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Philadelphia • We are now past the time, apparently, when baseball "brawls" were semi-choreographed slow dances. The haymakers are coming.
Last month they flew from Texas's Rougned Odor to the jaw of Toronto slugger Jose Bautista for a slide gone bad, then Tuesday night from Baltimore's Manny Machado to the head of Kansas City right-hander Yordano Ventura for a pitch directly at him.
The reviews are already in, and Machado's fury-filled charge of the mound is receiving four or five stars.
"Loved it," Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said here Wednesday morning.
Buck Showalter, the Orioles' manager, was asked in the aftermath if he was disappointed in Machado's reaction to being drilled with a 99-mph fastball. The answer was swift and sure: "No." Machado, one of the game's best players, told reporters Tuesday night: "I don't regret anything."
"You go to a hockey game, and everyone who goes to a hockey game that's not a big hockey fan is saying, 'Oh, I hope I see a fight,'" said Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has previously been in the middle of these situations. "I'm not saying you want that with baseball. But the two fights this year have been pretty healthy, in my opinion."
Let's everybody retreat to their corners for a minute. Put the gloves down. Just breathe.
As we stand here Wednesday, there are two issues: fighting in baseball in general, and Ventura, the 25-year-old right-hander who just can't stop throwing at people.
Take the first one. Odor and Machado are, for the most part, being celebrated in the wake of actions that, had they been on a street corner and not a diamond, might have gotten them arrested. Major League Baseball suspended Odor for eight games (later reduced to seven) for punching Bautista May 15. A Fort Worth barbecue joint offered him free food for life. MLB was still reviewing Machado's incident Wednesday, with discipline sure to come. A Baltimore seafood place has already offered Machado free crab cakes, etc., after he laid waste to Ventura.
The message: Fans feel as if it's just fine for players to defend themselves. That's true in baseball, too. As one executive said after Bautista took out Odor with a hard, late slide at second, "Good for him!"
"I always used to tell my guys, you got two options: Go to first, or go to the mound," Maddon said.
Machado chose the mound. As is the case with most of these incidents, they weren't just about the moment. Bitterness remained between the Rangers and Bautista after the latter delivered an epic bat flip in the decisive game of their playoff series last fall. Ventura had pitched inside to Machado in his first at-bat Tuesday, after which Machado jawed at the pitcher. The tension was apparent enough that Showalter, who believed Ventura shook off a breaking ball so he could throw Machado a fastball inside, talked to Machado before he went to the plate his next time up.
"I want him actually to be aware," Showalter told reporters Tuesday night. "I don't want him up there ambushing something, because I felt like the other guy had something else on his mind."
Umpires, too, are asked to figure out what's on a player's mind. As Maddon pointed out, umpires can eject pitchers without even a warning for a pitch they deem particularly egregious. But it can be hard to pull the trigger.
"I do believe that the players do a really good job of policing all this stuff," Maddon said. "And it's really difficult. How do you determine intent?"
Players, though, tend to know it, even from afar. Two years ago, Rizzo became incensed in the Cubs' dugout when Aroldis Chapman, then Cincinnati's closer and still the hardest thrower in the game, buzzed a pair of 100-mph fastballs past the head of Cubs utility guy Nate Schierholtz. When Rizzo took his position at first base, he jawed with the entire Reds dugout and benches emptied.
"People don't really understand how competitive we are as human beings," Rizzo said Wednesday. "We play baseball, but I'm sure you go in most every clubhouse, if it's an iPhone game, if it's a little game here, ping-pong anything we're trying to win. So doing what we love to do and what we're most competitive at baseball, your emotions are going to flare both sides, Ventura and Machado.
"Getting hit like that, your reaction's obviously like, 'OK, let's go.' Sometimes they do flare, and I honestly think it's good for baseball."
What is not good for baseball, at this moment: Ventura. He is, without question, the Royals' most talented pitcher. But his volatility is too often hurting his team. Last year, he was suspended for seven games after he taunted Adam Eaton of the White Sox, instigating a brawl. Earlier in the year, he had incidents with Mike Trout of the Angels and Brett Lawrie of the Athletics. As Orioles center fielder Adam Jones told reporters Tuesday night, "The talent is all there, but between the ears, there's a circuit board off balance."
Which gets us to what really matters: Player safety. As Machado said Tuesday, "Ninety-nine is no joke. You can ruin somebody's career like that."
Yet hitters, every day, are asked to stand in against that kind of stuff. Combined with Ventura's apparent temper, there is apparent danger. It doesn't go unnoticed, either, that Ventura plays in the American League, and therefore doesn't have to dig into the batter's box and face a similar fastball.
"Ventura went lower, which is 'nice,' if you can say that," Rizzo said. "But throwing that hard, it's scary. Guys have to pitch inside. I don't think that pitch was meant to be inside. That was to hit him. It's tough."
So we have the current environment, one in which baseball's aggrieved are expected to protect themselves. MLB may well legislate against Machado for his reaction. Inside clubhouses, though, it is both understood and applauded.