To Shun the Bean Ball is to Shun Baseball Itself
The act of the bean ball and purpose pitch has come under attack by none other than Buster Olney who is one of the most prominent baseball writers out there today (Peter Gammons also joined the idiot parade with a tweet of epic lunacy). Olney believes that baseball must forgo its legacy of the purpose pitch for fear of injury to some of its players. This is a misguided attempt to understand what is wrong with baseball today and shows Only has a complete misunderstanding of the bean ball in baseball. What makes this stance so egregious is that by shunning the bean ball Olney is shunning the game of baseball itself and trying to eradicate something that is in the heart of the game.
Baseball has a long and storied tradition of the purpose pitch/bean ball. A delivery from the pitcher that either intentionally brushes a batter back from the plate or hits the batter in question. Many pitchers, and many of the best pitchers, have used the purpose pitch to announce loud and clear, “you are getting too comfortable at the plate, time for that to change.” Buster Only would have you believe “baseball must end it’s beanball legacy.”
He uses the story of how hall of famer Jim Palmer almost never threw at opposing batters and when he finally did so, claimed it was, “my one act of stupidity in 20 years.” He continues to use the Baltimore Orioles organization to substantiate his point. He delves into the tale of how Mike Mussina once retaliated in a game and the batter charged him on the mound. In the ensuing fracas Mussina strained his shoulder and produced an awful 8.50 ERA over his next seven starts. In the same brouhaha (yes, sportscasters love describing basebrawls), Cal Ripken Jr. strained his knee and had to endure thoughts of possibly missing a game, putting his Iron Man streak in jeopardy (he did not miss any games).
Olney is not done however trying to prove his point. He attempts to bolster his argument with even more anecdotes of how everyone remembers the pitchers that hit guys in the head, and nobody wants to be remembered for that. This is where Buster is, if not blatantly subversive, patently misleading. He rattles off six different instances of batters getting hit in the face and the pitchers that tossed the poison pill. The problem is, none of the instances in question were purposeful bean balls. To equate an accidental head shot with a purpose pitch is blasphemous to the game of baseball, and a good baseball writer like Only should know better.
The Bean Ball and Other Fine Arts Have Been Forgotten
The main issue in today’s game is not the act of the purpose pitch, but that some of the fine arts in baseball are no longer practiced. Ty Cobb claimed to have as many as 15 different slides. Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles apparently cannot master one. His slide into the knee of Dustin Pedroia sparked a multi-game bean ball war between the Orioles and the Red Sox. Either his slide was intentional, which he should get hit for, or he is so bad at sliding, he should get dinged for not knowing an integral part in the game of baseball.
This is where we have to come back to Olney’s point; a purpose pitch if it misses high can end up hitting a guy in the head. While it is true Matt Barnes of the Boston Red Sox missed high when throwing at Machado, it goes to show the art of the purpose pitch has also been lost. Barnes was missing high all night and it should not have shocked anybody when his retaliation sailed high. A pitcher that cannot throw at somebody correctly (above the knees and below the shoulders) is just as bad as a player that cannot slide properly. A pitcher unleashed a dangerous purpose pitch? Your star should get plunked too, once he does, everyone is all square.
Olney wants you to believe that pitchers who retaliate with bean balls and organizations that foster that culture should be shunned. He uses the anecdotal evidence to prove his point, but there is just one teeny weeny problem with all that; some of the best pitchers of the past 50 years utilized the purpose pitch to otherworldly success.
The Bean Ball Can Be Used for Success
Bob Gibson was one of the hardest throwing pitchers and nastiest pitchers in the history of baseball. Go to YouTube and find some of high highlights. You tell me if he knew how to throw a purpose pitch. After you do that, realize that his 258+ in 1968 is seventh best all-time. Oh, but that was almost 50 years ago.
Fine. Roger Clemens, “the Rocket,” once threw the shard of a broken bat at Mike Piazza (probably roid rage induced, but whatever). To say Clemens was even keeled out on the mound and did not hit his fair share of batters would be a lie. To say Clemens has two of the top 15 ERA+ seasons in history would be a fact (226 in 2005, 222 in 1997) and his propensity for throwing inside and at batters had a great deal to do with those numbers.
