The Rules of Fight Club

Don Mattingly and Alan Trammell duked it out during the June 11 Diamondbacks-Dodgers game.

Don Mattingly and Alan Trammell duked it out during the June 11 Diamondbacks-Dodgers game.

LOS ANGELES — It’s nice to know that at least one baseball lifer rolls his eyes over the rituals that attend the sport’s fights — especially the bullpens and dugouts spilling onto the field.

Don Mattingly buys into a lot of the silly protocols of protection and retaliation from pitchers, but as he looked back on Tuesday’s brawl between his team and the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers manager delivered an amusing riff on the choreography of such showdowns.

“The bullpen’s out there in record time,” Mattingly said before Wednesday’s game. “Seriously. Our bullpen guys, you can’t even get them to move around in BP. They’re standing out there the whole time; they’re like a sewing circle. Then you get that [fight], and you see them and think: ‘How’d they get there so fast?’”

He believes that MLB will inevitably insist that players stay off the field unless they’re playing. “I’m sure the rules are going to change eventually. All the other sports, really, basketball, you can’t go on the court,” he said. “I’m sure [MLB officials] don’t want to see this.”

As they talked about the fight, many of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks kept parsing the unwritten code of their sport as carefully as Bill Clinton once quibbled over the meaning of the word “is.”

The Diamondbacks argued that they didn’t really object to Zack Greinke plunking their catcher, Miguel Montero, in response to an Ian Kennedy pitch that smacked the nose of super-rookie Yasiel Puig. What they disliked was the fact that it took four pitches, with varying degrees of menace, to get the job done. They thought the umpire should have warned Greinke after the first pitch nearly hit Montero, setting him up for an ejection when he actually got Montero on the back. Of course, the umpire probably should have issued a warning after Puig ended up on the ground, undergoing concussion tests as the Dodger Stadium crowd booed.

That’s how a more vigilant MLB would police the hazards of hit batters, without any wiggle room. Better yet, if a pitcher hits someone above the shoulders, with full intent or by mistake, he’d be done for the night. But the game still gives a wide berth to frontier justice, as Mattingly all too candidly confirmed for anyone with doubts.

Explaining Greinke’s plunking of Montero, he said: “To be honest with you, if he doesn’t do that, he loses a lot of respect in that clubhouse. It’s more dangerous for him not to do it than to do it.”

Dangerous? Would one of his own teammates show disrespect by throwing a fastball at Greinke’s upper body the way Ian Kennedy did an inning later?

The tradition of retaliation is held too sacred, passed along reverently by old-timers unwilling to move forward. It’s baseball’s Latin Mass.

That’s why the elders from the coaching staffs — Mattingly, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson, Mark McGwire and Matt Williams all ended up passionately in the fray of this testosterone explosion. Of course, they all translated the code to their own advantage.

At least, Mattingly can see what outsiders see, from the absurdity of the bullpen pugilists to the exasperating potential for serious injury. Greinke got lucky and healed quickly from the broken collarbone caused by Carlos Quentin’s bull rush after a HBP. Yet there Greinke was again, in the fray. The trainers who somehow got him back to work so expediently must have been thrilled.

“I’m proud of my guys that they’re going to protect themselves and they’re going to fight for each other,” Mattingly said. “But I don’t think it’s something we should be sitting here and gloating over and thinking this is great. It’s not necessarily a great thing for baseball.”

4 thoughts on “The Rules of Fight Club

  1. Mattingly’s word choice (“dangerous”) was obviously poor, but I think he was trying to say that he believed Greinke would have run the ‘danger’ or ‘risk’ of losing all clubhouse respect for the duration of his career in L.A. So the bigger question is, why is retaliation viewed as a way of protecting your teammates? You could scoff at the testosterone of male athletes, but sport is a social and civil form of battle – no one dies (usually) and people do get hurt (though rarely by dint of blade). In that context, you will expect your teammates to stand up for you, and that includes retaliation. It’s a concept as old as human society. To legislate all retaliation out of any sport is to deny that sports are, at bottom, about demonstrating your prowess before others. That you can learn life lessons is a nice byproduct, but this secondary benefit of participation is not what drives people to be better than others in the crucible of competition.

    Although it’s unfortunate that Greinke happened to be the Dodgers starting pitcher on the night Puig was drilled, that was a vicious pitch from Kennedy. Any teammate-pitcher would have felt obliged to retaliate. Frankly it’s a wonder that an all-out brawl didn’t start right then and there.

    Penalizing late joiners would be great, but in baseball it’s tricky because one team vastly out-numbers the other in regard to on-field participants at the time of any incident. You could tell all outfielders that a ‘bullpen rule’ would apply to them as well, but still you’ve got 6 versus 1 (or at most 4). So inevitably the dugouts become part of the action. At that point who cares if bullpens clear?

    By the way, Mattingly should be ashamed of himself for throwing Alan Trammel to the ground. I’m a Mattingly fan (grew up watching him in NY), but that act was thuggish and sad. Trammel deserved better than to be mugged by one of his peers from a bygone era.

  2. (1.) Let’s not forget … Grienke was hurt not just by Quention’s bull rush, but also by his own stupid decision to throw down his glove, charge at Quentin and hit him with his shoulder – the very part of the body that he injured.

    (2.) If baseball made it illegal to leave the bench/bullpen, you would stop seeing these brawls. The sight of relief pitchers trotting in from the bullpen has gotten so old.

  3. In 1967 Tony Conigliaro was the best young player in baseball. A home run champ at age 20, the youngest ever to 100 homers, having a career year (142 OPS+), with similarity scores to Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson at age 22. Then he got hit in the eye with a pitch, never totally regained his vision, was never the same player, and basically washed out at age 26. Baseball fans never got to see one of the greatest young players in history fulfill his potential because a schmuck named Jack Hamilton threw at his head and nearly killed him.

    Yasel Puig has that kind of potential. I want to see him play for a long time to come. Baseball needs all the Yasel Puigs it can get. When a schmuck named Ian Kennedy threw at his head and came within a hair of planting him with a full Conigliaro, he broke every rule in baseball and society—thou shalt not attempt to kill. When Kennedy threw another killshot at Zack Greinke, he earned his banishment from the game, in my opinion, or at the very least, the mother of all suspensions.

  4. It wasn’t just this game…the very same night, Marco Scutaro was hit by a pitch on the hand.
    Bochy PURPOSELY threw at two or three different Pirates, until McCutchen was finally hit. Scutaro wasn’t even hit on purpose, yet Bochy made Kontos throw at the opposing team in retaliation.

    Earlier this season, I watched both games where Curtis Granderson was hit on the hand and his hand broken each time…yet Girardi felt it was accidental and did NOT hit anyone on either team.

    The fighting starts with the manager, plain and simple. For Bochy to have gotten away with only a single game suspension is like a slap on the wrist. It won’t change until the managers are penalized more severely.