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Keith Strudler: Pulling Punches

Weather permitting, today my 7 year old son Elliot will have his debut performance on the pitching mound in Little League Baseball. I’m not exactly sure what to expect, other than what I expect when I watch any baseball game of 7 and 8 year olds – a lot walks and dropped fly balls. He practiced pitching quite a bit yesterday – and by quite a bit, I mean like 15 minutes – and is pretty excited to have the spotlight. So excited he’s decided to skip today’s soccer game to play baseball instead, which, if you’re current on youth sports, is not a typical decision.

Given Elliot’s inexperience, coupled with the excitement of this inaugural moment, I fully expect some erratic movement on his pitches. That means the ball could go anywhere, hopefully including over the plate. It also means he may inadvertently hit a batter. Now at this age, that’s not so bad. The pitches aren’t very hard – to be honest, you can pretty much always get out the way if you want to. But regardless, it’s very clear there’s no ill intent. In other words, no 7 year old pitcher is trying to hit a batter, at least none that I’ve seen. And in all fairness, I don’t think most of them could hit the batter on purpose if they tried. So, even if Elliot hits someone during the game today, I wouldn’t expect any animus, or certainly any fighting or suspensions.

Such was not the case for outfielder Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals nor San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland. On Monday, Strickland hit Harper on the hip with a 98 mile fastball. Allegedly, the was in response to Harper hitting two home runs off Strickland in the 2014 playoffs, and perhaps showboating too much in the afterglow. That’s correct, nearly three years ago, Harper hurt Strickland’s feelings, and now, some three years later, he’s decided to exact revenge by nailing him in the hip with a fastball. If nothing else, you have to credit Strickland for his persistence in holding a grudge.

Harper didn’t have such admiration. In response, he rushed the mound, started swinging, and precipited a bench-clearing brawl. No one was seriously hurt, other than Harper’s hip, but it’s the kind of violent melee that makes managers and agents hold their breath.

In response, Major League Baseball has suspended Harper four games and Strickland six. There’s also a fine attached. These penalties are neither unusually high nor low. So even as both appeal, I think they’re both probably accepting, if not happy about the ruling.

I am not shy about my own feelings about pitchers hitting batters as some archaic part of the game. I think it’s ridiculous, stupid, offensive, and, in case anyone cares, very dangerous. I also don’t like hockey fights and bench clearing brawls in pretty much any sport. I tend to enjoy professional sports because of its elite athleticism, not because it resembles a barroom scene in a Clint Eastwood movie. So when I see pro athletes devolve into a bunch of cavemen, I find it hard to watch.

There are many who disagree my perspective. In fact, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta thought it was awesome and said it’s great to see pitcher and catcher meet up at the mound instead of just bickering and talking trash at each other. By his calculus, it’s better to let them punch it out a few seconds, then break it up quickly, and get on with it.

On its face, there is some logic to Arrieta’s take. It’s probably better to resolve your differences than to hold a grudge. That’s what a marriage counselor would say – and trust me, I know. But I don’t know many therapists that would advise throwing a solid projectile at your partner’s back side. Or punching it out for a few seconds before getting pulled apart. Most of us would call that criminal behavior which could lead to arrest. And furthermore, you certainly wouldn’t want kids to watch that. If they did, we’d all call CPS, right?

So that’s why I can’t agree with Jake Arrieta, and why I’m probably one of the few that thinks Major League Baseball’s penalty was too light. I understand that sports like baseball are governed by rules and norms. But those norms shouldn’t exist outside the larger frame of society at large. If we asked any other subculture to police itself as we allow baseball, you’d call it crazy. Yet in baseball, it’s part of the game – even if it warrants week on the bench. It’s a gladiatorial spectacle that, to be honest, is simply beneath us. Or at least should be.

That sounds naïve to many of you, I’m sure. It’s like peaceniks that want to cure the world with kindness. I get that the world’s a nasty place, and force is at times a necessary evil. I just don’t think that inherently includes the baseball field, where we are simply playing a game – a place to escape from the real world and its inherent vices.

That’s why I’d severely punish bean balls and bench clearing brawls. Why I think pitchers should hit batters. Unless of course we’re talking about Elliot’s game this afternoon, where it may be unintentional, but perhaps unavoidable.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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