Nicolaus Mills—Beaning the Brushback, or Brushing Back the Beaner?

Baseball and the professoriat have never been strangers, and never will be. When they have met, the net results have offered delight and instruction at once. Most of the time. They have also produced intriguing consequences among the professoriat, not the least of which involved one (A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale scholar—of Dante—and president in due course) becoming baseball’s commissioner, albeit too ill-fated, too soon.

On occasion, alas, the professoriat have left the impression that they’ve waded into waters unsafe for formal or practical thinking. Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and co-editor of the leftward journal Dissent, whose books include Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age, is one such entry. With Alex Rodriguez about to return to the Yankee lineup, after missing a month thanks to a broken hand on an errant pitch from Felix Hernandez, Mills is not amused. Not so much because his rooting interests are or might be under siege by the Yankees but because, he thinks, King Felix has gotten away with murder.

A-Rod takes a changeup in on his hands—literally . . .

“Rodriguez, who had to leave the game, was awarded first base after being hit,” Mills reminds us, “but there were no other penalties to Hernandez, who, on a night when his control was off, hit two other Yankees (three of the last five batters he faced) before giving way to a relief pitcher in a game that ended with a 4-2 Seattle victory.” My heavens, you’d think Hernandez was looking to put three Yankees on the disabled list. You’d also think, based on the way Mills arranged his thought into the quoted statement, that Rodriguez was the first of the three targets. He wasn’t—he was the last man King Felix faced before he came out of the game.

“Rodriguez was lucky his injury wasn’t more serious,” Mills continued. “He did not get hit in the head, but under Major League Baseball’s current rules, a serious injury to Rodriguez would have been treated the same as a minor injury. There is no meaningful penalty in baseball for a pitcher hitting a batter with the ball. Yet what the helmet-to-helmet hit is to football, the bean ball and its cousin, the brushback pitch, are to baseball—a tactic that is potentially life-threatening.”

He’s not wrong about certain dangers in the game. They exist with or without brushback pitches. (You wonder, come to think of it, what Mills thinks of takeout sliding.) They’re also nothing compared to helmet butts in the NFL, a league governing a sport (if that’s the correct word) which is arranyed primarily around massive, hurtling masses of flesh, bone, and muscle plowing into each other full force, and with the near-intent of wreaking bodily harm. To compare the brushback or the bean ball to a typical NFL helmet butt is to compare a single-vehicle road accident to a trainwreck.

Mills adduces such exhibits as Ray Chapman, Tony Conigliaro, and Mike Piazza. Chapman, of course, is the only man known to have been killed directly as a result of being hit by a pitch. Conigliaro took one upside the head and suffered vision problems that ultimately shortened his career. But Mills offers no evidence that he knows just how those injuries happened, and the rule changes they inspired directly. Chapman’s beaning and death prompted baseball’s government to mandate clean baseballs in play at all times; the ball that hit Chapman was in game play long enough to go undetectable even by infra-red technology. Conigliaro’s beaning prompted the post-haste mandate of ear flaps on batting helmets, similar to those the Little League had used for what seemed eons.

Piazza, after the Rocket’s red glare . . .

Piazza didn’t inspire a rule change when Roger Clemens, who’d had about enough of Piazza smacking him around like a speed bag in interleague games, decided to send him a message. Piazza suffered a concussion and a few headaches from that one. Lest anyone doubt Clemens’s intent, I’d still like to see him pass a polygraph when asked whether he really did think it was the ball, and not the jagged-ended broken bat head, he threw at Piazza up the first base line in the 2000 World Series. It could have been “Game called on account of shish kebab.”

