As usual in matters of baseball, Earl Weaver was right.
Weaver kept his Baltimore Orioles teams out of bean-ball wars, believing they were unproductive and could wind up getting a player hurt.
His prophecy came to pass for this year’s Orioles. Whatever hope the Orioles harbored of winning the American League East collapsed with Mike Mussina’s injuries. After some unconvincing denials, Mussina admitted that his arm problems were aggravated during the June 6 battle with the Seattle Mariners. On what began as a languid Sunday afternoon, Seattle starter Chris Bosio, coming off a busted collarbone, apparently objected to Orioles Mark McLemore and Harold Reynolds attempting to bunt. Bosio threw subsequent pitches behind the two Bird batters.
Mussina felt obliged to defend his hitters. So he threw high and tight to marginal Mariner catcher Bill Haselman. The pitch hit Haselman shoulder-high. Haselman responded in the manner current batters believe is their obligation: He charged the mound to fight Mussina. Unlike most so-called baseball fights, this engagement featured actual combat. Mussina wound up on the bottom of a 20-player scrum that split into numerous fistfights, pushing matches, and undercard bouts all around the infield. It was an ugly display of modern machismo that ran for more than 20 minutes.
In the aftermath, at least two Orioles were bleeding. Cal Ripken twisted his knee so badly that he thought his consecutive-game-playing streak would come to an end the next day. Bosio reinjured his collarbone and went back on the disabled list, prompting Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman to gloat, “Justice was served.”
Mussina won praise from his teammates, most notably pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, for dispensing frontier justice. But Mussina wasn’t right for the rest of the year, enabling the Mariners to revel as well. Without their ace, the Orioles had no chance down the stretch. The guy who should have been gloating was Weaver. For years, Earl had told them so about the bean ball.
Fortunately for baseball fans, owners and the players’ union have stopped crowing about the added attention and extra highlight minutes on the late local news that fights bring. They realize that the game is the loser when stars get hurt, and that its image gets a black eye when Nolan Ryan gives noogies to Robin Ventura (they might have had to cancel the World Series out of embarrassment if Ventura had given Ryan noogies).
The union and owners are working on new rules to discourage bench- and bullpen-clearing brawls. The best solution would be to adopt National Hockey League-style rules to prohibit players from leaving the bench to join fights, and additional penalties for anybody joining a fight.
In addition to changing rules, the union can help change players’ attitudes.
“I was hit 198 times in my career,” Orioles Assistant General Manager Frank Robinson says. “I never went to the mound once.”
Instead of brawling, Robinson, the only player to win the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, took different routes to revenge.
“The way to get back at a pitcher who hits you is to dust yourself off and hit one up the middle,” the No. 4 on the all-time home run list says. Or, Hall of Famer Robinson suggests, a batter could take it out on a middle infielder.
“I remember putting my spikes into the chest of Daryl Spencer at shortstop after I got hit. He asked me what I was doing. I just said, “Ask your pitcher.’ ”
Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry believes there is a time-tested solution available, at least in the National League.
“The quickest way of taking care of your hitters,” the 300-game winner says, “is if their pitcher is hitting.” Pitchers who have to worry about getting hit themselves make unlikely headhunters.
The problem with the approaches of Robinson and Perry in this television age is that such displays may get the message across to players, but they don’t show the fans how tough the player is. Increasingly, players feel it is their macho duty to respond violently to a close pitch. Several other factors are involved in the generation gap over brushback pitches.
Hall of Fame hurler Ferguson Jenkins traces the problem to pitchers not learning to pitch inside properly. The prevalence of aluminum bats in amateur baseball makes it difficult for pitchers to succeed on the inside half of the plate, so they work outside (and batters dive out to reach the pitches). Until they reach pro ball with its wooden bats, pitchers rarely work the inner half of the plate.
“We knew how to pitch inside; they hit people,” Jenkins says of aluminum-generation pitchers. “I don’t think they’ve learned their craft. They have to learn it in the minor leagues. They can’t learn it in the big leagues.”
“I think we were better prepared for the inside pitch when I played,” contends Jim Fregosi, Philadelphia Phillies manager and former California Angel all-star shortstop. “And back then, more guys pitched inside more consistently.”
“When I got hit, I went to first. I considered it a compliment,” Fregosi adds.
Fireballing right-hander Bob Gibson enjoyed a reputation for working inside during his 17 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, but says, “I never threw at hitters.” Gibson, a two-time Cy Young winner, believes hitters don’t accept pitchers’ need to work both sides of the plate. “It’s almost like it’s against the law to throw inside,” he says. “What I’d do if I was the commissioner or the league president is to fine a hitter $6 million each time he went to the mound.”
Mussina disagrees with Gibson’s prescription. “Then balls would be thrown way inside all the time,” Mussina says. “If guys couldn’t defend themselves, that wouldn’t be fair.”
The batters of Mussina’s generation have to be taught, through improved rules, that there are better ways to defend themselves than starting fights. Mussina and Orioles fans have learned the lesson the Pentagon teaches. Defense can be awfully expensive. It cost the Orioles their chance at the pennant.