Who knew that Cole Hamels, the spindly San Diegan, was a Don Drysdale protege and distinguished chair of the Old School Department at Baseball University?
Hamels drilled the brassy Bryce Harper with a fastball to the back on Sunday night. Hamels did it on purpose, maybe because he thinks the 19-year-old rookie is arrogant, maybe because he’s upset about the current National League East standings (Washington first, Philadelphia last), maybe some combination thereof.
For that, Major League Baseball fined Hamels Monday and suspended him for five games.
I have no problem with what Hamels did. Neither, apparently, did Harper. He referred to his aggressor as a “great guy” and “great pitcher” in remarks to reporters after the Phillies’ 9-3 victory. Hamels accepted his punishment later in the game, a fastball to the knee from Jordan Zimmermann. The umpires didn’t issue warnings until after Hamels was hit. That should have ended it. No ejections. No nonsense.
Instead, the incident has mushroomed in a manner that reflects poorly on Hamels and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo — while Harper looks like the adult in the room.
Purpose pitches have been part of the game for decades. They have a place, as long as they are used responsibly. One prominent hitter acknowledged as much in a conversation with me last week. Such “messages” are acceptable, so long as they are delivered to an area of a hitter’s body (back, thigh, buttocks) where he is likely to sustain a bruise and nothing more.
During the game, Hamels adhered to the code.
After the game, he didn’t.
“I was trying to hit him,” Hamels said, according to Amanda Comak of the Washington Times. “I’m not going to deny it. That’s just — you know what, it’s something that I grew up watching. That’s what happened. I’m just trying to continue the old baseball. I think some people kind of get away from it. . . . It’s just, ‘Welcome to the big leagues.’ ”
For Hamels, it is, “Welcome to a suspension.”
If Hamels had read his Unwritten Rulebook, he might have given the stock excuse: “Oh, the ball slipped out of my hand.” Would that have been disingenuous? Sure. Everyone at the ballpark would have known Hamels was fibbing. But it would have reduced the likelihood of a suspension, which the Phillies could have done without.
Messages are nice. Wins are better.
Hamels was justified in making the old-school baseball play. But he was unwise to publicly draw attention to his old-school baseball bona fides. (Did Bob Gibson need words to convey that he was an intimidator? Would Roy Halladay have handled the situation that way?) By admitting guilt, Hamels put pressure on Major League Baseball discipline czars to stand up for player safety — at a time when that has become a popular term in other professional sports.
That being said, what exactly did Rizzo think he was doing Monday morning?
Take a look at what he told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.
“Players take care of themselves,” Rizzo told Kilgore. “I’ve never seen a more classless, gutless chicken (bleep) act in my 30 years in baseball.
“Cole Hamels says he’s old school? He’s the polar opposite of old school. He’s fake tough. He thinks he’s going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year-old rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”
Rizzo told Kilgore that Hamels should miss at least one start, saying, “With all the bounty (stuff) going on in professional football, the commissioner better act with a purpose on this thing. Players have a way of monitoring themselves. We’re not here to hit people and hurt people.”
A few thoughts here:
• Hamels, a free agent after this season, won’t be signing with Rizzo’s Nationals.
• How could this be the most “classless, gutless chicken (bleep) act” Rizzo has seen in baseball, when the player most affected by it (Harper) had no problem with it?
• Rizzo wanted Hamels to be suspended. Fine. But how does he think the commissioner’s office will respond to his remarks? He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. What is that supposed to mean? MLB can’t allow high-ranking team executives to issue vague threats to opposing players. Rizzo will be lucky if he is not reprimanded.
• One fastball to Harper’s back is not tantamount to the NFL bounty scandal. He wasn’t trying to injure Harper in a way that will affect him for the rest of his life and career. If Hamels had opened his postgame remarks by saying, “Kill the head, and the body will die,” it would be a different story.
So, here’s where the story stands: Hamels reportedly won’t appeal the suspension, meaning he will be eligible to pitch Sunday against San Diego. The discipline will have a negligible effect on the Phillies, because they are off Thursday. (Thus, Roy Halladay can pitch in Hamels’ place Saturday on regular rest.) Whenever he returns, Hamels must shake off the controversy and continue performing superbly (4-1, 2.45 ERA) while the offense finds its way.
Harper, meanwhile, is showing that he can thrive amid the hype of his arrival to the big leagues. He stole home against Hamels following the hit-by-pitch and finished the night 2 for 3. He has a .924 OPS through his first eight big-league games. He is probably in the majors to stay, particularly in light of Jayson Werth’s broken left wrist. He looks like a pro, although his critics say he remains a conceited one.
And one more thing: The Nationals and Phillies begin their next series in Philadelphia, two weeks from now.