Did Pie defuse disaster or just avoid a bruise?

COMMENTARY: Apology to Smoak avoids the kind of brawl that has become all too expensive these days

May 12, 2011 

Norm Charlton, bless his steely heart, couldn’t have been pleased that Felix Pie made up with Justin Smoak before the Mariners’ game at Baltimore on Wednesday.

Charlton, who studied divinity at Rice, believed that retaliatory beanball pitches were a necessary evil – and he wasn’t all that convinced about the evil. The only exercise the former Seattle reliever savored more than drilling a batter was the four-fisted confrontation that often followed.

“If I throw at you and you don’t charge me,” Charlton once said, “I have no respect for you.”

There wasn’t a sequel to a strange incident that cleared the benches Tuesday, when the Orioles’ Pie tried to juke Smoak, then took objection to the first baseman’s emphatic tag. No punches were exchanged, only words and the sense that Pie could be a target for a follow-up appointment with Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez.

Those eagerly anticipating Part II – here’s thinking of you, Norm – had to be disappointed that Pie deflated a potentially tense night with an apology. But Pie’s decision to take the high road was for the best.

Hernandez didn’t need to be embroiled in somebody else’s feud. Had he administered payback to Pie, the Orioles likely answer by throwing at Smoak, one of the few productive hitters in a lineup that’s less interesting than a side dish of plain rice.

And then there’s the ensuing brawl, which would’ve been reminiscent of a memorable fight between the same teams, on the same field. Three Orioles and five Mariners – including manager Lou Piniella and, of course, Charlton – were ejected on June 6, 1993, after a 20-minute showdown instigated by Mike Mussina’s plunking of Seattle catcher Bill Haselman.

Or was it instigated by a previous brushback pitch that Chris Bosio threw at the Orioles’ Harold Reynolds?

Whatever the source, Baltimore won both the game and the brawl, because it ended with Bosio re-injuring his collarbone. He was sidelined 20 days – not the kind of return the Mariners craved for in a free-agent investment guaranteed $2.75 million that season.

Fights might be unexpected theater, but they’re bad for business. Two years before he broke Lou Gehrig’s ironman streak of 2,130 consecutive games, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. twisted his knee in a pileup during the brawl against the Mariners. Think about that: One of the most hallowed of baseball records nearly was undone because Bill Haselman charged the mound after Mike Mussina hit him with a pitch.

A legendary 1984 beanball battle between the Padres and Braves escalated into what many rank as the “best” brawl of the past 30 years. I was working for an Atlanta newspaper and covered that mess, which began – I still cringe at the memory – when the Braves’ Pascual Perez threw the first pitch of the afternoon at Padres leadoff man Alan Wiggins.

“Best” brawl? There were actually three brawls that day. Fans spilled onto the field for brawl No. 2. Brawl No. 3, in the ninth inning, found a shirtless Kurt Bevacqua, on top of the Padres’ dugout, trying to punch out the drunken spectator who’d thrown beer at him.

Insanity prevailed. Braves third baseman Bob Horner, nursing a season-ending wrist injury and watching the game from the broadcast booth, went to the clubhouse, quickly changed into his uniform, and got into the middle of it.

Despite 16 ejections and five arrests of fans nobody was seriously injured. But the fear of complete chaos breaking out – it was as if European soccer hooligans were about to invade a baseball diamond – is something you can’t forget.

A few years after that near disaster, the commissioner’s office implemented constraints on retaliation. Old-school types lament the warnings umpires issue after payback pitches – they pine for those days when teams used to police themselves – but the beanballs that lead to brawls are an unnecessary occupational hazard for pro athletes with an average annual salary of $3 million.

Besides, the players just aren’t as angry as they used to be.

“It’s a much nicer game,” Reds manager Dusty Baker told The New York Times in 2008. “Everybody knows everybody from high school, college, summer leagues, the Olympic teams, all the player movement. Guys are much more companions now.

“It’s the cost of players. For a club to lose a high-priced player now, that’s huge on the team and the fans. I’m not saying it’s for better or worse, but I doubt the other game will come back.”

Felix Pie apologized Wednesday to Justin Smoak, preventing a sequence of events that could have led to suspensions and injuries. How is that not for the better?

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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