Baseball’s “Culture” Once Again Rears Its Ugly Head

Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

You’re probably aware of this by now, but Jose Bautista got punched in the face yesterday.

The blow was the result of a hard slide into second base that attempted to break up a potential double play.  The slide would result in an out because of the new rules regarding interference at second base; however, the result of the slide would be what we’re talking about today and what we’ll be talking about for a long time.

The inning started with this pitch from Matt Bush that drilled Joey Bats squarely in the elbow.  The intentions of the pitch are debatable but you can see it for yourself here:

An Edwin Encarnacion fly out would be the first out of the inning. Jake Diekman subsequently entered the game and induced a ground ball to second from Justin Smoak.  And that’s when all hell broke loose.  (WARNING: video may be disturbing for some.)

Odor landed a right hook to Bautista’s face that would qualify as a knockout punch.  A full-blown donnybrook broke out, and Bautista, Odor, and Josh Donaldson were ejected after the fight.  It was a legitimate brawl; far from the usual baseball “fight” that consists of players running in from the bullpen and both dugouts only to stand around and yell at each other.

After the fight in the top of the 8th, Jays reliever Jesse Chavez thought it an intelligent idea to plunk Rangers DH Prince Fielder in the back to start the next half-inning.  It wasn’t.  Both benches cleared again and Chavez was ejected.  The Rangers ultimately won the game, 7-6. Nobody cared.

With all of this having occurred, one would think that the reaction to the fight would be negative.  One man punching another in the face is not generally well-received; just ask LeGarrette Blount.

Instead, some of the headlines and reaction were comparatively positive.  These are just a couple of the reactions to yesterday’s scuffle:

Deadspin: Blue Jays Call Rangers “Gutless” And “Cowardly” After Excellent Brawl

CBS Sports: WATCH: A montage of best right-handed punches in history of MLB fights

That reaction is real; people (even some involved in baseball) really think that throwing punches is cool.  In any other civilized setting, this action would be denounced as boorish and unethical behavior. In hockey, it’s called Tuesday, but fighting isn’t right in that sport, either. That being said, at least hockey players have some protection in the form of their helmets and the fight is at least somewhat controlled, often only involving one-on-one combat.  It doesn’t justify fighting, but it does explain why hockey continues to allow it, even as findings regarding concussions and brain injuries suggest that it should be banned.

That being said, how can baseball legislate its fighting problem?  It won’t be easy and it can’t be done by the umpires on the field.  It can be done on Park Avenue, by Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball.

One way to start would be to hand out major, major suspensions for this ridiculous brawl.  The MLB record for the longest suspension after a fight is 10; that record is jointly held by Michael Barrett, Ian Kennedy, Mike Sweeney, Miguel Batista, and Runelvys Hernandez. They were all suspended for some pretty wild actions, but it’s difficult not to argue that Odor’s right hook belongs up there with those fights as the most violent in baseball history.

This is another reason why there needs to be severe punishment for those involved in the fight: baseball needs a culture shock.  It needs to realize that fighting fire (or lesser things) with fire isn’t the right thing to do, that retaliation and violence are not avenues to deal with conflict over the course of a game.  Giving massive suspensions to Odor and others for their roles, even if they are unprecedented, can go a long way in changing baseball’s “eye-for-an-eye” culture.

But baseball must do even more to prevent fights like this from happening in the future.  One way the sport can stop the problem from growing is to educate its players on the dangers of violence and the serious harm that their actions can cause others.  Yes, players still will instinctually turn to brawling to deal with issues that arise, but if they are properly educated on the cons of these fights rather than the pros, the game will be far better for it.

And we can’t forget the elephant in the room: Jose Bautista’s actions in last year’s playoffs.  In a winner-take-all ALDS game 5 between these same two teams, Bautista launched a 7th-inning bomb to put the Blue Jays ahead to stay and into the ALCS.  Merely seconds after he made contact, Bautista launched quite possibly the most memorable bat flip throw in MLB history:

Some predictably took affront to Bautista’s actions, saying that he went over the top in his reaction to his home run.  For me, it’s very difficult to take issue with what Bautista did; it was the biggest home run of his life.  If you were him in that moment, you would celebrate too.  We need to stop having issues with bat flips and embrace them as a way of expressing the pure joy of this wonderful game; if we do this, we can make baseball fun again.

Finally, the last issue with baseball’s old school culture is that it is self-righteous and ignores the past actions of certain players if they play the game “the right way”.  For example, Odor has pulled plenty of dirty slides over the past year, as Padres pitcher Brandon Morrow points out:

And that’s not all when it comes to the second baseman.  In 2011, Odor was playing for the Spokane Indians of the Northwest League. On a play eerily similar to the one on Sunday, Odor slid well past second base.  After running in awfully close proximity to the Vancouver Canadians’ second baseman, a big fight like Sunday’s broke out, leaving Odor to fight the entire Vancouver team on his own:

So it’s only fitting that Odor was involved in the biggest MLB brawl in recent memory.

Baseball needs a change of culture, and it needs one soon.  The sport needs to relax its harsh critiques of bat flips, flamboyance, and harmless emotion so it can refocus its gaze on the very dangerous violence that sometimes exists between the white lines. Unfortunately, it may take a serious injury in one of these conflicts to make the sport change its ways.

However, baseball should change before we get to that point.