Retaliation: Manning Up or Sophomoric Silliness?

The discussion started during the series with the White Sox.

Sox pitcher Sergio Santos threw a pitch “high and tight”, causing Twins hitter JJ Hardy to have to react quickly to avoid taking the pitch in the helmet. Later, Delmon Young went after Sox catcher AJ Pierzynski with both forearms extended in the general vicinity of AJ’s face on a play at the plate. Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson suggested Young needed to experience a “Rawlings in the earhole” as a result of the play. The rest of the series, however, was relatively uneventful as no further extracurricular activity took place between the two teams (though I would say there were a couple of clearly “hard and late” slides in to second base by Sox runners).

This week in Texas, the discussion continues. Immediately after a coaching visit to the mound Tuesday night, Twins  hitter Jim Thome took a Neftali Feliz fast ball to the leg, with light-hitting Matt Tolbert in the on-deck circle.

Comments from the Sox and Twins clubhouses after each of these events avoided direct accusations. But is that because the teams are giving their opponents the benefit of the doubt… or are players and managers just wising up to the reality that the quickest way to draw a fine from MLB is to speak openly about possible retaliation?

Few topics draw opinions as polarizing as the issue of what a team (and specifically, its pitchers) should do when they feel opponents have intentionally hit (or even thrown at) one of their batters.

There are generally two schools of thought on the issue. The “old school” philosophy is pretty simple, really. You need to protect your team mates. If you think someone is targeting your guys, someone needs to step up and make it clear there will be consequences for that kind of thing. The folks at BleacherReport.com did a pretty good job of expressing this point of view in this article last season.

On the other side of the spectrum are the pacifists who argue that intentionally trying to hit or injure another player, even if it’s in retaliation for similar attempts by an opponent, is at best childish, silly and counter-productive, and at worst extremely dangerous. Fanhouse columnist Jay Mariotti wrote this piece last season, strongly arguing this side of the debate. (I should add, however, that given Mr. Mariotti most recently made the news by being arrested and jailed on a felony domestic violence charge, perhaps he’s not the most credible source to cite in making the case for controlling tempers and concern over inflicting serious injuries on others.)

A lot of hitters wear enough body armor to feel right at home at King Arthur’s Roundtable and that allows them to crowd the plate and get much better coverage of the outside corner. Pitchers are entitled to throw inside and, in fact, those who can’t/won’t/don’t do so regularly have little chance of prolonged success in baseball. And since throwing a baseball 90+ MPH is not an exact science, throwing inside means sometimes you’re going to hit a batter. That’s an acknowledged part of the game, which is why there’s a rule awarding 1B to a hitter struck by a pitch.

I think there may be a couple of things we can all agree on. First, not every HBP calls for retaliation. Most HBPs come in situations and circumstances where there clearly is no intent on the part of the pitcher to hit the batter. Maybe it’s a close game or maybe it’s a lousy hitter with a good hitter on deck or maybe it’s just a hitter who has a reputation for intentionally “taking one for the team”. In these situations, any form of retaliation is simply not called for and a hitter who gets all bent out of shape in those situations needs to just chill and take his base.

Likewise, I think we can also all agree that it is never OK to throw a pitch with the intent to hit a batter in the head. This goes beyond anything that could even arguably be considered appropriate retaliation as it truly has not only the potential to cause life/career ending injury, but a high likelihood of doing so if the pitch makes the intended contact. There’s no place for that sort of thing in any sport at any level.

But what about those situations where you and your team mates are pretty damn sure your opponents are using your hitters for target practice? What about those hitters who crowd the plate and as a result, they are rattling the opposite field wall with one extra-base hit after another? What about the players who are, shall we say, “overly aggressive” on the base paths and are barreling hard in to your fielders?

I readily admit that I fall in to the “old school” camp. (I was a pitcher in my playing days and I distinctly remember the first time I hit a batter intentionally. I was 14… and he was far from the last guy I intentionally plunked in the butt.) I suspect most men who played organized baseball growing up 30-40 years ago probably join me there. Is it a “guy thing”? Is it generational?

Are there other, better, more civilized ways of policing this kind of thing? Should players just trust Bud Selig and MLB to police the sport and hand out appropriate punishment?

