Baseball Fights Are Changing, and We Need a New Response

Brawling has long been part of baseball, but this year's incidents—most recently, Manny Machado's DDT on Yordano Ventura—have been different. The league and its fans should acknowledge that.

by Jonathan Bernhardt
Jun 9 2016, 3:29pm

Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Let's say you're listed in the official program at six-foot-nothing and 195 on the scale, and let's say that's about two inches and twenty pounds generous. Let's also say you're an extremely talented pitcher with a great fastball, off-speed stuff that moves, and a couple good postseason appearances to your credit. You're doing fine.

Further, let's say that last season you decided it was a productive use of your team's time to fuck with Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie, and Adam Eaton in the course of about one month's worth of starts. Let's say the reason you got into it with these guys was because of perceived slights you either committed or exacerbated, and your team had to bail you out every single time, because you're a smallish dude that can't throw hands. To lose the hypotheticals: that team is the Kansas City Royals, and your name is Yordano Ventura. Are you an isolated incident, or a symptom of something larger at work in baseball?

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On Tuesday night, Ventura buried a 99-mile-per-hour fastball in the ribs of Baltimore Orioles infielder Manny Machado, after the two men had exchanged words during one of Machado's previous at-bats. Machado charged the mound, reached it unimpeded, dodged a flailing right hand from Ventura, connected with his own right across the Royals pitcher's face, and then put him in some kind of chokehold head-drop wrestling move that took Ventura to the ground as they both disappeared under the pile. Don't believe people telling you that Ventura took Machado down. Check the footage. The Baltimore shortstop landed a genuine DDT on Kansas City's most irritable starter.

This all happened less than a month after a fight between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays: Jays superstar Jose Bautista slid hard into second base, came up talking shit, and got demolished by Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor's quick right hand.

When people think of baseball fights, they generally think of guys charging and then hesitantly flailing at each other for a few seconds before their respective teams intercede to separate the, uh, "combatants" while words continue to be exchanged. Odor–Bautista and Machado–Ventura were not hold-me-back basebrawls, however, but actual fights—confrontations where the guys going toe to toe not only intend to hurt each other but mostly know how to do so. Odor hit Bautista with a very clean, very hard right hand, and Machado's own punch-into-chokehold-into-takedown showed both fairly competent wrestling form and a willingness to attempt some dangerous shit on the baseball diamond. Dropping people on their head, in any context, is no joke. Done the wrong way, people's necks get messed up from this sort of thing. Ventura, luckily, was fine.

Machado will probably be sitting for a week after this altercation, and Ventura is likely to get the standard starter's penalty of five or six games, which is effectively one skipped start. It's possible the league will look at Ventura's history and drop a two-start suspension on him, but that seems unlikely. Charging the mound has always been punished more severely than beanballing. The rest has played out as it usually does. Machado's won some respect in his locker room for his actions, rightly or wrongly, and given the hesitance and careful wording coming out of the Royals clubhouse—check out catcher Sal Perez's mediated excuse for not chasing Machado down—it's unlikely that Ventura has too many friends left in his own organization.

TFW you're very eager to receive a second DDT from someone bigger than you. Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Is this indicative of some dangerous leap forward with regard to competence in baseball fighting? Not necessarily. There's an argument to be made that the proliferation of combat sports, both as entertainment and amateur exercise indulgence, could be responsible for Odor's quick right hand or Machado's neck drop, but it's not a particularly convincing one and also who is even having that argument. Odor has been in fights—strikingly similar ones, in the minors—and Machado probably just wanted to take a dude to the ground while choking him. When the dude in question is Yordano Ventura, Machado is almost certainly not alone in that.

This isn't even the first time someone named Ventura has been put in a pro graps move; Nolan Ryan certainly hadn't been watching UFC when he put Robin Ventura in a headlock in 1993, and then pummeled the hell out of him. The infamous 1998 Orioles–Yankees brawl involving Armando Benitez took no cues from MMA, but everyone there was admirably dedicated to hurting each other. Arguably, this has very little to do with the players themselves. They've always wanted to hurt each other when they're upset. This, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, is why they're fighting in the first place.

Rougned Odor and Jose Bautista, seen here back when they were an acclaimed modern dance duo. Photo by Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Our perceptions of baseball fights could probably stand to change, however. They're not goofy spectacles to laugh at, or more to the point not just goofy spectacles to laugh at. The comedy (and the adrenaline rush) inherent in watching these throwdowns play out is not likely to change anytime soon, but the anatomy of a guilty pleasure is that you feel the guilt as much as the pleasure. Baseball is not a combat sport, and people shouldn't be delivering combat-sport punches or combat-sport takedowns on a baseball diamond. A proper forum exists for that, and it's not this one. That's true no matter how annoying Yordano Ventura is.

Which means Machado will take his suspension, justly earned, and hopefully Ventura will take a similarly just one himself—hopefully, a suspension that takes into consideration his past behavior, and what he did to cause the brawl Tuesday night. Fights don't spring forth from the ether fully formed and unblamable; they're the culmination of bad vibes and acts. The disciplinary actions from the league should take all that into account.

Ultimately, for all of MLB's fetishized rough justice via beanball, it's on the league to more stringently and effectively police this stuff, even if they can only do so retroactively. These fights are still going to happen, because baseball players are baseball players, and people do dumb things. When tempers do explode, we may not be able to stop watching, because baseball fans are baseball fans, and enjoy dumb things. These fights aren't a significant part of the game, and that's for the best. But they're not what they once were, and as such we should at least give the combatants their due: these are more serious fights than we've seen in the past, and more serious fights should carry more serious penalties, if only because they can also have more serious consequences.