Playing Rough in Modern Baseball: Beanballs, Collisions and Charging the Mound

Zach StancoContributor IMay 22, 2012

Nobody played as dirty as this man.
Nobody played as dirty as this man.

Playing Rough

Something you hear a lot about from fans is the lack of an "old-school" mentality in the modern game of baseball.

While many of the proponents of the so-called "old-school" are too young to know anything about it, there is some truth to the idea that the game was more hard-nosed in days gone by. Whether this is a good or bad thing is open to debate (that's what we're here for, after all). With injury concerns and millions of dollars at stake, with careers and long-term health on the line, we have seen less and less of the violent action that, in our sepia-toned memories, once punctuated the game with much greater frequency.

Collisions at Home Plate

Recently, the focal point of these debates has been collisions at home plate.

Talented young catcher Buster Posey broke his leg blocking the plate and missed all but a few weeks of the 2011 season after a Rookie-of-the-Year season in 2010. Perhaps more famously, in the 1970 All-Star game, Pete Rose ran over catcher Ray Fosse, causing Fosse to suffer a separated shoulder, which many fans attribute to the decline of Fosse's career. In fairness, Fosse played 42 more games that season and hit .297, and the collision with Rose was just one of many injuries Fosse suffered through the years.

The question here is was it worth it?

Fosse has been quoted many times saying it's "part of the game", and Rose maintains he was just trying to win. The problem here is that this was an exhibition game, with nothing on the line. In general, the catcher can possibly try for a sweep tag or even attempt to catch the runner further up the line. The runner isn't always forced to hit the catcher; he can opt instead to slide around him or go for the plate with his hands.

While I don't believe collisions are a thing of the past, I do think players on either side will be less likely to hit each other going forward because of the possibility of injury. Nobody will tell them explicitly not to do it, but the unwritten rules of baseball are legion.

My view: sometimes the team needs that run, or needs to prevent that run, more than anything. If it is going to give them the best chance at the result they want, then a collision is going to happen. These decisions are made in split seconds. So unless it's unnecessarily aggressive, then it's just part of the game.

Charging the Mound

Here's something you rarely see, and likely with good reason.

While a pitcher can easily enrage a batter by hitting him or brushing him back one time too many, it's probably not a great idea to rush at him from the batter's box. If the batter is holding onto the bat and threatens the pitcher, he is looking at a suspension or even the possibility of criminal charges.

If the batter is a little bit smarter than that and drops the bat first, he just made the mistake of approaching a guy standing on raised ground who is, in all likelihood, quite a large man. Pitchers are big, often bigger than many sluggers. They have eight other guys on the field ready to back them up, including one wearing protective gear located right behind the batter.

Still, this is such a rarity that I only included it in this article so I could show the picture of Nolan Ryan beating up Robin Ventura. Ryan, already an old man and not long from retirement, famously got the upper hand when a young Robin Ventura came steaming towards the mount. Ryan was ready for him, and he grabbed Ventura in a headlock (a side headlock for you wrestling fans) and pounded his fist into his head until other players intervened. Do a Google Image Search for Robin Ventura, and you will see this in the first five pictures.

This was an everyday thing for Ty Cobb
This was an everyday thing for Ty Cobb

My view: if you're stupid enough to do it, then go ahead. Fun for everybody!

Playing Dirty

There are countless examples or 'dirty' plays in every major sport that are nevertheless a part of the game. Then there are some things that just don't jive well with most fans or players. I think the two most extreme examples of these types of behaviors are throwing at a batter and spiking the baseman.

Firstly, spiking the baseman.

You're going from first to second on a sharp grounder off the bat of your teammate, and you see the second baseman running to cover the bag. The game is tied with one out in the seventh and the pitcher is tiring; you need to break up this double play. So you slide right at the second baseman, hoping to cause him to throw wide.

Breaking up the double play is always the right choice, but the line is drawn when you decide to stick your front foot up a bit and aim for the legs.

This is a dangerous and mean-spirited play and if obvious enough would result in an ejection. This wasn't always the case, though.Ty Cobb, one of the greatest of his time - all-time leader in batting average, second all-time in hits, and all-time leader in being a psychotic bastard - was infamous for sharpening his spikes and aiming them at the defenders' vulnerable legs. Cobb, being the demon in human form that he was, did this even on the most routine plays. While this was met with scorn and criticism even in his day, in Cobb's mind every play was the most important one of the game.

Throwing at a batter; this is what prompted this whole article.

More specifically, Cole Hamels hitting Bryce Harper is what prompted this article.

Pitchers have hit batters for over a hundred years, and they'll keep on doing it. While it's dangerous and often a prelude to run-scoring retribution, I can't say it doesn't have its place in the game. It's the situation it takes place in that makes all the difference.

Hall of Famer Don Drysdale was infamous for hitting batters, and quite hated for it, but it was a part of his strategy (which he put down to not wanting to waste four pitches on an intentional walk when he could throw one and plunk him).

On the flip side, you have the recent plunking of super-prospect and media magnet Bryce Harper by popular-only-in-Philadelphia Cole Hamels, who claims he hit Harper to "teach him a lesson". While most pitchers will agree that sometimes throwing at a guy is acceptable, this is an example where it's just a scummy thing to do.

Nowadays hitting a batter is taken pretty seriously by umpires, and hitting a guy who had never faced him before in the first inning of a scoreless game is a stupid move for a pitcher. Since it was both unprovoked and obviously on purpose, Hamels could have easily been ejected.

Where would that leave his team?

Now you're asking another starter to pitch on the wrong day. Or you're asking the bullpen, which hadn't even begun to think about warming up, to patch together nine innings and screw up the next few games because all your relievers' arms are tired.

Just brush him back a little
Just brush him back a little

For that matter, what lesson was Hamels teaching Harper, except one about Hamels' obvious jealousy of Harper's new-found fame?

Being a rookie isn't a punishable offense, nor should it be (although Harper got the last laugh, stealing home on a pickoff attempt after Hamels put him on base by hitting him). One further point on Hamels and Harper; Cole Hamels is a National League pitcher, and one thing that is rarely tolerated in baseball is unprovoked throwing at a pitcher. Pitchers don't throw at each other sometimes out of respect, but generally because it's considered a high crime in the baseball world to do it. So when Cole Hamels was a rookie in Philly, who threw at him?

My view: Situational. Pitchers shouldn't throw at a guy for nothing, or because they can't get a guy out, or any other cowardly, selfish reason. However, there are times it's justified. I cheered when Shaun Estes threw at Roger Clemens (although he didn't hit him). I crossed my fingers during his every at-bat that Barry Bonds would take one in the head. Even though this isn't something that should be common, in retaliation for an unjust plunking or as part of a rough game between rival teams, it has its place. That will never change.