Perhaps Hernandez’s manager might have hooked him earlier on a night he didn’t have his signature stuff or control working. But perhaps it’s also true that there are batters who get hit and injured with no intent or malice aforethought. How would Mills have the umpires determine intent? Is he prepared to declare any pitcher throwing to the absolute inside corners of the strike zone be considered headhunting and disciplined appopriately? Here are some of the things he’d like to see happen when it comes to the headhunters, actual or alleged:

* Distinguish between a pitch that is dangerous and a pitch that is life-threatening. The head and face are the most vulnerable areas for a player, and a pitch that hits a player anywhere above his chest should be treated with special harshness. Instead, of being awarded first base, a batter struck above the chest should be given second base and thus put in a position to score on a single.

Of course a pitcher throwing his hardest fastball toward a batter’s head should be held accountable. But Hernandez hit Rodriguez with a changeup, a pitch thrown merely to resemble a fastball, not quite to travel like one. A typical changeup is about 20 miles per hour slower than a fastball. (Charlie Dressen, Brooklyn Dodgers manager: “It spins like the hard one but it got no speed.”) Yes, it can still break a bone if it happens to travel inside enough to hit the batter’s hand on the bat. Batters have suffered such injuries on an assortment of pitches.

Padilla, in his near-customary position following a head hunt . . .

As for awarding two bases and putting the batter “in position to score on a single?” Please. Unless you’re Babe Ruth (who couldn’t run if you set a process server on him, as anyone watching Game Seven of the 1926 World Series could have told you) or Jason Giambi (who was never necessarily paid for his swiftness afoot), you can score on a single from first base, assuming the ball is hit to certain outfield locations and you run with your brain a little more than your legs.

* Treat a pitcher who hits more than one batter differently from a pitcher who hits a single batter. A pitcher who hits a second batter in a game should face automatic ejection and a fine of $10,000, no matter where his pitch lands. The severity of this penalty would mean any pitcher who thrives on intimidation would be put on a short leash, but it would also recognize that a pitcher who has poor control is a menace. 

This might or might not deter, say, Vicente Padilla, a pitcher who is somewhat notorious for playing the intimidation game and getting into fights with his own teammates over his apparent callousness toward the retaliatory pitches they’re likely to face for his “manliness.” (You recall him suggesting Mark Teixiera, such a teammate in their Texas Rangers years, should think about playing a “girl’s sport,” after Teixiera publicised his lack of amusement at Padilla’s recklessness.)

But such pitchers are the exception, not the norm. Pitchers with control trouble are merely nuisances, not menaces. Would Mills really like an end to the inside half of the strike zone? The umpires ran rampant, somewhat, two decades ago, shrinking the strike zone to about the size of a postage stamp, often from the middle to the outside of the plate. That had at least as much if not more to do with baseball’s offence explosion than smaller ballparks or actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances.

* Make a team, not just an individual pitcher, accountable for hit batters. Under this rule a team would be able to get away with hitting only one batter per game. Any time a second batter was hit, the pitcher who threw the ball would be treated as if he had already struck a batter. A team could not, as a result, game the penalty system for hitting batters.

Clemens, brought behind his knees . . .

I hate to break it to Mills, but this rule’s already in effect, though perhaps not to his liking. An umpire who thinks reasonably that a pitcher who just went a little too high and tight, or hit a batter, with intent and even malice, can issue warnings to both sides. About six percent of the time those warnings go unheeded. And about half the time there are legitimate questions as to whether the umps throw the warnings down a little too arbitrarily, if not a little too swiftly. (Some umps hand out the warnings for nothing worse than a pitch hitting the legitimate inside corner against a plate-crowding hitter. It compares to a Congressman calling hearings over a hangnail epidemic.)

Let’s reference Mike Piazza v. Roger Clemens once again. When the Yankees and the Mets squared off in an interleague contest a couple of years after Piazza was coned, Mets starter Shawn Estes—following a fortnight of nationwide blathering about his “duty” when facing Clemens, the Yankees’ scheduled starter—did, indeed, send Clemens a little message. He threw one behind Clemens’s knees. The pitch drew an awful lot of derision for being behind the knees, not to mention a knowing wink and nod from Clemens himself, who’d have had to be a fool not to suspect something might come. But the pitch had the desired effect. The umps did send warnings to both sides. They did, in fact, take the inside pitch away from Clemens for the rest of that game. And the Mets went on to romp, 8-2. Including Estes himself hitting one over the fence. Off Clemens.

