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Basebrawl Fever

You can call it a donnybrook or a fracas. Bill Simmons calls it one of the best things that can happen at a baseball game.

Editor’s note: In honor of the Carlos Quentin–Zack Greinke brawl, we’re going way back into my Sports Guy’s Vault to bring you a take on the art of basebrawl from August 15, 2001. I wrote this column about five years before YouTube existed, so we thought it would be fun to retroactively throw the YouTube clips in there (even if my 2001 memory proved to be a little off on the Ray Knight/Eric Davis fight). We didn’t touch any of the text. As Greinke’s collarbone will attest, I was wrong about one thing: Apparently players CAN get injured in a basebrawl. Anyway …

You’ve seen the highlights from last Friday night a million times. There’s Detroit pitcher Jeff Weaver standing on the mound in Kansas City, looking perturbed because the Royals asked the umpires to check his resin bag two separate times. After the home-plate ump leaves the mound, Weaver follows him and yells something towards the plate before turning back toward the outfield. As it turns out, he just made the critical mistake of challenging the manhood of Royals batter Mike Sweeney … who goes 6-foot-3, 225.

Bad idea.

Boom! Suddenly, Sweeney charges the mound, sidestepping the umpire like a blitzing linebacker and stampeding toward the unsuspecting pitcher. Poor Weaver turns just in time to find Sweeney about to pull a Bobby Boucher on him. Splack! Sweeney pancakes Weaver and tosses in a few uppercuts for good measure before everyone else piles on them. In the words of the immortal Double Down Trent, “It’s on … It’s so on …”

As far as basebrawls go, this one between the Tigers and Royals probably rated about 8.5 on the Mayhem Scale. Punches were exchanged. Players rolled around. Out-of-shape coaches shoved one another. You even had a classic “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!” moment, when the brawl re-ignited after Tigers catcher Robert Fick tossed an errant haymaker at Sweeney. And as usual, nobody — repeat, nobody — was hurt.

All in all, it made for a superb round of highlights that I watched at least 1,785 different times over the weekend.

Let’s face it: Nothing beats a lively major-league basebrawl. Think about it. They don’t allow benches to clear in basketball or hockey anymore. Nothing ever happens in football fights. Boxing died about six years ago. Soccer players would rather pratfall and roll around in mock agony than stand up for themselves. Golfers and tennis players are pansies. And when NASCAR drivers get frisky, they’re separated by about 100 crew members in 0.8 seconds.

But baseball players … they settle things the old-fashioned way. If somebody crosses The Line, it gets settled on the field. Your guys against mine. Mano-a-mano. Bring on Michael Buffer and let’s get ready to rummmmmmmm-bulllllllllllllllll.

Without further ado, here are 12 reasons why baseball fights are so damned loveable:

No. 1. Nobody ever gets hurt

Can you remember a basebrawl participant getting injured in the past 25 years other than Boston pitcher Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, who separated his shoulder after being bodyslammed by Graig Nettles back in ’76? Players might take a few stitches here and there — they might even bruise a hand like Sweeney did last weekend — but you never see major bones broken or anything resembling a serious injury. It’s almost like baseball players are immune to harm as long as they’re throwing punches.

You would think that any activity which involves the following things …

• Players tackling one another.

• Players throwing wild punches.

• Players piling onto one another.

• Players choking and gouging each other on the bottom of a pile.

… would result in an occasional catastrophic injury, but that just isn’t the case. Nobody ever gets seriously injured in a baseball fight. It’s astounding. Even when Juan Marichal pounded John Roseboro over the head with his bat in 1962, Roseboro walked off the field under his own power and missed only a few games. You could toss a chainsaw into a pile of brawling baseball players and probably fail to draw blood.

No. 2: Relievers charging in from the bullpen

Always ridiculous, always useless, and always good comedy, especially when an overweight pitcher like Rich “El Guapo” Garces arrives, huffing and puffing, about 15 seconds after the fight has calmed down. Every time the Red Sox get into a brawl, I always picture Guapo sitting on the bullpen john reading Maxim magazine as Derek Lowe screams, “Come on, Guapo! They’re fighting!” And Guapo quickly buckles up and waddles out there with toilet paper dragging from his cleats.

