The two series this season between the Red Sox and the Orioles have featured ugly incidents, bad behavior and misguided machismo that have put a spotlight on the worst that baseball has to offer. Somehow these teams even managed to drain the fun out of a triple play.
If this is the face of the game, put a paper bag over it, please. On the one hand, it would be great if commissioner Rob Manfred could hand down an edict to destroy all available evidence of what's transpired, but on the other, it’s clear that the league, its teams and its players need to confront the various incidents in order to prevent a repeat either this season or in the years to come.
How have these two series stunk? Let us count the ways.
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1. Injured Stars
The bad blood began in the eighth inning of Baltimore’s 2–0 win over Boston at Camden Yards on April 21, when Manny Machado slid into second base late; his right foot was well over the bag when he spiked Dustin Pedroia in the left calf. Pedroia fell to the ground, and while Machado braced his fall, the Red Sox second baseman limped off the field with the assistance of trainers and missed the team's next three games due to swelling in his knee (which had been surgically repaired over the winter) and ankle. The Sox lost two of the three games (a rainout against the Yankees that he would have missed was rescheduled for July). Fortunately the injury wasn't more severe.
Machado almost certainly didn't intend to injure Pedroia. His slide was poorly executed, but that's not to say that it was illegal. It began before he reached second base, was directed at the base, and he attempted to stay on the base. There's an argument to be had over whether Pedroia was attempting to turn a double play or not; Boston manager John Farrell maintained that he was, and that Machado's contact was therefore illegal, but Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer in charge of overseeing umpires, ruled that he was not, and even Pedroia said as much, telling reporters, “We're trying to get one out. I just put my foot on the back part of the base to try to get that out. If [Machado] just slid into the part of the base that I gave him, he would've been safe.” Asked if he thought he slide was illegal, Pedroia said, “I'm not the baseball police, man…I don't have an issue with anything. My job is to play baseball and win. This isn't seventh grade, man.”
Nearly two weeks later, the fallout from the collision has continued to linger, with every move scrutinized to the point that when Orioles pitcher Dylan Bundy hit Mookie Betts in the left hip with a fastball on Monday night, CSN New England's Evan Drelich pointed out that Bundy's two hardest pitches of the night, both 94 mph, were both inside pitches to Betts, including the one that hit him. Thankfully, Betts wasn't injured and took his base, but that didn't stop the bad behavior.
2. A Beanball War
With knuckleballer Steven Wright starting for the Red Sox on April 22, baseball's archaic system of frontier justice was put on hold until the eighth inning of the next day's game, when Boston reliever Matt Barnes threw a pitch way too close to Machado's head. The slugger ducked, and while it initially looked as though he was hit by the pitch, it actually ricocheted off his bat, a foul ball. Barnes was ejected, and even the sidelined Pedroia expressed his disapproval of the errant pitch, calling across the field to Machado, “That's not me … If it was me, we would have hit you the first day. Now, it’s not me,” and later saying in a statement, “I just told him I didn't have anything to do with that. That's not how you do that.”
Barnes, who threw up and in when catcher Christian Vazquez was set up low and away, nonetheless denied he was trying to hit Machado, but at the same time, he said he understood the reaction: “I would never intentionally throw at somebody's head. That's a line you don't cross. He has every right to be mad.” Barnes drew a four-game suspension, a slap on the wrist considering how potentially devastating his actions were.
While Bundy's hitting of Betts drew suspicion, it was seemingly above board; to suggest that he intentionally hit a batter in order to face the red-hot Hanley Ramirez as the tying run makes little sense. The same could not be said of Chris Sale's 98 mph heater behind Machado's legs in his first plate appearance on Tuesday night, which was read as a reaction not only to Machado's initial slide but to his slow trot around the bases after homering over the Green Monster off Rick Porcello on Monday night, a journey that took 29.2 seconds according to Statcast's Daren Wilman, his second-slowest since 2015. Both benches were immediately warned after Sale's errant pitch, and no further drama ensued on that front. Still, it was a dangerous pitch, and the context left little doubt of Sale’s intent.
3. Manny Being Manny
This isn't the first time Machado has found trouble in a series of escalating confrontations. In 2014, after overreacting to a hard but clean tag by Oakland's Josh Donaldson, he spiked his batting helmet in Donaldson's direction, which nearly led to blows as both benches and bullpens cleared. Two days later, he hit Oakland catcher Derek Norris twice with his backswing. While the contact was incidental, he expressed no concern or professional courtesy toward Norris, who was forced from the game. Later in the game, after A's reliever Fernando Abad took two shots at trying to hit Machado’s lower body, he let the bat fly out of his hands on a swing; it landed near third baseman Alberto Callaspo, and benches and bullpens cleared again. Machado issued a hollow apology and was suspended for five games. In 2016, he was suspended for four games after he charged the mound and punched Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, who had hit him in the back with a 99 mph fastball after Machado had words for him following an earlier a-bat that game in which Ventura threw inside twice to Machado.
