Monday, July 18, 2005

In Baseball, The Only Things That Should Be Cleared Are Fences, Not Benches

If you can find the original two combatants, you're better than me

Can you imagine watching a hockey game -- you remember hockey, don’t you? -- and seeing two guys fight for the puck in the corner, and then suddenly they’re fighting each other, and then, as a matter of practice, all skaters from both benches empty to join the fray? Or how about basketball? A couple of sharp elbows are thrown, and in a flash all 24 players from both teams are dancing on the court? Of course not.

Then why, oh why, is it allowed in baseball?

Watching the Tigers and Royals get it on today on the tube, it occurred to me, as it always does when I see such shenanigans, that this business of EVERYONE leaving the dugouts and bullpens as soon as two players even look at each other cross-eyed is a bag of pine tar.

By now you probably know the scenario from Sunday’s Royals-Tigers tilt: Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen gets drilled in the head by Royals starter Runelvys Hernandez -- the third Tigers hit batsman of the day by Runelvys -- and isn’t too pleased about it. No problem there. I wouldn’t expect Guillen to be too warm and fuzzy about such an occurrence. So as Carlos jaws with Hernandez on the way to first base, the Royals pitcher makes a questionable gesture and Guillen takes exception. Fine. So far it’s still between the two principle characters, along with a catcher and an umpire to help keep things under control.

But then, on cue, because this is baseball and this is accepted, everyone in uniform rushes to the scene. Because not all of the rushers are good-intentioned, this is the equivalent of a gang rumble, except instead of in an alley at night, it’s on the ballfield in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. But again, baseball accepts such rumbles as routine, matter-of-course stuff.

Like I said, most rumblers are well-intentioned, but folks shouldn’t be shocked to know that tempers can flare up in these volatile situations. So, somewhat predictably, the dispute between Hernandez and Guillen splits, like an amoeba, into other pieces. One of those other pieces was Tigers reliever Kyle Farnsworth, a bull of a man, rushing toward Royals reliever Jeremy Affeldt and cactus-jacking him to the turf in a move that would make most pro wrestlers proud -- shoulder forward, lift-and-slam by the legs. It was a moment that caused the Comerica Park patrons to "oooh" and "ahhh", and Affeldt wasn’t hurt, but it was absolutely unnecessary and foolish.

Countless players have been injured in bench-clearing brawls, and more often than not they were guys not involved at all in the original fracas. Why baseball allows these donnybrooks to happen without stiff, and I mean stiff penalties, is beyond me. And the sad thing is, it’s a very simple thing to legislate: anyone who leaves their dugout, or bullpen, is immediately ejected and suspended for three games, or more, at the league’s discretion. Simple as that. No ifs, ands or buts about it -- just like shoplifting.

This isn’t a sexy viewpoint, I know, because bench-clearing skirmishes make for good SportsCenter highlights and fans find them fascinating for the most part. Tough cookies. There is simply no reason a dispute between two players -- and let’s face it, they almost all start with two guys, that’s it -- should warrant 48 other players and a dozen coaches running onto the field. Let’s not forget, there are four umpires, folks. Those aren’t good odds. And how many times have coaches and managers gotten involved in one of the sub-skirmishes? If they go out there, they should at least be peacekeepers, helping the umpires restore order. Instead, they start jawing and shoving and pointing fingers, and before you know it you have two middle-aged goofballs threatening to go at it.

I just don’t see the good that can come out of these bench-clearers. It’s not like 48 policemen are running to the scene of a crime; you might have 40 policemen but eight more hooligans. Yet I hardly hear anyone other than myself questioning this bizarre practice. Am I the only one who sees this is crazy and without just cause?

If you have a counterpoint, I’m dying to hear it. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is, indeed, ample reason for 50 players and 12 coaches to be on the field because two guys have some words for each other. But I have thought about this for what is probably too long, and I fail to see it.

By the way, a lasting image for me from Sunday’s dance was Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, who only happens to be perhaps their most important young player for goodness sakes, being restrained by coach Kirk Gibson. Bondy’s cap was askew, his jersey was tore open, and his facial expression looked like that of one of those combatants from the TV show "Cops" who is being held at bay by a police officer. Now, what if Bonderman had managed to do something really ill-advised before Gibby could get to him, and he either got hurt or suspended for any length of time?

I wonder if the fans at Comerica would have "ooohed" or "ahhed" or simply "ewwwed".

Food for thought, don’t ya think?


Jillian Beane said...

Although situations like that can be amusing to watch for the fans, it is also a very dangerous situation. I work in security for a baseball team and I have seen how easily fights on the field can spill over into the stands. Working for the team I do, the ONLY ecitement we see is when there is an issue and the coach leaves the bench, but it is never far behind that we are dealing with a major problem in the stands. Believe me I know where you are coming from and I agree wholeheartedly

Ian C. said...

"it’s a very simple thing to legislate: anyone who leaves their dugout, or bullpen, is immediately ejected and suspended for three games, or more, at the league’s discretion. Simple as that."

Greg, you said it exactly. You have to do it like the NBA. Leave the bench and you're getting penalized. That's the only punishment with teeth. If you leave it up to the players, they'll jump in every time because they don't want to lose the respect of their teammates.

I WILL say, however, that I rarely think a player is justified in charging the mound. Guillen was justified, because Hernandez intentionally threw at his head. A total punk move. Hernandez was mad at Guillen for claiming he was hit on the previous pitch.

Having said that - let Guillen and Hernandez jaw at each other, and then let the umpires break it up and restore order.

Greg Eno said...

Ian --

Thanks for the input, as usual...when I saw that you quoted me, I thought it was to disagree!



Anonymous said...

Greg, the thing is unlike other sports..the number of people on the field isn't cut in half.

You said Carlos had a reason to be mad, which is true. So lets say he runs out to throw down with Hernandez. You're still OK with that right? Well the thing is one guy has 8 teammates surrounding him and able to get in on the action, while the other dude is all by himself.

Of course in a perfect world those guys wouldn't take sides and would just be men, get between them and break it up. But what would you say if 2 or 3 Royals run over and pounce on Carlos, leaving him helpless. In my opinion, that is the reasoning for the bench clearing. Just levels the playing field.


Mark said...

Maybe I'm alone in this, but I was just kind of impressed that an actual action was taken once the benches had cleared. How many teams have we seen the benches clear and absolutely nothing happen but young and middle-aged men running a distance (I find the bullpen occupants the funniest) and standing around watching, looking like idiots.

However, that said, I agree with you that baseball should implement a set suspension for leaving the bench, as hockey has for a player leaving the bench (I believe it's 10 games).