No. 3. The approach

You have to love those two seconds after a batter decides to charge the pitcher, when he suddenly realizes, “Hey, I have to figure out a way to hurt this guy,” as he sprints full-speed towards the mound.

So what happens? They usually end up trying one of seven ploys:

A. The running haymaker
Never works. The pitcher always ducks it.

B. The stop-and-pop
They slow down, plant their feet and load up for a wild punch … but the catcher tackles them from behind before anything lands.

C. The helmet swing
My personal favorite … instead of throwing a punch, the hitter uses his helmet like an oversized set of brass knuckles. Not sure if it hurts, but it always looks good.

D. The helmet toss
The distant cousin of the helmet swing. Sweeney used this last Friday to mixed results; in retrospect, he would have been better off with the helmet swing. I’m sure he looked over the tapes with his trainer and realized this immediately.

E. The open-field tackle
Probably the savviest move for hitters, because they have momentum, which means they can haul the pitcher down, land on top and sprinkle in some punches before the cavalry arrives. Sweeney worked this one to perfection Friday.

F. The karate kick
Mastered by George Bell against Bruce Kison in the mid-’80s, when Bell charged the mound during a Sox-Jays game, leaped in the air and unleashed a Rob Van Dam-esque superkick right into Kison’s leg. Probably the most dangerous move by a hitter (because of the spikes), it’s also an easy way to make everyone on the opposite team really, really angry. Basebrawlers look at karate kickers the same way prisoners look at child molesters.

G. The Izzy
You might remember Triple-A slugger Izzy Alcantara getting hit by a pitch this summer and super-kicking the catcher before charging the mound — apparently to eliminate the “getting caught from behind” factor — a move so outrageous that when Izzy subsequently charged the mound, everyone avoided him because they thought he had gone insane. Maybe the strangest basebrawl moment of all time.

While we’re on the subject, here are two things I would love to see batters attempt during that initial charge:

A. The Running Clothesline
Hey, it works in wrestling.

B. The Home Run Swing
For obvious reasons, hitters are discouraged from bringing their bat out to the mound for combat ? but that seems like a double-standard, doesn’t it? Somehow it’s OK to aim a 95-mph fastball at somebody’s head, but you can’t swing a bat into somebody’s ribs? Didn’t anyone see “The Warriors,” when Swan and Ajax laid out the Baseball Furies in Central Park? Hey, it’s not like anyone can get hurt in a baseball fight. We’ve already established that it’s impossible.

No. 4: The Brawl Thesaurus

Don’t you love when announcers and writers break out the thesaurus for basebrawl recaps? Where else can you hear words like “donnybrook,” “fracas” and “imbroglio”? And wouldn’t any of those words make splendid names for a band, or am I crazy?

No. 5: The Codes

Here’s a mysterious basebrawl code: If one of your players gets boinked by a pitch, you can retaliate against an opposing player of comparable value and skill — or, at least, a guy who plays the same position.

For instance, during a near-skirmish (thesaurus alert!) between the Indians and Red Sox last season, Pedro Martinez was pitching to Robbie Alomar in the eighth inning, and you knew some part-to-be-determined on the lower half of Robbie’s body was ready for a cowhide joyride. Why? Boston’s second baseman (Jose Offerman) had been blatantly plunked in the previous inning, which — by the mysterious basebrawl code — meant Pedro would be forced to retaliate against Alomar. And he did. Quid pro quo, Dr. Lecter.

Speaking of Alomar …

No. 6: The batter who doesn’t really want to fight

After Pedro plunked him in the aforementioned incident, you might remember Alomar’s “Hold me back! You better hold me back! Could somebody please hold me back?” charge of the mound, which was definitely borrowed from the Arnold Horshack playbook.

Alomar got drilled, made a couple of half-hearted steps toward the mound, bulged his eyes and tried to seem menacing, as he waited for both benches to empty. Of course, as soon as the requisite number of players ran onto the field, Robbie was suddenly a ball of fire, desperately trying to break free from Sox catcher Jason Varitek to reach Pedro. Let me at him! Let me at him!

Gimme a break. You should get tossed from the game under those circumstances, if only because you just submitted a public résumé for a position with the Giant Wuss Foundation.

