proponents of ‘the right way’ to throw at a batter, namely, anywhere below the shoulders. This argument is refuted by the very example of Urena, whose elbow could have easily been broken–if not shattered–by a fastball aimed at the middle of his body. Moreover, what if the ball had missed his elbow and fractured a vertebra? Would a ‘message pitch’ have been worth it?
The ‘defenders of the code’ believe that players are thrown at because they ‘showed up the pitcher’ or otherwise dishonored the game. To this, I say that I do believe some batters are over the top and disrespectful while celebrating their successes. But a) Acuna did not generally fit this description; b) pitchers often fist-pump and celebrate excessively after a strikeout or inning-ending double play, and are not subject to being thrown at in response; c) the so-called ‘unwritten rules’ often seem selectively applied among the greater pool of MLB hitters; and d) this still doesn’t warrant throwing a dangerous projectile at a vulnerable hitter.
The reaction of Urena’s catcher, JT Realmuto, was telling; Realmuto seemed exasperated at the pitch, and didn’t bother to step in front of or attempt to restrain Acuna as so often happens. Maybe he recalled the wise, albeit widely mocked, reaction of previously concussed Buster Posey when Hunter Strickland decided to play on-field tough guy; or maybe he recalled the fate of Michael Morse, who was concussed during the subsequent melee “You see Mike Morse, is about as big as they come,” Posey later said, “and he was getting knocked around like a pinball. So…be a little dangerous to get in there sometimes.” Morse went on the disabled list after the game.
Tony Conigliario was hit in the eye with a pitch in 1967, and due to the resulting impairment of vision, his career was never the same. Dickie Thon was never the same after an infamous, though accidental, 1984 beaning. Don Zimmer wound up with plates in his head due to a beanball, and most tragically, Ray Chapman was killed by a beanball. Numerous players have had their careers altered by pitches which damaged their wrists or elbows, and players have torn or sprained knee ligaments in fights which followed a pitcher’s act of cowardice. One would hope if wouldn’t take another death for baseball to revisit this method of enforcing its outdated notions of honor; but then again, the aforementioned Posey had to be grievously injured before knocking catchers into next week was reexamined.
In sports, as in other arenas, orthodoxy is often the refuge of simplistic, less-than-nimble minds. Baseball’s outdated orthodoxies are gradually falling by the wayside; and if a pitcher doesn’t like a batter’s celebrations, maybe they should just get more outs.