Purposeful plunkings fading from the game
Past stars say they're a thing of the past -- most of the time
The unwritten rules of baseball might not have changed, but the way in which they are followed has been adjusted.
When Cole Hamels admitted his motive behind purposefully plunking Nationals rookie Bryce Harper earlier this month, he chalked it up to an "old-school, prestigious style of baseball."
However, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench says, "That baseball era is gone."
Bench's declaration was backed by Hamels' subsequent five-game suspension, earned for his honesty, despite the fact that Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann uncorked one into Hamels' right knee two innings later. Zimmermann escaped without punishment, perhaps because he claimed his hit-by-pitch was mere coincidence and without intent.
Bench stressed the importance of words vs. actions.
"[Hamels] has to be smart enough not to say it," Bench said. "I don't know if he would've been suspended if he hadn't said anything."
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez said he wouldn't have revealed his intent.
"I wouldn't admit it. I would be smarter about that," Martinez said. "I don't know really the reasons why he did it, but that's part of the game, getting hit and things like that that happen. That's part of the old-school game.
Known for his pinpoint command, Martinez could place a fastball high and tight whenever he wanted to. He only did, he said, when the hitter warranted some chin music, usually in retaliation for one of his teammates being plunked.
"I'm not justifying hitting anybody on purpose," said Martinez, who hit 141 batters in his 18-year career. "You do that when you have to protect one of your players or something happens and you feel your player was disrespected. But to do it on purpose to anybody? No. Why? They're human beings and are just like you. They don't want to get hurt."
Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley clashed with plenty of opposing hitters during his career. The six-time All-Star said players today are too friendly and that when he played, during the last quarter of the 20th century, veterans instituted fines for players caught fraternizing with the opposition before games.
"I didn't like a lot of guys and they didn't like me, either," Eckersley said. "That's how the game has changed. Everybody is friendly with one another. You see it during batting practice. Everyone is chirping with one another."
Bench said there are still enemies in today's game, but fewer pitchers who will make a scene of it.
"There are guys that don't like other guys," Bench said. "There are guys that show you up when they hit home runs and run around the bases."
One reason for that could be a hitter's protection at the plate. Today, players dig into the batter's box ready for anything, aided by plenty of padding on their elbows and ankles. Eckersley believes the body armor makes batters less fearful of fastballs once deemed too close for comfort.
"I saw someone get hit in the elbow and you just heard a 'thump,'" Eckersley said. "He just picked the ball up and threw it back and went to first. It's crazy. If I was hitting, that's how I'd want it. It makes you [seem] a little more brave."
No matter the reason, with umpire-issued warnings and suspensions, intentional plunkings have gradually faded from the game's landscape. In fact, Martinez, who last pitched in 2009, said he never hit a batter on purpose, though he couldn't say as much without flashing a grin.
"Intentionally? Never," Martinez said. "It was never intentional. It was always for a reason."