No. 7. The catcher

For whatever reason, the catcher becomes The Good Guy in a brawl … he detests violence and does everything possible to lodge himself between the pitcher and hitter, even if it means getting bowled over or pummeled with punches in the process. It’s like a bizarre Code of Honor exists for them:

Thou shalt not get to my pitcher, even if I get trampled in the process.

Take Robert Fick’s performance on Friday: Since Sweeney charged the mound by surprise, Fick didn’t react in time and failed to protect his pitcher. So what happened? Outraged by the turn of events, Fick charged Sweeney a second time, after the fight had already cooled down, getting tag-teamed by two Royals in the process. And Fick wasn’t remotely injured or dazed, even though Sweeney snuck in some nasty cheapshots while Fick was being held down. Personally, I think it’s the whole “wearing a mask” thing — masks give catchers indestructible powers, like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees.

The strange thing about catchers is how they repeatedly get steamrolled in home-plate collisions, yet they won’t become agitated unless somebody comes flying in spikes first. That’s a no-no. And when catchers become angry … well, you don’t want any part of them.

Remember when Carlton Fisk beat up Thurman Munson and Gene Michael at the same time back in ’72? After Munson barreled into home plate, Fisk flipped him over and started pummeling him … and when Michael (the next batter) helped Munson by grabbing Fisk, the Sox catcher turned the tables and started choking Michael while still flailing away at Munson.

I’m telling you … don’t mess with catchers.

No. 8: The post-game press conferences

You have to love when moron reporters ask pitchers questions like, “Were you trying to hit him?” after one of those retaliation/beanball brawls. What kind of answers are they expecting?

Yes, I was trying to hit him. I was actually aiming for his head, because I was hoping to put him into a coma. Could you suspend me for 10 games instead of two? And could you triple my fine? Thanks.

No. 9: Crazy guys

There’s usually That Guy in a basebrawl who comes flying out of the dugout throwing haymakers and trying to pull a Kermit Washington on someone. Notice how it’s never a star player, either … it’s always someone like Gabe Kapler or Russell Branyan, a frustrated guy hitting .240 who feels like taking it out on someone.

The weird thing here is that you usually know the identity of the Crazy Guy from year to year. For instance, on my beloved Red Sox team, our token Crazy Guy is Trot Nixon, who would probably chase a pitcher out of Fenway Park and onto the Mass Pike under the right circumstances. Trot hasn’t enjoyed his breakout basebrawl moment yet, but it’s coming, I promise you. Sometimes you can just tell.

Some other That Guys in a basebrawl:

• The Hot Head who riles everyone up with a random flying elbow or clothesline.

• The Strapping Reliever who believes somebody crossed the line during the initial scrap and tries to “get” that person, re-igniting things in the process. You can always count on the biggest guy in the bullpen to pull a Paul Kersey and become the token vigilante of a basebrawl (like Graeme Lloyd during the memorable O’s-Yanks rumble back in ’96).

• The Hitting Coach who wants to “have a few words” with the opposing Pitching Coach. They’re like cats and dogs — just natural enemies.

• The Random Guy Who Needs to be Restrained. Always one of the funnier parts of an altercation, especially when a mild-mannered guy needs to be suddenly restrained by nine guys at once. I’ll never forget the time two years ago when Jimy Williams — a man who normally looks like he just woke up and can’t remember if he left his slippers downstairs or not — wanted a piece of Mike Hargrove during a Tribe-Sox brawl and had to be held back by half his team.

(I mean, Jimy Williams?!?!?!?!?! Wouldn’t you love to hear Jimy threatening someone? “I’ll beat the Thanksgiving stuffing out of you, mister! I’ll slap you around like a farmer who just caught a cow-tipper! This isn’t over! The early bird may have caught the worm, but worms don’t fall asleep unless there’s a full moon! You hear me! A FULL MOON!”)

No. 10: The brawl-at-a-base

The most memorable basebrawls happen at second or third base, usually after a bang-bang play when the baserunner and infielder emerge from a cloud of dust in a frenzy of fists. Since there’s always four or five seconds before the rest of the players arrive, that leaves more than enough time for a few haymakers and someone to seize the upper hand.

And yet, for whatever reason, the brawl-at-a-base is more rare than an unassisted triple play. You never see them. The watershed example happened when Pete Rose jumped little Bud Harrelson at second base during the ’73 playoffs and flipped him around like a pancake before the Mets cavalry arrived. You might also remember a classic tete-a-tete between George Brett and Graig Nettles in Game 5 of the ’76 ALCS, when both players were unbelievably allowed to remain in the game after the fight.