After Tuesday night's game, Machado sounded like he was looking for even more trouble. Asked about Sale's pitch, he uncorked a profanity-laced tirade during which he dropped dozens of f-bombs and said, “I lost my respect for that organization, that coaching staff and everyone over there.” He also added, “I’ve got a [expletive] bat too. I could go up there and crush somebody if I wanted to. But you know what, I’ll get suspended for a year, and the pitchers only get suspended for two games. That’s not cool.”
Machado had a point about MLB's discipline in such matters (more on which below), and he shouldn't have to fear for his safety every time he steps to the plate. But by intimating further violence, he also sounded unhinged, particularly with the aforementioned incidents on his resumé. For a 24-year-old face-of-the game superstar with a massive contract ahead, that's no way to conduct yourself, nor will it win anyone’s respect. It certainly didn't earn the respect of Sale, who said, “I can’t speak to what he said. I’m not too worried about it. Whatever man, I’m not losing sleep.”
Machado need look no further than Pedroia for an example on how to handle himself. The one player actually injured in this mess is the one who attempted to defuse the situation when asked, and at least publicly, did the most to discourage further escalation.
4. MLB's Tepid Response
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here goes: MLB needs to do more to deter beanball wars by increasing the penalties for those involved. In recent years, the league has taken steps to protect catchers and infielders from unnecessary contact with baserunners, but it hasn't similarly taken action to protect batters from being hit intentionally. The penalties—which rarely exceed six or seven games, amounting to one missed start or a few relief appearances—aren't enough to prevent such occurrences, and it's only a matter of time before a purpose pitch becomes a career-altering disaster. No, the players aren't Faberge eggs, and yes, they traditionally use those pitches to self-police behavior outside the norm. But just because somebody can survive a fastball to the elbow, ribs or derriere doesn't mean that it's right. The days of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale headhunting are half a century old. There's no more need to glorify them than there is to celebrate Ty Cobb spiking someone.
Manfred has shown his willingness to push for changes to bring the game into the 21st century, but he can't do it without the cooperation of the players' union. He can't get away with unilaterally handing down a 15-game suspension for Barnes or Sale or the next guy who drills someone intentionally without either a direct precedent or a collectively bargained change in policy, because such a suspension would certainly be overturned on appeal.
Sadly, it’s probably going to take a severe injury for the league and the union to act on this front. At least Manfred and Torre stepped into the fray before Wednesday’s game with a conference call that included both teams’ managers and GMs. Torre said that Sale would likely be suspended, and Manfred said the two teams would face further discipline if they continued to throw at one another.
5. The Adam Jones Incident
This one is beyond the pale. After Monday night's game in Fenway Park, Jones said that a fan hurled a bag of peanuts as well as racial epithets at him. While he avoided physical injury, the five-time All-Star and three time Roberto Clemente Award nominee—who hasn't been afraid to speak up about issues of race and baseball before—had every right to be angry about the way he was treated. No one should have to endure that, and in a sport that less than a month ago celebrated the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and putting the game at the forefront of this country’s civil rights movement, it's an even darker stain. Particularly so at a time when African-American representation levels in both the majors and the minors have fallen so drastically.
Unfortunately, Jones' treatment wasn't an isolated incident. Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and even current Red Sox David Price and Jackie Bradley Jr. say that they've been the targets of racial slurs at Fenway Park, with Sabathia telling Newsday's Erik Boland, “There's 62 of us [African-American major league players]. We all know. When you go to Boston, expect it.” Indeed, the city of Boston has a well-documented history of mistreating players of color. The Red Sox took until 1959 to integrate, making them the last major league team to do so; they passed on Robinson and Willie Mays, as Howard Bryant recounted in his 2002 book, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, and long after they integrated, troubling incidents involving players such as Jim Rice and Tommy Harper surrounded the team.
But for all of the apologies issued to Jones—by Red Sox team president Sam Kennedy, Boston mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, and the fans at Fenway who greeted Jones with an ovation on Tuesday night—this isn't just about Boston, not in this country's increasingly polarized political environment, where civil rights are being rolled back. To the extent that baseball is supposed to serve as an entertaining diversion from the world’s harsher realities, it's important for the Red Sox and the 29 other teams to take a strong stand against fans who feel emboldened to spew abuse while at the ballpark. Teams need to be forceful in addressing such conduct, players need to speak up and fans need to assist identifying ticketholders who cross the line.
The Red Sox and the Orioles still have 12 more games between them this season. Let’s hope that those aren’t the blight on the schedule that the past five have been.