About that Harper-Strickland fight

Jim Bunning, the Hall of Famer who died last week, was part of a breed of pitchers who tried to prevent batters from crowding the plate or otherwise digging in. Vern Law, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson were from the same school.

Most pitchers in the 1950s and 60s were to some extent. They might not protect the space between the batter and the inner portion of home plate as fiercely as Bunning did, but neither were they about to cede it to hitters.

If a batter hit a home run, the next batter often would be “brushed back” on the first pitch. The pitcher probably wasn’t looking for revenge. He just wanted to make sure opposing batters weren’t starting to feel comfortable. In a sense, he was trying to break any momentum that might result from the home run. If the pitcher didn’t come inside, he might well hear about it from his manager.

Batters expected to be brushed back. Thus, there was little danger they would be hit, unless the pitcher threw behind the hitter, to where he would be ducking or bailing. If the pitcher did that, you could expect a fight. Otherwise, it was business as usual.

The batter who hit the home was also susceptible to being brushed back in his next plate appearance. Revenge or anger might be part of the motive, but the main goal, again, was to guard against a repeat performance by giving the batter something extra to think about. The batter knew to be on the lookout for the high hard one inside.

Nowadays, pitchers very rarely brush back the guy who comes up following a home run. Similarly, the home run hitter has little to fear in his next plate appearance during the same game unless, perhaps, his behavior after hitting the blast “showed the pitcher up.”

This change in custom makes the game marginally safer. It also probably gives hitters a marginal edge they didn’t have under the old ways.

It still bothers me if a pitcher for the team I’m rooting for is getting rocked — let’s say by a home run and another solid hit — and doesn’t come inside on the next batter. But that’s just me and the game I grew up with.

This brings me to the widely publicized fight on Memorial Day between pitcher Hunter Strickland and Bryce Harper, star of the Washington Nationals. It began when Strickland drilled Harper in the side with a fastball that clocked around 97 miles per hour. Harper charged the mound, threw his batting helmet in the direction of Strickland, and then took a swing at him. Both players landed a punch or two, but missed with most of their shots.

As is the custom with baseball fights, players from both teams joined in. Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija, a former football star at Notre Dame, did so with unusual energy — making a strong run at Harper, but missing with his body block. Instead he rammed into his own teammate, Michael Morse, formerly a teammate of Harper’s with the Nats. As a result, Morse is now on the disabled list.

Nats veteran Ryan Zimmerman walked Harper away from the mayhem and off the field without resistance. Strickland stayed on, seemingly looking for someone to fight. Three teammates had to drag/carry him off the field. He looked ridiculous.

I said before that the incident started with Strickland drilling Harper. But in a sense, it started in the 2014 playoffs, if not before. In the playoffs, Harper hit two long home runs off of Strickland. After at least one of them, Harper and Strickland may have exchanged words.

Harper reacted exuberantly to one of his home runs. But why not? It was a very important blow at the time for a club that was struggling to score. The Giants went on to win the series against the Nats and, subsequently, to win the World Series.

There’s little doubt that Strickland hit Harper on Monday out of revenge for what happened in 2014. Strickland hadn’t hit a batter all year, and it’s unusual for a right handed pitcher to hit a left handed batter in the body unless he’s trying to. Normally, as the ball tails in, the hitter will be able to get out of the way.

Nor did Harper lean into the pitch. Rather, it was thrown into the space Harper would naturally lean into to avoid being hit.

To intentionally hit Harper for homers he belted almost three years ago seems beyond the pale. It wasn’t a response to an in-game home run with the intent of halting the opponent’s momentum — the justification for brushing back hitters after home runs in the old days. Nor, for that matter, was this a brush back. It was, by all appearances an attempt to hit Harper, not move him off the plate, and hit him with a fastball thrown at almost 100 miles per hour. The only motive was revenge for something that happened a few years ago.

You could tell that this was beyond the pale from the reaction of Giants catcher Buster Posey. It’s a catcher’s duty to defend the pitcher from onrushing batters. Yet Posey never budged as Harper went after Strickland. Neither did the Giants shortstop, Brandon Crawford. If Strickland’s act had been defensible, both would have put their bodies on the line to defend their pitcher.

What about Harper’s reaction? I can’t fault retaliating as he did against a pitcher who had just hit him with a fastball.

Moreover, charging the mound is the way players police the game in these circumstances. Fines and suspensions aren’t enough — fines because players are paid so much; suspensions because pitchers don’t work everyday, so that the standard suspension (Strickland got six games) doesn’t keep them out of many games.

That said, I would have been okay with Harper not going after Strickland. Taking the high road and avoiding suspension (Harper was suspended for four games, later reduced to three on appeal) is not to be despised. But I prefer Harper’s response to behavior as dangerous and outside the norm as Strickland.

Finally, I’m okay with Harper’s suspension. Baseball can’t condone brawling. Appearances must be maintained.

Still, I’d bet good money that the ex-players, if any, who were involved in the suspension decision would have responded largely as Harper did under the same circumstances.

Here’s the brawl with commentary by the Nats announcing team:

Responses

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