My favorite brawl-at-a-base happened in a Reds-Mets game at Shea during the ’86 season, when Ray Knight worked Eric Davis over at third like Sugar Ray Robinson before being swallowed whole (literally) by the entire Reds dugout. An absolute classic.

These are the moments they should be showing on ESPN Classic, I’m telling you.

(And just for the record, that ’86 Mets team had at least five good brawls that season. Don’t ask me why I know these things.)

No. 11: Creative pitchers

When Royals pitching coach Al Nipper was shown pushing Tigers coaches during last week’s brawl, it seemed fitting. Why? A former starter for the Red Sox in the mid-’80s, Nipper never received his just due for his sweeping influence on basebrawls. He was the Dick Fosbury or Kurt Cobain of his time.

I’ll explain …

Before Nipper, when hitters charged the mound, pitchers usually reacted in one of three ways:

• They lowered their shoulder and attempted to tackle them.

• They started throwing wild punches as soon as the hitter reached the mound.

• They scurried toward second base with their tail between their legs (like O’s reliever Tippy Martinez did against George “Boomer” Scott in the late-’70s, when Boomer chased him into center field at Memorial Stadium).

Nipper changed everything during a Mariners-Sox game in ’86, after Seattle’s Phil Bradley objected to a fastball planted between his fifth and sixth vertebrae. When Bradley dashed for the mound, the right-handed Nipper ripped off his glove, stepped quickly to his right, avoiding Bradley’s rush like a matador, and pummeled him with his left hand (so he wouldn’t injure his pitching hand). I mean, we’re talking about groundbreaking stuff here.

As for other pitcher moves, I’ve always been a fan of the Glove Throw, where the pitcher rushes forward and whips his glove at the charging hitter. Usually the glove bounces off the batter’s head and distracts him long enough so that the pitcher can lower his shoulder and tackle the guy. Brilliant tactic. You might remember Nolan Ryan using it to perfection before pounding Robin Ventura into submission back in 1993.

Given the success of Ryan and Nipper, have you ever wondered why teams don’t work with pitchers on basebrawl defenses in spring training? Remember, in kung fu or karate, combatants never charge their opponents, because their leverage can be used against them (either a trip or a flip). Hell, even in pro wrestling, guys who charge their opponents invariably get flipped over the ropes.

So why wouldn’t pitchers study the mechanics of a basebrawl and use the laws of physics to their advantage? If I were a pitching coach, I would immediately hire Terry Silva — the evil sensei from “Karate Kid III” — and have him work on his patented “leg sweep” with my pitchers. It only took Silva three lessons to turn Daniel-San into a bonafide killing machine, right? Imagine the headway he could make with Jeff Weaver.

No. 12: The team chemistry thing

You always hear it after a great baseball fight: This brought the guys closer together. We’re a team now. Everyone’s on the same page.

Those words ring hollow if one of the teams involved immediately embarks on a losing streak, but for the most part, they seem genuine. Usually it’s more telling when a team fails to stick up for one another.

For instance, back in the ’89 season, Red Sox reliever Joe Price was threatened by a batter, and Mike Greenwell charged out of the dugout to defend his teammate. Unfortunately for Greenwell, nobody else in the Sox dugout budged, and Greenie ended up looking like Bluto during the first part of his “It isn’t over. … Nothing is over!” speech in “Animal House.” In a related story, Boston missed the playoffs that year.

As for the Royals and Tigers … let the record show that the Royals won Friday night’s fight pretty handily, following that feat by sweeping the Tigers over the weekend. And the Tigers haven’t won a game since.

One final note before I let you go: as I took a break last night from putting the finishing touches on this piece, I turned on ESPN to catch the beginning of Baseball Tonight and … you guessed it! There was another basebrawl!!!! This one featured a homeplate collision between Pittsburgh’s Kevin Young and Arizona’s Mike DiFelice that turned surly — one of those “Get off me!”/”No, you get off me!” wrestling matches that empty the benches and rile everyone up.

Needless to say, there were no injuries. The streak continues.

Until next time …

Filed Under: Baseball, Series, Sports, The Sports Guy

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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