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Monday, April 21, 2014

Brew Ha Ha!

I enjoy sports. I play sports. I like baseball. I’m not a fan of WWE. I don’t think excessive brawling, long term, is good for any sport. I hate moments when I am involved in rec level sports in which one or two guys get carried away with elevated testosterone levels and an altercation ensues. I thought yesterday’s Easter Sunday brawl between the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates was awesome!'s epic! 1

Perhaps there is a subconscious part of me that craves a little sports nostalgia. The morning before the Brewers’ brew-ha-ha with the Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, I watched the “30 for 30” documentary “Bad Boys” on ESPN, about the Detroit Pistons teams of the late 80s and early 90s, including consecutive championships in 1989 and 1990. The Pistons were the villains of the NBA at that time. Nowadays, words like “thug”, “goon”, and “dirty” are often overused and misused. Those labels were perfectly fitting for the Bad Boys Pistons. The documentary was full of video highlights supporting that assertion.

Shortly after watching the program, I found myself craving little more aggression in my sports viewing than normal. I watched the Game 1 first round of the NBA Playoffs between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers – two teams that do not like each other. The game officials kept the players on a short leash, dishing out fouls like people dish out candy on Halloween for the least, little sign of aggression. Blake Griffin of the Clippers and Andre Iguodala fouled out of the game. Five of the other eight starters would finish the game in foul trouble.

Ordinarily, I would complain that the officials were trying to control the game and exerting too much influence. Given the two teams participating and their recent histories, however, I understood the reasoning and it worked; there was only one technical foul and zero flagrant fouls during the game. While there were several moments in which I could see players exchanging some choice words (not “Holy Saturday” or wishing one another a “Fun Easter”), the extracurricular contact between players was minimal, to my temporary disappointment.

In the 80s and 90s, flared tempers followed flying fists or at least strong shoves were no uncommon between rival opponents with mutual contempt. Concerned for the image of the NBA, former Commissioner David Stern led the charge to put rules in place in the late 1990s that would bring the hammer down on players turning the basketball court into a boxing ring, including fines and suspensions for leaving the bench for a skirmish, let alone putting one’s hands on another player. The days of the NBA tough guys, as we knew them (especially in the Eastern Conference at that time), were over.

This was Bill Laimbeer being nice. 3


Major League Baseball, reactive rather than pro-active as usual, followed suit within a few years. In the 20th century, bench clearing brawls in baseball, especially between division rivals, were just a part of the game, albeit much less frequent, as fights are in ice hockey. Fines, if any, were of a token nature and suspensions were extremely rare unless malicious injuring resulted from a team fight. Lengthy suspensions were almost unheard of. However, with the NBA making pro-active strides to rid its game of thuggery and even NHL hockey tightening its controls over glove-dropping goons, MLB codified fines and suspensions into its rules that would make players feel more than a pinch if they incited or inflamed a fracas.

The “bench clearing brawls” that I grew up with, in which disrespect from a rival often ended with a few punches in the faces of one another, were replaced my mass player meetings on the diamond and stern talking-tos exchanged. Maybe someone might get pushed…perhaps even pushed to the ground. That’s it. Scenes of punches and pandemonium were being cleaned up in America’s Pastime.


So why am I talking about what happened yesterday? What happened exactly and what was so awesome about it? One would expect me to applaud the efforts to remove fighting from the sport and frown upon the caveman antics of two jocks in chest-thumping measuring contest gone bad. Right?

Pirates starting pitcher Geritt Cole served up a two out pitch in the 3rd inning that was smashed into center field by Brewers centerfielder Carlos Gomez. Gomez’s reputation for running hot precedes him. Yes, it’s that Carlos Gomez who was ready to single-handedly tangle with the entire Atlanta Braves roster in a similar incident last September.

Gomez gave his bat a little flip (which can tantamount to a little bird flip to the pitcher depending on the situation, past histories, and body language), began a less-that-full-speed jog to first and the ball watched (also a potential violation of the unwritten “baseball code”), presumably because he thought it would either be a home run or a long fly out. It was neither. The ball hit the wall and was in play, at which time Gomez began to high-tail it around the bases, stopping at third base with a triple. 

Cole went to back up third base on the play. On his way back to the mound, Cole uttered some choice words to Gomez about his conduct on the bases. Gomez took umbrage and told Cole what he could do with his “career advice” and tempers began to flare. Like a flash-bomb, words became heated, personal space was violated, and within seconds, both benches emptied.

This is not Gomez's first rodeo. 2

People were holding one another back, shoving, cursing and the coup de gras was Brewers reserve catcher Martin Maldonado delivered a knuckle sandwich to Pirates outfielder Travis Snider’s dome, both of whom left the bench when the fireworks started. Gomez, Snider, and Brewers bench coach Jerry Norton were ejected and a multi-game suspension of Maldonado is imminent.

While I doubt management of either club approved of the incident, sometimes you need to start a fire to stay warm. The excitement of season-opening April baseball tends to subside after a few weeks. It’s a long season and October is a F..A..R away. The NBA Playoffs and its related storylines dominate the front and back pages of the sports section (as well as the middle). Only the most die-hard of baseball fans have much motivation to pay a lot of attention to MLB until late June, leading up to the All-Star break, after the NBA Finals are over.

More so, too many baseball players look like they’re just going the motions until the September races heat up. Modern day players are so brand an image conscious that fans seldom get anything juicy in the sound bite department. Where’s the passion? Why should I care as a fan if every day is just another day at the office for the players?

Then…BAM! Two division rivals meet up. One team, the Brewers, is hot, in first place and off to a surprisingly fast start. The other, the Pirates, was a playoff team from last year with eyes on the division title and the pennant, yet is slumping early in the year with a sub-.500 record. The short fused player on the hot team dishes out a little more misfortune to the slumping team and the fireworks fly!

Sometimes you have to punch a guy in the face to keep the peace. 4

Yesterday’s blowup insured one thing: these division opponents, who meet each other no less than any other teams on their schedules, have upped the interest in their future games this season. Familiarity in sports mixed with contempt always makes for a better spectacle than without those two elements. For a sport that often drags behind the rest of the sporting world in evolving during a time of year in which the game is competing with the playoffs of two major sports leagues (NBA, NHL) and the ramping interest in next month’s NFL Draft, a good, old-fashioned brawl was just what the doctor ordered for MLB. 

The game ended in a Brewers win after a 14 game marathon. Free baseball...what do they do for an encore? 5
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