Retaliation

Baseball 2020: When Fighting Words Should No Longer Matter, But Still Somehow Do

Let’s start by noting that the pitch that precipitated Sunday’s mess did not hit Ramon Laureano intentionally. It was a 77-mph, full-count curveball from Humberto Castellanos, a 22-year-old pitching in his third big league inning, in only his eighth appearance above Single-A.

Then again, Laureano had already been hit in the game … by Brandon Bailey, a 25-year-old (who the A’s traded to Houston straight up for Ramon Laureano!) making his fourth big league appearance after jumping directly from Double-A.

Then again again, Laureano was also drilled in the first game of the series on Friday … also by Castellanos, back in his second-ever major league game. This one was a fastball, but at 88 mph, it was the slowest of the four that the right-hander threw during the at-bat. Also, the game was tied 1-1 in the 12th inning and, with runners already at first and second, it loaded the bases with one out.

So it’s safe to say that Ramon Laureano was not being targeted by the Astros over the weekend. It’s also safe to say that, when a player gets dotted three times over the course of a series—and his team five times, without a whiff of retaliation—regardless of intention, he’s entitled to be annoyed. And Laureano was. After the last incident, he chirped at Castellanos (strangely, it looked like he was showing the pitcher how to release a curveball), but it never appeared that he seriously considered charging the mound. Once Laureano reached first base, it seemed as if the game would proceed apace.

That’s the build-up.

The real issue was Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, who stood on the lip of the first-base dugout and, once Laureano had taken his base, lit into him. Instigation by a coach is particularly weak, especially with manager Dusty Baker—who’d been ejected an inning earlier for arguing balls and strikes—not being around to control it. What Cintron said has not yet been revealed, but it was enough to draw the baserunner’s attention. When Cintron took a challenge step toward the field, Laureano charged.

Before we get into the real issue here, let’s say for the record that charging an opponent near his own dugout is never a good idea, no matter who’s doing the charging. The attacker is wildly outnumbered, and, with baseball fights being group affairs, his chances to so much as land a blow are minimal.

But we’re playing in a time of pandemic, when Major League Baseball has expressly forbidden this kind of thing. From the 2020 operations manual: “Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action.”

So of course we had a scrum. Astros catcher (and former Athletic) Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano before he ever reached Cintron, and members of both teams ended up milling about, nose to nose, as ballplayers do. A’s catcher Austin Allen briefly scrapped with Houston catcher Martin Maldonado. Laureano and Allen were ejected.

It’s another instance of high-profile athletes willfully ignoring their civic and personal responsibilities. On one hand, if the A’s and Astros want to keep playing baseball, they should do all they can to insure that COVID never reaches their clubhouses. Yesterday’s dustup was the opposite of that. We’ve already asked once this season whether love of baseball will be able to outstrip some of its athletes’ baser competitive instincts, then asked it again only one day later when Joe Kelly taunted these selfsame Astros into another confrontation. Do we love baseball enough? The answer is still unclear.

Beyond that, there’s the example that these athletes are setting for the rest of us. If a few angry words are worth the potential cost of sparking a 50-person scrum, what does that say to the public at large about the importance of safety? Cintron acted like a meat-headed moron, and Laureano should have known better than to take the bait.

The message from all of these men, intentional or not, is that machismo trumps common sense. It’s short-sighted and stupid. Nobody is innocent here.

MLB has been doing its part, suspending Kelly for eight games—more than 13 percent of the truncated season—for his idiotic behavior two weeks back. Similar penalties are in line for yesterday’s participants.

Baseball fights are traditionally free-range affairs, rarely coming to anything serious, specifically because so many players end up involved that it’s difficult to get any actual fighting done. Maybe there was some benefit to that, pre-COVID, but no more. For the first time ever, we need our ballplayers to be more than baseball-smart. We need them to be actual-smart. The big picture is no longer about a game or a series or even a season. It’s about helping to show that we’re all in this together and are doing what we can to help the common cause.

Be better, baseball.

Update 8/11: MLB decided that as the instigator, Cintron would be suspended for 20 games, or one-third of the truncated season. It’s the longest suspension for on-field behavior in 15 years, and the longest for a coach or manager since Pete Rose was shelved for 30 games after shoving an umpire in 1988. Laureano was docked six games for his actions. Both decisions seem about right.

4 thoughts on “Baseball 2020: When Fighting Words Should No Longer Matter, But Still Somehow Do

  1. Thanks Jason for stating what should be obvious. I just want to enjoy the game without these stupid antics. vr, Brian

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, Russ. Any time a player or team aptly handles confrontation from a distance, it’s a win. Nice job, Rays.

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