x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

When the boys of summer turn cold

There was some requisite jawing back and forth during the Dodgers' clash with the Brewers, but it seemed like nothing more than a few hot words. The real trouble began when the game ended.

It began as an exchange of hostilities and very nearly resulted in an ugly incident. Last week, on the wrong end of a one-sided blow out against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers' Chris Smith hit Manny Ramirez with a pitch in the seventh inning. Predictably, the Dodgers retaliated in the top of the ninth by plunking the Brewers' slugger Prince Fielder.

The pitch hit Fielder on the leg, and while there was some requisite jawing back and forth between the involved parties, it seemed like nothing more than a few hot words. The real trouble began when the game ended. Fielder left the Brewers' clubhouse in a rage and headed down the hall in an effort to exact some up-close and personal revenge against Mota. Trailed by teammates intent on intercepting him and blocked by security guards outside the Dodgers' clubhouse, Fielder reluctantly abandoned his mission.

Days later, Mota and Fielder were fined but not suspended. Ordinarily, players find a way to settle differences on the field. Throwing at hitters has been an undeniable part of baseball for decades, a way for players to gain a bit of frontier justice. Spend too much time admiring a home run? Expect a fastball in the rib cage in your next trip to the plate. Score a bunch of runs in a lopsided game, as the Dodgers did? Then get ready for one of your big hitters to get dusted in retaliation - as happened with Fielder.

It used to happen with greater frequency when players policed themselves and was an accepted - if not exactly encouraged - part of the game. But the ready availability of video highlights turned each beanball war into part of the 24-hour news cycle and in turn, led to a stern response by baseball authorities, with tougher disciplinary penalties. Occasionally, the confrontations have led to off-field incidents. An exchange of hit batsman in a game between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2000 almost got out of hand when some Tampa Bay players waited in the parking lot to even the score with some members of the Red Sox.

And, ironically, Mota was the target of another furious victim of a hit-by-pitch in a spring training (!) exhibition game several seasons ago. It's difficult to say why these confrontations have become more commonplace. Perhaps in an era when the average salary tops US$2 million (Dh7.34m), players feel like they have more of a financial stake, and thus, more to lose in the event of a debilitating injury from a "stray" pitch.

It should be noted that while his intent was obvious, Mota dutifully followed baseball's code. The pitch was not up near Fielder's head, eliminating the potential for serious injury. But Fielder still took great offence. "I don't feel I overreacted, but I feel like my actions probably weren't the best," Fielder said. "I know there are better ways of handling it. I've learned from it. If I had it to do over again, I would have acted differently."

From the players' perspective, hitters and pitchers are only too happy to assign blame to the other party. Pitchers think hitters are too sensitive and are standing close to the plate to ensure pitchers can't throw inside. Hitters counter that pitchers are too willing to hit them, knowing that, in the American League at least, they won't have to come to the plate and face possible retribution - thanks to the presence of the designated hitter.

If baseball really wants to cut down on the number of beanballs and bench-clearing (or, Fielder's case, clubhouse-charging) brawls, perhaps MLB should ignore them altogether. Often, they're more tedious exercises than they're worth. And when players patrolled themselves, they seemed to happen with less frequency. smcadam@thenational.ae