VOL. 132 | NO. 110 | Friday, June 2, 2017
Baseball Brawl: It’s in the DNA Of Players, Part of Unwritten Rules
By Don Wade
Memphis Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp and his family were out to dinner the other night when the replay of the San Francisco Giants-Washington Nationals brawl flashed across the television screen.
San Francisco relief pitcher Hunter Strickland hit Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper in the hip with a 97-mph fastball during a game on Memorial Day, setting off a brawl. (© Valerie Shoaps/CSM via ZUMA Wire)
Now, Mrs. Clapp has been around baseball a long time. But when she saw an enraged Bryce Harper charging the mound after being hit in the hip with a baseball traveling more than 97 mph, the scene still didn’t compute.
“My wife said something along the lines of, `Well, why would he do something like that (and charge the mound)?’” Clapp said. “And I said, `There’s gotta be some history there.’”
There was. In the 2014 playoffs Harper took Hunter Strickland deep twice. And if Harper admired the first home run he hit off the Giants pitcher, he ogled the second one. In baseball parlance, Harper “pimped” it.
The Giants and Nationals met many times since then and no one seemed inclined to hit Harper with a baseball. But Strickland did not pitch to him again until Memorial Day 2017.
“Long time to hold a grudge,” Clapp said.
MLB took action by suspending Strickland for six games and Harper for four. Both players are appealing.
Yet even Nationals manager Dusty Baker, an old-school guy to be sure, conceded that baseball grudges don’t really have a normal lifespan.
“In baseball, you can carry grudges for a long time,” Baker said postgame. “I even have a couple that I’ve been carrying for years.”
There’s plenty to unpack in this Harper-Strickland situation, including Giants catcher Buster Posey doing a fine impersonation of the Willie McCovey statue at AT&T Park. Posey didn’t move when Harper started toward Strickland. Only once Harper had arrived at the mound did Posey budge from behind home plate.
Posey’s inaction has brought praise, ridicule and also just a nod of understanding (more on all of that in a moment).
This particular brawl, and all those that have come before, bring us back to yet another conversation about baseball’s so-called unwritten rules. So let’s explore with the help of Redbirds manager Clapp, who has a background as a hockey player and a baseball player, Memphis closer Sam Tuivailala and slugger Luke Voit.
SO, WHAT OF THESE “UNWRITTEN RULES?”
Clapp endorses them.
“That’s the way I was raised and I firmly believe in it,” he said.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to administer them, too. He says as long as he’s writing out the lineup here, no Redbirds pitcher will intentionally hit someone.
“I don’t like pitchers throwing at hitters,” Clapp said. “And when I got hit, I didn’t want my pitcher to chase someone down. I knew how to take care of it myself. I never charged the mound, but I knew how to play the game hard and send my own message. The second base bag is a good place to take care of a message.”
Said Tuivailala: “It’s a tricky situation. We have to pitch inside. It’s part of the game.”
He says a hitter has never charged him on the mound.
“I’ve hit guys before, but I’ve never had a guy come out,” he said. “I’m not one of those pitchers head-hunting. I was trying to pitch inside. And if one gets away, it’s obviously not a good thing because we’re putting a guy on base.”
Said Voit: “You will get old-school coaches who will throw at guys, especially if you show them up or their guy hits one of our better players. Or sliding into second and taking a guy out, but now that’s a different rule, too. You can’t take a guy out at home plate anymore. So it’s changed for sure, but there are still unwritten rules – you hit my guy, I’ll hit your guy type of thing.”
Voit is having a strong season, hitting over .300 with power. He’s the Redbirds’ No. 3 hitter, more or less the Bryce Harper of this particular Triple-A team.
Now in his fifth professional season, Voit said he has been hit intentionally “a handful of times. Like earlier this year I think I got hit on purpose.”
But he didn’t get mad and he expected the pitcher would want to get even.
“I hit a home run pretty far and I kind of pimped it, so I kind of deserved it,” he said of being drilled in the arm. “As long as it’s not in the head, I’m alright with it. It’s not gonna end your career getting hit in the arm or the back.”
Buster Posey was the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year. His 2011 season was ruined by injuries suffered in a nasty home plate collision. He returned in 2012 to win NL Most Valuable Player as the Giants won the World Series for the second time in three years.
So maybe he stood his ground while Harper charged Strickland because he wasn’t taking any chances, at age 30, of having his career torpedoed by a couple of hotheads.
Or maybe Strickland didn’t have buy-in on what he did or had told Posey what he was going to do and he’d handle whatever happened. Or maybe Posey just doesn’t like Strickland.
But once things morphed into a full-blown brawl, a lot of people were at risk. Harper’s errant helmet throw did no damage, except for what he himself suffered via social media. He did land a punch, but Strickland did, too.
Once the benches and bullpens emptied, the most notable collision came when Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija left the dugout and arrived like a missile with Harper as the intended target. But Samardzija instead collided with teammate Michael Morse, who if wearing a flannel shirt could be mistaken for a noted American lumberjack.
“I’ve seen guys come in from bullpens and just cold-cock guys from the blind side,” Clapp said. “You don’t get that in hockey. It’s a man’s fight on the rink. And it usually only lasts about 30 to 45 seconds and you’re exhausted afterwards.”
Said Tuivailala: “We have on spikes. It takes one bad leg to kick out” for somebody to get hurt.
When pitcher Johnny Cueto was with Cincinnati, he kicked Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue in the head during a brawl. Cueto received a seven-game suspension. LaRue retired at the end of the season, citing a concussion suffered during the incident.
“Kinda messed him up,” Voit said.
Voit says Posey’s refusal to intervene may speak to how he felt about Strickland, but that as a first baseman – and Voit goes a solid 6-3 and 225 – he’s not letting anyone get to his pitcher.
“I’d be the first one over there,” he said. “Bring back my football days.”
For Clapp’s part, he believes the theatrics can be avoided if guys will just keep a rein on their emotions and the desire to celebrate at a competitor’s expense.
Years ago when Clapp played for the Redbirds, there was an epic brawl with Albuquerque.
“That particular brawl was started by a pitcher dancing off the mound when he was striking us out,” Clapp said. “Pimping goes both ways. It was very flamboyant. When one of our guys hit a home run, he pimped it back. It’s respect for the game and the guys you’re competing against.
“You don’t need some donkey embarrassing you more with all the shooting arrows and all that stuff or a guy tossing a bat up in the air 15 feet. It’s ridiculous. Play the game, put your head down and run. Strike the guy out, come off the mound and go shake hands with your buddies in the dugout.”
Good advice not likely to be followed in all situations. Men will be men playing a boy’s game and occasionally they will get caught up in the moment – even if it is almost three years in the making.
The unwritten rules have survived a long time for a reason. They will continue to survive for the same reason.
“Too much testosterone,” Voit said.