Jose Urena’s first-pitch assassination attempt on Ronald Acuna’s elbow yesterday brought to the fore an interesting tension for traditionalist lovers of old-school baseball, those who beat the drum loudest for playing the game “the right way” while calling for a return to the approach employed by previous generations of ballplayers. These fans yearn for a return to the time before prohibitions against collisions, when men were allowed to play with unbridled ferocity and vigor. Back then, of course, pitchers were allowed to throw the ball wherever the hell they wanted, with scant repercussion. In bygone eras, what Urena did yesterday was downright mainstream.
Acuna is the game’s hottest hitter, homering eight times in eight games prior to yesterday, including five straight, while leading off three in a row against the Marlins with longballs. Urena didn’t give him the chance for a fourth, planting a 97.5-mph fastball—the fastest first pitch he’s thrown all year, and in the 99th percentile of the 2,125 pitches he’s thrown overall, in terms of velocity—into Acuna’s elbow. It was unmistakably intentional.
There used to be a notion about drilling a hitter who was having too much success. The prevailing wisdom held that if a guy was seeing the ball well, that meant he was comfortable. And if a pitcher wants to get a guy out, part of his job is to remove as much of that comfort as he can. Any attention paid to avoiding baseballs, of course, is not attention paid to hitting them.
That’s more or less what Urena said after the game, when he told reporters in a rambling monologue that he was just trying to move Acuna’s feet—to make him less comfortable.
It was hogwash, of course. Urena led the league last year with 14 hit batters. Acuna was his 11th of this season. But the pitcher’s strategy was rooted in history.
In 1954, Joe Adcock set a record with 18 total bases, including four home runs, in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. After he doubled again the next day, Clem Labine drilled him.
In 1969, Willie Stargell homered and singled in his first two at-bats against Bob Gibson, and was very intentionally drilled during his third. At least Gibson, probably the most notorious headhunter of the modern era, understood both sides of the dynamic. Once, when teammate Curt Flood demanded retaliation after Don Drysdale drilled him in the ribs, Gibson offered a simple response: “If you had eight hits in a row off me, roomie,” he said in a Newsday account, “I’d hit you, too.”
Hall of Famer Johnny Mize recalled getting hit in the head by pitchers Harry Gumbert and Harry Brecheen. “Were they throwing at me?” he speculated in the classic book, “Baseball When the Grass was Real.” “I don’t know. But one of them was a sinkerball pitcher; the other one was a control pitcher. And on each occasion I’d hit a home run the time before.”
During Don Baylor’s rookie year in 1972, he reached base in his first five at-bats against Andy Messersmith, including a double and a homer. In his sixth, Baylor told The New York Times, Messersmith “didn’t even look in to take a sign from the catcher. He just wound up and hit me in the back. As I’m walking to first, he calls over, “Well, don’t you think it’s about time?”
In 1987, after Andre Dawson hit three homers and a double in two games against the Padres, Eric Show hit him in the cheek with a pitch, requiring 24 stitches. (The teams ended up brawling, and Cubs rookie Greg Maddux responded by drilling Padres catcher Benito Santiago. After Maddux was ejected, his replacement, Scott Sanderson, threw three pitches at Tony Gwynn, missing each time. “Today was the first time in my life that I’ve been scared to go to the plate,” Gwynn said afterward, in the Chicago Sun-Times.)
After that game, Cubs manager Gene Michael typified the difference in attitude between baseball then and baseball now, saying, “Headhunting and drilling somebody are a big difference. When you risk careers and lives, it has no place in baseball.”
Those stories are fun, in part because they describe a game that is barely recognizable today. In the modern game, throwing at a hitter, even well below the shoulders, is always questionable. When the reason for it is as petty as Urena’s—Acuna was having too much success, so he had to go down—it’s downright unconscionable.
There are many reasons for this evolution, none more vital than the fact that, unlike in its heyday, baseball, lagging behind the NBA and NFL in youth demographics, is a sport that needs marketing. More than ever, MLB needs its young stars to do star-like things, and when one of the brightest of them, in the middle of the best run of his career, is senselessly cut down by a meathead pitcher, it diminishes the entire sport.
People who decry the sport’s unwritten rules as baseless and outdated fail to recognize that the Code shifts with the times—has always shifted with the times—and because something was once acceptable does not make it so today. For those like Keith Hernandez, who uttered the below inanity into a microphone that he knew was live …
… it’s time to realize that the sport you grew up playing is not the same sport that Major League Baseball is trying so carefully to cultivate today. Urena wasn’t playing by the modern version of the unwritten rules, he was playing against them.
There is simply no place in baseball for Jose Urena, or those like him. Suspension—real suspension, not some five-game nonsense under which Urena doesn’t even have to miss a start—is the best way to send a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. If Major League Baseball truly wants its players to recognize that times have changed in this regard, it has to start leading the charge.
Update (8-16): MLB has suspended Urena six games. Way to decidedly not make a stand, baseball.