Quick Question: Can Baseball Stop Retaliation?

Aug 21, 2013
Originally published on October 3, 2013 10:37 am

Could Major League Baseball abolish retaliation if it chose to?

A recent Protojournalist Instant Conversation, Baseball Danger, addressed the perils of a Major League Baseball pitcher hurling hard balls at a batter in retaliation for some action – a stolen base, a home run, etc. It has long been accepted behavior.

Since the post appeared, the centerpiece of the article, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, was hit twice by pitches. One hit the All-Star outfielder so hard that he was forced to sit out most of a game because of bruising. And other players, including controversial New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, have been hit by rocket balls as well.

"You can't start throwing at people," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said following the Sunday night plunking of Rodriguez — and he reiterated key points again on Tuesday — according to USA Today. "People have had concussions; lives are changed by getting hit by pitches. ...

"That baseball is a weapon. It's not a tennis ball. It's not an incredi-ball that's soft. It's a weapon, and it can do a lot of damage to someone's life, and that's why I was so upset about it. You can express your opinion and be upset with someone, but you just can't start throwing baseballs at people. It's scary."

Which leads to the question:

Could Major League Baseball abolish retaliation if it chose to?

The problem, says Jason Turbow, author of The Baseball Codes — a book and blog about the unwritten rules of the game — is that it means MLB "would have to begin legislating intent with a heavy hand — a tricky proposition under any circumstance. Batters are hit unintentionally all the time by balls that slip from pitchers' hands. Asking an umpire to discern what went on in the pitcher's mind prior to that point is fair neither to him nor the pitcher."

Turbow says that umpires can sense bad blood between players or teams, "but guilty pitchers are trained to lie, and without admission there's no way to prove anything."

When it comes to the most egregious examples of hitting players with hard balls — those at head level — MLB has already cracked down, Turbow says. "Prior to the 2001 season, the league issued a directive to umpires encouraging immediate ejection for a pitcher who places a ball above a hitter's shoulders. The memo, sent by then-Executive Vice President Sandy Alderson, instructed umpires to "be mindful that, given the skill level of most Major League pitchers, a pitch that is thrown at the head of a hitter more likely than not was thrown there intentionally.'"

Umpires have responded accordingly, Turbow says.

So the bottom line — or baseline — is that the ugly and painful practice of retaliation is likely to remain part of America's pastime. Unless something really scary happens.

The Protojournalist: A sandbox for reportorial innovation. @NPRtpj

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