Plunkings should be put out to pasture
"Old-school" baseball is the latest trending topic in the Major Leagues, and it is being used to serve as a defense for the indefensible -- the intentional plunking of a batter by a pitcher in order to preserve some unwritten and largely unnecessary Code of Conduct.With all due respect to the old school among us, "old-school baseball" doesn't have to be numbskull baseball. This is 2012. And while the game will always have deep and unmistakable ties to its past, its players and its principles can't be afraid or unwilling to step forward into a more civilized future. Yes, I'm opining here about the Cole Hamels-Bryce Harper incident that took place earlier this week, when Hamels hit Harper in the small of his back on purpose, owned up to it after the fact and shrugged it off as "that old-school, prestigious way of baseball," earning himself a five-game suspension and an undisclosed fine. Hamels' use of the word "prestigious" to describe such a barbaric action was unintentionally hilarious enough. But the suspension was laughable in its own way, considering it won't cost Hamels a single start. The only message this mere slap on the wrist delivered is that intentionally hitting an opposing batter is no big deal, but admitting such an action to reporters will cost you a relatively minor chunk of change and a slightly adjusted schedule for your next start. Tigers manager Jim Leyland -- who, for the record, is as old school as anybody -- was among those who felt the punishment didn't go far enough. He said he would have preferred a 15-game suspension. "This is a great time ... to show that we mean business," Leyland told Tigers play-by-play man Dan Dickerson on his pregame radio show, "and I think this suspension is way, way too light." Cal Ripken Jr., another member in good standing of the Old-School Society, seemed to agree when he talked about the incident on MLB Network Radio. "Usually there's a spark for why you [hit a batter]," Ripken said. "Somebody bunts when you're up eight runs, or you're stealing third base when you're up 10 or 11 runs in the seventh inning. There are real reasons on how you play the game, and embarrass the game. That's old school. But just to come up and drill somebody for no reason, I don't remember that being old school." Or as one veteran baseball man put it to me, "Old-school baseball is a little up and in to say, 'I'm here.' But to drill somebody to say, 'How you doing?' That's not old-school baseball." All of these men are correct. But this is a discussion that goes beyond the Hamels-Harper incident and into the bigger picture: Intentional plunkings -- for any reason -- are as reckless as they are senseless, and they ought to be put to pasture. Not all traditions are good traditions, after all, and just because baseball is a game steeped in tradition doesn't mean it needs to cling to all aspects of its primitive past. Why, in a society otherwise searching for civility and in a sporting world that decries the NFL's "Bountygate" or Metta World Peace's flagrant foul, is it acceptable for a pitcher to hurl a hardball 90-plus mph at another human being? Why should this be tolerated at any level? Even if said pitcher has a reputation for pinpoint control, nobody has the power to deliver every pitch in the exact spot he intends to throw it or to predict how a hitter will react as it bores its way inside. "A little chin music" can too easily become a cacophonous wall of sound via a knock to the noggin. A pitch delivered with the intention of landing square in the back can cut in just enough to shatter a wrist or forearm. I've had this discussion with players many times, and the overriding conclusion they come to is that those involved, by and large, do a fine job of policing themselves within the lines. On Sunday night, for instance, the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann responded to Hamels' malicious hit on Harper by hitting Hamels. No benches cleared, no ejections were issued. Hamels, who had to know it was coming, calmly took his base, and that was that. Those who play this game at this level consider plunkings to be part of the package. Show us up by gazing too long at your home run? Either you're going to get hit your next time up or one of your teammates is. Try to run up the score or swipe bases when you're well in front? Same thing. The problem, though, with these unwritten rules is that they are, indeed, unwritten, and Hamels is merely the latest egregious example of somebody creating his own head-scratcher of an interpretation of them. Now, I'm not naïve enough to think people in this game are going to stop throwing at each other. Nor do I think MLB is in a position to legislate with some sort of catch-all ejection when a pitcher hits a batter, because separating the intentional plunkings from the unintentional is not always an easy task (Hamels was the rare bird who 'fessed up after the fact). But as long as this issue is on the front-burner, it's a point worth making, even at the risk of sounding like a wuss (and, inevitably, getting killed in the comments section): It's 2012. Stop inflicting punishment through pain. Stop trying to enforce an unwritten Code that lacks consensus or cohesion. Just play the game.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.