Seventeen years ago today, Armando Benitez intentionally drilled Tino Martinez after the preceding batter, Bernie Williams, hit a dramatic three-run homer. The event was more noteworthy for the ensuing mayhem—the fight ended up spilling into a dugout and resulted in suspensions for five players—than for the deed itself.
The moment merits current notice for the fact that decriers of baseball’s unwritten rules—pundits like Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra—are using it to blame baseball’s Code for just how ludicrous this kind of behavior is. Referencing then AL President Gene Budig’s harsh words about Benitez when handing down the ensuing eight-game suspension for Benitez, Calcaterra wrote:
I do get the sense sometimes that no one inside the game thinks of throwing at guys as a bad thing in the sorts of terms Budig uses here. [Budig said, among other things, “The location of the pitch was extremely dangerous and could have seriously injured the player.”] It’s all thought of as self-policing and part of the game and stuff. Maybe the violence is reduced because people don’t want to risk player health, but the idea that sometimes, well, you gotta throw at someone still lingers. It’s an odd little thing.
The point that is consistently overlooked by people who disagree with these methods of play is that Benitez’s strike wasn’t a product of the Code, it was directly contravening it. The unwritten rules aren’t set up to give license to guys who want to indiscriminately drill opponents whenever the mood strikes them. To the contrary, they present a framework for dealing with that type of thing when it happens.
You can disagree with Hideki Irabu responding on the Yankees’ behalf by plunking both Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson the next day, but the truth is that not only did he do it correctly (below the shoulders), but those Orioles were then within their rights to subsequently tell Benitez to knock off his shenanigans, because he was putting his teammates in harm’s way. Irabu gave the Yankees closure, and at the same time proactively dealt with Benitez’s future actions. (That latter note is strictly theoretical. The incident in question was actually the second time Benitez drilled Martinez following a teammate’s homer—the first occurred in 1995, when Martinez was with the Mariners—which does not speak well to the pitcher’s ability to listen or absorb.)
I have no problem with people criticizing a culture in which ballplayers throw baseballs at each other in anger. Usually I agree with them. All I ask is for a reasonable assessment before laying down judgement. The system can certainly be the problem, but sometimes it’s just a rogue player within it. Take the time to examine the difference.