Finally we get to probably the best pitcher’s season of all-time. Pedro Martinez’s 200 campaign. His ERA+ was an unreal 291. The only man better was Time Keefe… in 1880. Pedro’s season was so good that the next man below him on the list (Dutch Leonard) put up a 279 (1914) and you have go to Greg Maddux in 1994 to find the first entry in modern baseball and Maddux produced an ERA+ of 271.
Pedro’s 2000 campaign was 20 degrees better than the nearest modern baseball pitcher, and Pedro, more than any other modern day pitcher was known for his ability to pitch inside and his proclivity to hit opposing batters. Pedro is the only guy in the history of baseball to hit a guy, WITH A A PERFECT GAME GOING, and the batter charged the mound. Pedro got under guys’ skin so well he made them lose all control. If you can do that as a pitcher, you have already won 90% of the battles that day.
But let us get back to Olney as he tries to close out his article. He brings to the forefront Andy Pettitte, who was a “conscientious objector,” when it came to bean balls. Pettitte was on the mound when his counterpart:
Kip Wells — a hard-throwing right-hander with erratic command — drilled Bernie Williams in the side of the head in the top of the first inning. Williams lay on the ground in pain, his feet kicking.
In the bottom of the first, Pettitte took the mound for the Yankees, and with one out and a runner at first, Pettitte smoked Magglio Ordonez with a fastball. What happened seemed apparent — in this emotional time, Pettitte had hit Ordonez on purpose because he, like Williams, was the No. 3 hitter in the lineup for his team.
OLNEY IS DISPROVING HIS OWN POINT. Here you have one pitcher with no control accidentally hitting a batter in the head. Pettitte, who almost never protected his own batters, actually did so and did so in a manner that did not hurt anybody. Pettitte had great control throughout his career and when it came time for him to throw at a batter, he was a good enough pitcher that he hit the opposing batter and the matter was settled.
Olney wants to eradicate the bean ball from baseball because heaven forbid somebody get hurt playing a professional sport. This is where the virtue signaling comes in stronger than ever. Only wants to protect the players because otherwise the product will get watered down. But here is the nasty truth about today’s baseball. It is pretty boring. This pains me as somebody that played baseball his whole life and loves the sport for everything it is, but with strikeouts higher than ever and seemingly 95% of the league incapable of getting a guy in from third with less than two outs, the game needs excitement. Bean balls and brawls are some of the most exciting things that can happen on the diamond.
By trying to completely erase the history and tradition of the bean ball, Olney is doing a disservice to baseball. He only sees the cons and none of the pros. He disregards the plain fact some of the best pitchers of all-time relished hitting batters. He brings up Cal Ripken Jr’s Iron Man streak and how it was once (maybe) put in jeopardy, but conveniently forgets one of the greatest moments in baseball history (the Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series) probably never happens without Bronson Arroyo plunking Alex Rodriguez and the brawl that followed. That brawl completely galvanized the Red Sox and propelled them to their first World Series in 86 years.
But sure, let us worry about bean balls and intentional walks, because that is truly what is wrong with baseball today, and not batters inability to make contact or players having no idea how to slide. Heaven forbid a baseball fan watches a game of baseball and expects baseball players to make baseball plays.
Baseball is America’s pastime, but in today’s culture you are morally obligated to feel superior if you shun the past. As Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham said, “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring and besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some groundballs, they’re more democratic.” Anybody that watches today’s baseball sees a ton of fascism.
I guess I just liked the game of baseball I saw growing up when it was the catcher’s fault if he did not know how to protect himself in a collision at home (Buster Posey). I liked knowing the plate belonged to the pitcher and loved watching hurlers own both the outside and inside corner and hunted batters when they got too arrogant at the plate or one of their starts got plunked. I liked the democracy of baseball and the knowledge the game has been played relatively the same way for almost 90 years. But now the fascists are winning because strikeouts are king and to enjoy the past, in a game known as “America’s pastime,” is to be on the wrong side of history. That is fine though, baseball writers like Buster Olney think they are saving the game of baseball by trying to legislate away bean balls and shun the past. If they have their way bean balls will be gone… but the game of baseball will soon follow the bean ball and disappear into the proverbial cornfields.