Tradition and history are among the more endearing traits of baseball. “The National Pastime” has been around since before the Civil War, and the game has had very few rule changes since its inception. The stability and routine of the sport is a major reason millions of fans flock to ballparks every year.
Outside of the traditions of the game are the unwritten rules. There’s a protocol and strategy that surrounds the game, which fans have grown to accept and even appreciate. Examples of such baseball laws include not bunting when a power hitter is on deck, never stealing a base when your team in comfortably ahead, and using your closer primarily for save situations. These methods have generally served baseball well over its long history, and players have adhered to them, for the most part, with obedience and respect.
But there have also been sophomoric and nonsensical customs that serve as a black eye on the sport, and have no place in the game.
One was on full display last week when Los Angeles Dodgers’ star rookie Yasiel Puig nearly got hit with a fastball to the face from Arizona Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy, which eventually led to a benches-clearing brawl between the two clubs. It was an example of a team going after the new star on the block, to have him pay his dues in a game which is filled with players who have spent years in the farm system. Multiple fines and suspensions were handed down for the incident, with the Dodgers publicly stating that the feud is not over.
This is unfortunately how baseball works, and it has been this way for as long as one can remember. A hot-hitting newcomer is humbled by the possibility of his face being smashed by an object moving at over 90 miles per hour as some sort of rite of passage or initiation. In a fraternity, a pledge may have to wear a silly outfit for a day, or spend an afternoon doing tiresome household chores. In baseball, your face or wrist can be shattered by a fastball, which can put your career, and a potential lucrative contract, in jeopardy.
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In limited appearances, Puig is already deemed as a potential superstar. The 22-year-old Cuban defector has posted big numbers from his start in L.A., and after just a short stint in the minors. The circumstances behind Puig’s beaning are strikingly similar to the one Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper took in 2012 when he was hit by a 93 mile-per-hour fastball from Philadelphia Phillies starter Cole Hamels. Like Harper, Puig became a rich young man before his first major league at-bat. Harper signed a five-year contract worth $9.9 million, including a $6.25 million signing bonus, while Puig received a seven-year, $42 million deal.
Harper’s plunking was inevitable, as opponents went after the hot prospect who barely spent time in the minors. In a commentary from Tim Keown of ESPN.com, a scout had told the reporter in Harper’s second game, “I wouldn’t be surprised if [Harper] gets drilled a couple of times, just to see how he reacts.”
What Kennedy and Hamels did should not be categorized as hazing. Such actions are just plain stupid and potentially devastating to the batter. Kennedy and Hamels are not the first pitchers to intentional hit a batter, but Puig’s beaning should be the last time this happens. Such pitchers are acting within “The Code” – a misguided set of player guidelines for a sport in which punishments are shrugged off until the next retaliation. Kennedy received a 10-game suspension, and will end up only missing just one start.
It wasn't all an initiation. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks have a history of beaning one another dating back to Dodgers' ace Clayton Kershaw plunking Gerardo Parra in 2011. The following season, Kennedy would throw at Kershaw. Whatever the reason for any intentional bean ball, it has gone on for too long and needs to stop. Major League Baseball must say "enough is enough."
Ending this trend is simple. Baseball can hand down far harsher fines and suspensions for such actions. Will pitchers think twice about beaning a hitter if it means facing a 30-game suspension and a $200,000 fine? Absolutely.
It’s a win for player safety, and a win for fans who get to see the best talent on the field. It also ends the “brawls” that ensue, where players rush out of their dugouts with great bravado merely to make weak attempts at showing they’re tough by shoving and yelling.
The chances of baseball imposing much stricter penalties are slim. For better or for worse, baseball is stuck in the past. The commissioner’s office will continue to accept the possibility of a batter’s career being endangered than take an easy step to eliminate an antiquated and dangerous code.