* Increase pitcher liability for a hit batsman. Rodriguez has been lost to the Yankees for a good part of the season, while Hernandez, who now has a 13-6 record, has enjoyed a stellar year. The result is unfair to Rodriguez and the Yankees. The only way to equalize the situation partially is make any pitcher who forces an opponent out of the lineup remain out of his own team’s lineup for the same number of games as the injured opponent.

You’d think Rodriguez, who missed 36 games, was the only or the most important element in the Yankee lineup, that the Mariners were likewise in a pennant race, and that Hernandez hadn’t had any stellar seasons prior to this one. You’d also think Hernandez is an everyday player. Do you really want to propose docking Hernandez 36 games? Would you care to explain to the Mariners why an off-speed pitch thrown with no intent to maim should cost them seven Hernandez starts?

The Yankee lead in the American League East has shrunk since by six games since Rodriguez went down. Overall, starting the day after A-Rod was hit on the hands, the Yankees pending tonight’s outcome have been 18-18. And it hasn’t been a one-man show when it comes to how and why the Yankees skidded. Teixiera, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner (who’s been out for the season, prompting the Ichiro Suzuki deal) have also been missing in action. As BleacherReport noted before the Yankees dropped two of three to the rising Baltimore Orioles over the weekend, “That’s four hitters out of nine that are out with injuries. The Yankees have platoons at nearly every position except for second base, shortstop and catcher.  If the majority of your lineup are platoons, you’re gonna have a bad time.”

Even before he went down, A-Rod wasn’t necessarily seen as the key to the Yankee lineup. In fact, he’d lost his cleanup spot. The Yankees have also had pitching issues much of the season. CC Sabathia hasn’t looked all that much like his old self, often enough. The back end of the rotation has been something of a mess. The last I looked, Alex Rodriguez wasn’t one of the Yankees’ pitchers.

“Some give their bodies to science. I give mine to baseball.”

Mills thinks his proposed rules changes for hit batsmen would be different because “their aim is safety rather than entertainment. A few batters might take advantage of them and try to get hit, but given the dangers that come from a pitch traveling upward of 90 mph, most batters are not likely to risk their careers just to get on base.” A few batters, he says? Never mind that more than a few batters would be taking advantage of them just to take over the entire strike zone. (Mills couldn’t possibly have slept that deeply through the 1990s, could he?)

There have been players who lived for getting on base any way they could get there, even if it meant taking the proverbial one for the team. “Some people give their bodies to science. I give mine to baseball.” So said Ron Hunt, second baseman, and the first-ever All-Star starter in Mets history. Hunt made a career out of it. He led the National League in being hit by a pitch in all seven of his final seasons and led the majors in that statistic in all but the last of those seasons. He retired as baseball’s all-time leader.

The man who broke his record, Don Baylor, was as famous for crowding the plate as for hitting the ball over the fence. Occupational hazard, for him. David Eckstein, shortstop, took the 2002 Angels’ run-gun-and-stun style to such extremes as to never say no if a pitch was coming into his body, never mind his head. Craig Biggio, second baseman, now holds the all-time record and wasn’t exactly ashamed to be known as the King of Hit Batsmen. It’s not the sole reason he’ll go to the Hall of Fame if he gets there.

Aiming for safety is admirable, and absolutely necessary. Mills, who once wrote a book called The Triumph of Meanness: America’s War Against Its Better Self, has an aim which might be honest but isn’t exactly true. Baseball is often at war against its better self, too. The trouble is managing the collateral damage and obeying the law of unintended consequences, a battery itself that’s too often prone to beanballs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: