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.”