For those of you who don’t follow NFL news, and why would you since baseball is clearly vastly superior in every way, the New Orleans Saints just got in a whole bunch of trouble for instituting a bounty system in which players were paid for intentionally injuring opposing players. The NFL commissioner punished the Saints harshly, fining them heavily, stripping draft picks, suspending their head coach for an entire year and former defensive coordinator indefinitely. Hammer dropped.
So why should you, Joe or Jill Baseball Fan care? Because MLB has its own rich history of players intentionally trying to injure opposing players, specifically, pitchers deliberately throwing at batters.
To the old school fan, intentionally hitting someone is “part of the game” and considered to be the appropriate retaliation for a player who violated one of the many unwritten rules of the game. It is also highly dangerous, but that doesn’t matter to some because, wait for it, that’s just the way things have always been done in baseball.
When a pitcher hits a guy on purpose (or even just tries to), he gets suspended. For a starting pitcher, it is almost always six days and maybe three days for a reliever. Managers typically get punished as well with a one or two-day suspension, as well they should since in some cases it is the manager ordering the batter to be hit (cough, cough… Ozzie Guillen… cough). A few days is a decidedly lesser punishment than an entire year, multiple draft picks and several hundred thousand dollars.
Comparing the two punishment standards, it would be easy to say that MLB is soft on crime, so to speak. In fact, I think I pretty much just said it although that may not be fair. In baseball’s defense, football is a far more violent sport in which players have ample opportunity to do significant damage. Last time I checked, it is nearly impossible to shred a guy’s ACL or snap his femur with a well placed fastball. Concussions from beanballs though are a very real threat both to a players immediate and long-term health and all that takes is one 95 MPH heater in the earhole from a peeved pitcher. It could also be argued that most pitchers aren’t actually trying to hurt anyone but rather to just “send a message.” In a screwed up sense of decorum, most pitchers aim for the buttocks or thighs of a batter when intentionally hitting them. I guess that counts for something.
Should any of that really be counted as mitigating factors though? At the end of the day the pitcher is trying to purposely inflict pain on and risk major injury to an opposing batter. Invoke all the moral politics you like, that is an awfully hard act to condone. That’s not to say that Major League Baseball condones such acts, but their current standard for punishment doesn’t do anything to deter such behavior either.
However, greatly increasing the punishment isn’t without its own problems. In many of these cases, the intent of a pitcher is inferred and assumed, unlike the Saints case in which there was a mountain of evidence that there was an coordinated monetary reward system. The last thing baseball wants to do is make the punishment so severe that pitchers are scared to pitch inside out of fear that they might accidentally hit a batter and end up getting suspended for an extended period of time because an umpire misinterpreted the pitcher’s actions.
Providing a deterrent to dangerous behavior while not negatively impacting the game is a tough tightrope to walk, so I don’t envy MLB one bit here. Fortunately, Bud Selig and his cronies haven’t had to deal with anything nearly as reviling as a cash-for-injuries program that would merit them really going after a player or team, instead, they are mostly responding to players and managers that lost their temper. While that is definitely a lesser degree of malice and intent, that doesn’t mean baseball shouldn’t use this opportunity to look themselves in the mirror and wonder if they are doing enough to protect their players from each other. Getting out in front of the problem and announcing a stepped up level of discipline for any and all plays that intentionally put other players at risk would be a rare showing of proactive foresight that MLB could be lauded for.