I expect the Twins to retaliate for the pitch that struck Jim Thome on Tuesday. It may or may not be tonight. It may or may not be through the expected method of a Ranger hitter getting hit or knocked down by a Twins pitcher. The Twins are in a pennant race and teams in that situation are smart enough to realize they can’t risk an important player getting suspended. But there will be a message delivered at some point. Ballplayers have long memories (and on this subject, Delmon Young probably should stay loose in the batters box during the upcoming trip to The Cell in Chicago, too.)

But let’s hear what you think. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. – JC

6 thoughts on “Retaliation: Manning Up or Sophomoric Silliness?

  1. It’s OK as long as you don’t aim for the head?? I don’t buy it. Serious injuries can occur elsewhere on the body as well. Are we supposed to believe that pitchers have such pinpoint control that they can zero in on a “safe” area to plunk? A couple of inches lower, that pitch to Thome could have broken his kneecap.
    It’s not a “guy thing” or a “generational thing”. It’s an ill-advised, immature, wrong thing.

  2. That’s a fair perspective, millie, and thanks for sharing it. If, as many believe, Feliz threw intentionally at Thome for no better reason than to get to Tolbert, then I’m with you 100%. It was dangerous and wrong.

    But now, let’s assume that’s exactly what Feliz did. If the Twins take the high road and let it go without any form of retaliation, then what disincentive is there for Feliz to decide to do the exact same thing if a similar situation comes up tonight?

    If the Twins don’t send a message that intentionally throwing at Jim Thome will not be tolerated and, as a result, he gets thrown at AGAIN and this time the damage done is more serious… then was the Twins’ pacifism in part responsible for that injury?

    I just don’t think it’s as simple as, “it’s never OK.”

  3. I’m generally in the pacifist camp (no surprise), but I have fewer problems with the occasional “plunk on the butt” than I do with the current system of warnings where the ump takes away the inside pitch for the rest of the game.

    Most of the scariest HBP that I’ve seen (Sosa hit in the head, various other folks hit in the head) have seemed to be accidents by pitchers who were having trouble finding the strike zone before it happened . . . . I’d like to believe no one would intentionally aim at a guy’s head, but maybe I’m being naive??

  4. I highly recommend reading “The Baseball Codes—Beanballs, Sign Stealing, & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime” by Jason Turbow. It discusses this very subject. The Code does permit intentionally hitting a batter as retaliation for a violation of the unwritten rules, and strictly forbids “headhunting,” i.e. aiming for the hitter’s head.

    If the Twins think that Thome was intentionally hit by a pitch, they can certainly turn around and try to hit someone like Vladimir Guerrero or Josh Hamilton. Likewise, Matt Thornton could try and send a pitch into Delmon Young’s left kidney as retaliation for him plowing into AJ Pierzynski last week.

  5. I’m generally in the “old school” camp. Mostly because I feel this is the way baseball is set up to operate. Although going for someone’s head should never be allowed. It’s so amazingly dangerous.

    But if we don’t retaliate when we feel our guys are being targeted, other teams are going to continue to push the issue because they think they can. Warnings from umps are generally a.) ineffective and b.) temporary. After that game or series, the ump is different and no longer watching for specific things. And there are many ways the opposing team can find to get to our guys. So I think it’s important that we protect our players. We don’t need to be harmful about it, aiming for the head or knees should never be okay, but we do need to make sure that other teams don’t run roughshod over our guys.

  6. a) it’s somewhat short-sighted to believe that the only way teams retaliate is with a plunking. Recent events with our own team proves that things happen on the bases and at home plate that don’t involve the pitcher. And I think most of those alternatives are even more dangers.

    b) these guys are a team and aren’t robots so they are going to react. I don’t believe in meaningless violence – and I don’t believe in STARTING anything. I also don’t believe we should just take the bait, hook, line & sinker, if another team tries to egg us on. I think there is a point where it’s pushed way too far and our management does a very good job of being grownups for the most part. Gardy’s “showtime” is used to advantage almost always – he goes out there and does whatever ‘expressing’ is necessary so the guys don’t feel the need to take matters into their own hands.

    c) there is a lot to be said for the unwritten rules including that there is an excepted formula and a way to do it that all players understand. When they break those unwritten rules, there are consequences that go way beyond what we as fans see or understand. And Shannon, yes, I am pretty sure that book is one KL is reading to do a review here sometime. It sounds really interesting!