MLB's Refusal to End Bench-Clearing Brawls Perplexing
Dave Rozema was a fun-loving, gangly pitcher of baseballs who never met a clubhouse prank he didn’t like. He was perpetually 13 years old. He went through his career stifling a giggle.
Rozema, who pitched for the Tigers from 1977-84, could be impetuous, and not always at the most convenient moments.
In fact, it was an act of indiscretion that hastened the end of a once-promising career.
In May 1982, Rozema was 25, six years into a career that saw him become one of the Tigers’ most reliable starters and long relievers, even though he threw a fastball that was so misnamed, it would bounce off a window.
In ’82, Rozema was off to a fine start. He was 3-0 with an ERA of 1.63 when the Minnesota Twins visited Tiger Stadium on May 14, 1982.
The game turned into a bean ball war. It started when Detroit’s Chet Lemon was hit in the wrist by a pitch from Pete Redfern and charged the mound in the fourth inning. The benches emptied, naturally. More on that practice in a little bit.
Lemon was ejected, and Redfern left the game due to injury. Someone stepped on him with their spikes during the melee.
Rozema came on to pitch in the ninth inning. He twirled three scoreless frames.
In the bottom of the 11th, Minnesota’s Ron Davis brushed back Detroit’s Enos Cabell, who didn’t take kindly to it. Cabell made menacing gestures and started toward the mound. Naturally, the benches emptied.
But this row was much worse than that in the fourth inning. It got nasty real quick, tempers having run hot for seven innings.
The field was littered with 50 players, about a dozen coaches and four measly umpires. It was another overrun of the men in blue who were charged with keeping law and order.
The melee was completely out of hand within moments.
Then Rozema committed the act of indiscretion that would end his season and indirectly affect the rest of his career.
For whatever reason, Rozema targeted the Twins’ John Castino, who was engaged with a Tiger near the Twins dugout.
Making like Jackie Chan, Rozema took several loping steps and then launched into a karate kick against Castino that placed Rozema’s body parallel to the ground.
The ill-advised move tore Rozema’s knee to shreds.
He was done for the season.
On the way to the hospital, Rozema was unaware initially that his partner in crime, good buddy Kirk Gibson, had won the game for the Tigers with a walk-off homer off Davis. In a twist of irony, Rozema became the winning pitcher, his leg immobilized in an ambulance.
Rozema was done for 1982 thanks to the karate kick. His career was over by the end of April, 1986. He was not yet 30 years old. The major knee surgery required after his foolish Jackie Chan maneuver didn’t help his pitching at all.
Football and hockey, much more violent sports, don’t put up with the nonsense of players joining in the fray that goes on between two combatants. Neither does basketball.
In other sports, if you leave the bench, you’re suspended. No questions asked. Fines are levied, too.
Hockey, for all its dangerous speed and its strange justice of giving a guy two minutes for something that he’d get three years for, had he done it off the ice, has managed to basically legislate the bench-clearing brawl out of its sport.
The “third man in” rule ejects any player who intercedes in a scrap between two fighters. The NFL doesn’t take kindly to players leaving the benches, either.
Basketball, with its players’ close proximity to the patrons, especially frowns on multiple players going at it.
Yet baseball, the sport with the least physical contact between players, has condoned the bench-clearing fracas for over 100 years.
If a batter so much as looks at a pitcher oddly and takes a step or two toward the mound, players from both sides leap to the top step of the dugout. Another stride by the batter, and the dugouts empty.
And, to add to this absurdity, the bullpens empty—guys jogging in from 400 feet away. So that makes 50 players and all the coaches on the field of play—because two guys have a disagreement.
These aren’t necessarily benign meetings.
Witness Rozema and his karate kick. Bill Lee of the Red Sox hurt his arm in a fracas in 1976 when a bunch of Yankees and Red Sox players ended up piled on top of him. The Tigers’ Dick McAuliffe went after Chicago’s Tommy John in 1968 and John messed up his arm in the ensuing rumble.
Often, the players injured in these melees are not the ones involved in the original tiff.
Why does baseball allow its benches to empty so routinely, with such impunity?
You got a beef, Mr. Batter? Take it up with the pitcher—but make sure to drop the bat first. All you other guys? Watch.
The Dodgers and the Diamondbacks were involved in a rumble a week or so ago, and it included a takedown by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly of D-backs coach and former Tiger Alan Trammell.
A manager tackling a coach? Aren’t those guys supposed to be playing the roles of peacemakers? What’s next, the second and third base umpires going at it?
At least there were some suspensions in the Dodgers/D-Backs brawl. But that's nothing in the big picture.
Alas, nothing will change. Change doesn’t come very easily in baseball, which is without question the most tradition-ingrained sport of them all, even if said tradition is self-destructive in nature.
Baseball’s slogan ought to be, “Because it’s always been that way.” That’s been the ready-made excuse since the 19th century for not correcting the ills of the game. Just ask Jackie Robinson.
Baseball can get rid of these silly bench-clearing exhibitions, which only serve ill will and offer up dangerous potential for injury.
It would be very easy to do so.
Yet it won’t ever happen. Why? Because it has always been this way.
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