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MLB 2012: Time to Take a Second Look at Player Suspensions

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MLB 2012: Time to Take a Second Look at Player Suspensions
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Despite Jimenez's intentions, no prior warnings were issued.

Major League Baseball needs to reconsider its policy on suspensions. Indians starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was suspended five games for plunking Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in an April 2nd spring training matchup.

After the game, disgruntled Colorado manager Jim Tracy dubbed Jimenez’s actions “the most gutless act I have seen in 35 years of professional baseball.”

Major League Baseball’s rules regarding player suspensions for bean-balls were laid out long before Tracy poured out his emotional tirade to a sympathetic commissioner’s office. According to MLB.com, these are official rules regarding the pitcher and intentionally hit batsmen:

“If, in the umpire’s judgment, such a violation occurs, the umpire may elect either to:
1. Expel the pitcher, or the manager and the pitcher, from the game, or
2. may warn the pitcher and the manager of both teams that another such pitch will result in the immediate expulsion of that pitcher (or a replacement) and the manager.
If, in the umpire’s judgment, circumstances warrant, both teams may be officially warned prior to the game or at any time during the game.
(League Presidents may take additional action under authority provided in Rule 9.05.)
Rule 8.02(d) Comment: To pitch at a batter's head is unsportsmanlike and highly dangerous. It should be and is condemned by everybody. Umpires should act without hesitation in enforcement of this rule.

Before we jump into heated debate, let’s examine the events leading up to the Indians-Rockies game on April 2nd.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Luckily for Rockies' fans, Tulo didn't miss any time.

Jimenez felt snubbed in Colorado after teammates Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez both received lengthy contract extensions at the onset of the 2011 season.

After being traded to the Indians in July last season, he later relented that playing in Cleveland was like “being in heaven.” Even the proudest and most diehard Cleveland fans may have scoffed at Ubaldo’s admonition.

In response to Jimenez’s remarks, Tulowitzki lamented, "If someone doesn't want to be here, we always say, 'Please, go up to the manager and tell him you want to leave or that you don't think this is the best place for you.' That was kind of the case with him."

After their media-fueled beef, Jimenez opted to settle things the old-fashioned way and threw a first-pitch fastball at Tulowitzki, striking him in the left elbow.

In response, Tulowitzki began shouting at Jimenez, calling him—among other things—a synonym for “chicken” not even a hot-head like Ubaldo would mention to the media. Both players tossed their gear and looked poised for a fight before teammates stepped in their way.

Now, any fan that was familiar with the Jimenez-Tulowitzki back-story and saw the pitch would know better than to lend credence to Ubaldo’s postgame excuse that he didn’t have control over his pitches.

Did Ubaldo throw at Tulowitzki intentionally? Yes. Had there been a prior warning issued to both teams regarding the media altercation between Jimenez and Tulowitzki? No. More importantly, did Jimenez throw at Tulowitzki’s head? No.

Most of the time in Major League Baseball, the umpire will opt to warn both benches if he suspects any intent to intentionally hit another player. More often than not, it isn’t the team whose pitcher hits the opposing batter first that gets punished, but the team that retaliates.

In the spring training game between Cleveland and Colorado, there was no prior incident of a hit Tribe batsman. If the umpire truly believed that Jimenez had the intent to hit Tulowitzki with the pitch, he would’ve issued a warning prior to the game.

Granted, it is still the umpire’s call as to whether the pitch was intentional and whether or not the warning was issued. However, this is where one has to question the ‘star treatment’ factor.

Would Jimenez be given the same prompt suspension had it been any other Colorado player apart from Carlos Gonzalez? Would Marco Scutaro getting drilled merit the same response from the commissioner’s office? I don’t think so.

Some might say Jimenez instigated the incident because he threw his glove and started toward Tulowitzki. Watch the video closely. You’ll see Tulo tosses his bat down before Ubaldo throws his glove. Both players were jawing at one another, and each was equally culpable of leading to the benches clearing.

Let's rewind to June 24th of last season. The Indians were in San Francisco for a series with the Giants.

Tribe right fielder Shin-Soo Choo was in the midst of a season-long slump after two consecutive 20-20, .300 seasons. Any attempt at salvaging his 2011 campaign was put on a six-week hold when Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez hit him in the hand with a pitch, breaking his left thumb.

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Jonathan Sanchez deserves the same suspension as Jimenez.

No ejections, fines or suspensions were warranted, as it was understood that the pitch simply got away from Sanchez.

Fast-forward back to the present. As Choo has been attempting to regain his old form in 2012, he’s already been plunked three times this season, tied for tops in the majors. Choo doesn’t crowd the plate, isn’t overly vocal or provocative and—other than a shameful DUI in May of last season—has a clean slate as far as his PR image goes.

Despite a poor showing in 2011, he is still one of the league’s most talented young players, and one of the top all-around outfielders in the AL.

On Saturday’s game against Kansas City, now-Royals starter Jonathan Sanchez drilled Choo again. In retaliation, Tribe starter Jeanmar Gomez hit the Royals’ Mike Moustakas in the backside and was promptly ejected along with Tribe third baseman Jack Hannahan and manager Manny Acta.

While Choo started shouting at Sanchez, he didn’t throw the bat or make a move toward the mound, yet Sanchez began advancing toward the disgruntled Tribe outfielder.

Why wasn’t Sanchez ejected, fined or suspended? What proof didn’t exist in this case that supposedly did in Jimenez’s that the pitch was intentional? If the Ubaldo suspension was a case of protecting a star player, why wasn’t Choo’s plunking met with the same outrage by the commissioner’s office?

The issue here is the league’s lack of consistency regarding suspensions. In the Jimenez-Tulowitzki saga, there are two things to take away from the incident. The home plate umpire should’ve either:

Intentional or not?

1) Issued a pre-game warning if he believed there existed the potential for purposefully targeting batters, or:

2) Let grown men play a grown men’s game. Jimenez may have been wrong, selfish and immature to take out his frustration on the field, but if you’re Troy Tulowitzki, what do you expect? If you run your mouth about a former teammate, you’re asking for trouble the next time you step in the box to face him.

I’m not at all in agreement with professional sports’ position on punishing those who retaliate. Good sportsmanship and respect for opponents is important, but that shouldn’t negate a team’s ability to defend its players.

Ubaldo may not have salvaged much integrity for throwing at Tulowitzki, but I’m not sold that his situation is any different than that of Sanchez.

Hit batters are a part of the game. As the Ray Liotta-played Shoeless Joe Jackson tells Archie Graham in Field of Dreams, “he’s not gonna wanna load the bases, so look for low and away…but watch out for in your ear!” Let the players play the game out and retaliate as long as it’s done professionally and there’s no head-hunting involved.

If Ubaldo Jimenez’s plunking of Tulowitzki was intentional, then it was a personal vendetta between two players who, barring an unlikely World Series matchup, won’t meet again this season on the ball field.

Jonathan Sanchez’s beaning of Shin-Soo Choo, whether intentional or not, escalated tensions between two teams that will meet 15 more times this season in a race to climb the standings in the AL Central. At this time, MLB has no credible criteria to follow regarding player suspensions.

If Jim Tracy wants to harp on about “the integrity of the game,” we should have a league whose commissioner’s office protects that integrity by showing some consistency in its decision-making regarding player suspensions.

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