Unwritten rules for retaliation, beanings need undoing
Updated 6/16/2006 3:21 AM ET
Of the thousands of statistics in baseball history, one hard-to-fathom number continues to astound me, if only for its scarcity.
Only one modern-age player has been killed during a big-league game by a pitched ball — and that occurred more than 85 years ago. Yankees submarine-style pitcher Carl Mays beaned Ray Chapman of Cleveland. The ball struck the popular Indians shortstop so hard in the head that it ricocheted to a New York infielder who, mistakenly believing the ball had struck Chapman's bat, threw to first base.
It was a tragedy with lasting consequences, though it wasn't until 50 years ago that baseball helmets were mandated for the majors. Chapman died of a skull fracture. Mays' reputation was ruined.
To this day, fans leave memorabilia at Chapman's grave site, but otherwise memories appear quite short, even when stirred by the names of Don Zimmer, Tony Conigliaro or Mike Jorgensen. Those former players might have joined Chapman on baseball's regrettable short list when they were nailed by pitches and seriously injured. Baseball has been very, very fortunate.
Which brings us to Sean Tracey and Randy Johnson — and baseball's unwritten rule book regarding hardball tactics.
Some folks might not like some of its more aggressive passages, and they may need revising, but it serves as the game's authoritative bible and is unlikely to be rewritten anytime soon — if ever.
This week, Tracey, the rookie White Sox pitcher, apparently tried to do a bit of self-editing of an baseball edict etched in stone:
Thou shall retaliate.
He ended up wearing horns.
When the promising young pitcher failed to respond in kind for teammate A.J. Pierzynski getting nailed twice with pitches — he faced Texas' Hank Blalock, but only got a pitch up and in — he was yanked from the game and scolded by manager Ozzie Guillen.
Guillen later tried to cover his irritation, but Tracey was dispatched to the minors. He was said to be near tears.
"I don't want any of our hitters to get hurt, and I don't want to hurt anybody," Guillen told reporters. Partly true.
What he meant to say was that he doesn't want to see anyone permanently injured. Sticking one in the ribs is a reminder there is a policy regarding acceptable revenge.
Violence, or intimidation, always has been a part of the big leagues. That never will change. It was around in 1906 with Ty Cobb, and it's here in 2006 with Jose Mesa. Recently, the veteran reliever was plain-spoken when referring to former teammate Omar Vizquel, who said something uncomplimentary about the pitcher in his autobiography last year.
"If I face him, I'll hit him," Mesa told the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times. "I won't try to hit him in the head, but I'll hit him. And, if he charges me, I'll kill him."
Some of this is pure machismo. That doesn't make it any less dangerous or crazy. One player quite familiar with the effects of intimidation is Johnson, the Yankees' chronically cranky left-hander.
The same night Tracey refused to apply payback, Johnson had no difficulty sending a high and tight fastball message to the Indians' Eduardo Perez. Johnson was protecting not only a teammate but also his own diminished status as one of the game's most feared pitchers.
After Cleveland's Jason Johnson just missed Derek Jeter, then later plunked Jorge Posada in the elbow, Randy Johnson buzzed Perez.
"He was just protecting his catcher," the Yankees' Jason Giambi told the media in the clubhouse. "That's what baseball is all about."
There are differences between a garden-variety brush-back pitch, a retaliatory pitch with intent to hit and the bean ball. If a modern-day pitcher doesn't use the first two, it is all but assured he won't remain a modern-day pitcher for long.
The brush-back pitch has become an endangered species in recent years. Batters aggressively charge mounds, leading to bench-emptying brawls and crackdowns by league presidents. Umpires issue dire warnings and toss offending parties. Randy Johnson was suspended Thursday and fined. So was Yankees manager Joe Torre.
Of course, such policies don't change a thing about baseball's silent code, something that might only be accomplished with another tragedy. But then again, maybe not.