Baseball appeared to be coming apart at the seams last week with an ugly outbreak of violence. Bench-clearing brawls marred two games on the same day as hit batsmen charged the mound in attempts to get even.
In Anaheim, California pitcher Bruce Kison saw Johnny Grubb and Buddy Bell of Texas converge on him in separate flareups, while in Philadelphia, Phillies' pitcher Kevin Saucier was paid an unnannounced visit by Pittsburgh hurler Bert Blyleven in the second fight of that contest.
Anyone who caught the TV replays of these free-for-alls probably wondered if the game had gone haywire.Actually, says Blake Cullen, the National League's director of public relations, baseball has been defusing its most explosive weapon -- the knockdown pitch -- in recent years.
In 1977, before umpires were given greater authority in stifling beanball wars, National League arbiters issued 30 warnings to pitchers about their dangerous deliveries. The number of warnings dropped dramatically to 17 the next year, however, when a warning carried with it a $100 fine, and any further transgressions were punishable by ejection of the pitcher, who was sometimes followed by his manager.
New York Mets' skipper Joe Torre got the heave-ho, an important indication that the beefed-up rule was to be taken seriously.
This season the trend toward fewer melees appears to be in jeopardy. A total of nine donnybrooks have broken out in the American and National leagues.
Batters seem to be taking the law into their own hands, rushing to the mound rather than having their own pitchers seek retaliation at some later point. Observers have speculated that, as far as the American League is concerned, this could stem from that circuit's use of "designated hitters." The "DH" takes the pitcher's place in the batting order, therefore, sparing a pitcher who's been throwing inside from facing the same type of intimidation when his team bats.
Another crackdown on knockdown pitches may be in order. A more substantial fine, perhaps in the $500 range, and automatic suspensions are being contemplated, Cullen says. "Let's face it," he adds, "a $100 fine doesn't mean much to a guy who's making a couple hundred thousand dollars."
Baseball fights occur for any number of reasons, but as retired umpire Tom Gorman has written in his autobiography, "Three and Two," "When there is a fight on the field, 90 percent of the time it's because of a beanball or knockdown pitch."
What distinguishes these pitches from simply wild deliveries is their timing. "After two home runs in a row, you can usually expect the next batter to go down ," says Cullen.
Essentially, then, "chin music" is produced when a pitcher wants to show the opposition who's boss. Once a batter is hit, a vicious cycle of brushbacks and so-called purpose pitchers can follow.
"The pitchers aren't always to blame," Gorman observers. "They're goaded into retaliation by their manager and teammates. If an opposing pitcher knocks down one of his teammates, a player expects his pitcher to get even and knock down the other pitcher, or one of the opposition players. It's part of the baseball code."
Because of the eye-for-an-eye undertow that can pull uninvolved players into these exchanges, both benches are warned simultaneously anytime the umpire detects foul play. According to rule 8.02(d), after warning a pitcher and his bench, the ump must "warn the opposing manager that such an infraction by his pitcher shall result in that pitcher's expulsion."
Fortunately, many pitchers refuse to enter into retaliatory situations. Ferguson Jenkins, who recently notched his 250th career win hurling for Texas, is known as a pacifist, as were Hall of Famers Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, and Walter Johnson during their playing days.
Others have been less bashful. San Maglie of the New York Giants, for example, was nicknamed "The Barber" because of the close shaves he administered. And Don Drysdale, a Dodger sidearmer turned sportscaster, has said, "When I was pitching, I had an automatic thing. It was two for one. One of our guys, two of theirs."
There is, of course, a hard-to-discern line between the more accepted brushback and the despicable beanball. The first is meant to establish the pitcher's right to the inside of home plate, which is 17 inches wide; the latter is meant to hit and frighten its human target. (Cullen estimates there are only two "head- hunters" in the majors presently.)
The brushback pitch can look every bit as intimidating at the knockdown, particularly to the batter who's crowding the plate. Thus when he's hit, the temptation can be to settle scores first and ask questions later.
But as Bob Gibson, former great of the St. Louis Cardinals once explained: "The brushback is just a fastball inside. The intent is to move back a hitter who crowds the plate and looks for a breaking pitch on the outside."