Puig’s rage in brawl a bad sign?
Upon further review regarding the Dodgers-Diamondbacks melee, I’m more worried about Yasiel Puig, less worried about Zack Greinke and astonished that baseball doesn’t ban bench-clearing brawls.
I’m more worried about Puig because he was out of control during the fight, renewing questions about his makeup that date back to his time in Cuba; he seemingly recovered from a strained right shoulder in record time, making a strong throw home from right field and drilling a single after entering Wednesday night’s game in the 12th inning.
I’m less worried about Greinke because he acted out of obligation to his teammates by retaliating and also took care to avoid getting hurt, declining to charge the mound after the Diamondbacks’ Ian Kennedy hit him, then steering clear of the ensuing brawl.
And I’m astonished that baseball allows such nonsense to continue when leagues such as the NBA and NHL have taken clear steps to prevent fights from escalating — the NBA by instituting a rule that players cannot leave the bench, the NHL by penalizing the first man to intervene (third man in).
Baseball delayed announcing discipline for the Dodgers-Diamondbacks embarrassment until Thursday, taking an extra day to sort through the mess. The questions about Puig, Greinke and the sport, however, aren’t going away.
The Diamondbacks were still talking about Puig’s actions Wednesday, saying that the Dodgers were shouting at him, “No! Not you!” as he kept charging back into the melee.
Nine games into his career, Puig is already that valuable. The Dodgers were fearful of losing him to an ejection (which happened) and a suspension (which almost certainly will follow).
Puig, though, was in a rage.
Kennedy had hit him the previous inning, grazing his nose with a 92-mph fastball. According to several Diamondbacks, Puig kept shouting, “Yo soy Cubano! — “I am a Cuban!” — as he drifted in and out of the fight, at one point landing a haymaker on the back of Eric Hinske’s head.
One Dodger pointed out that Puig’s heated response was hardly inappropriate, considering that he was hit in the face. Puig is 22. He has been in the US less than a year. To expect him to act like Derek Jeter is unfair.
When I asked Dodgers team president Stan Kasten if Puig’s conduct concerned him, he replied, “Not a bit. He’s a kid who plays with a lot of energy and passion — which we love.”
Manager Don Mattingly had a similar reaction.
“The one thing we’ve learned with Yasiel is that there’s no half-speed,” Mattingly said. “It’s fast. It’s hard. It’s all the time. I guess I’m really not surprised that anything that happens with Yasiel happens in a fast manner.”
Dodgers players say that Puig has been a model teammate since joining the club on June 3, playing hard, showing humility. The team also features numerous veterans who can help him through the maturing process and cultural transition.
Last week, Puig’s manager at Double A, Jody Reed, told me that the question with Puig is not maturity but “excitability … learning how to control those bursts that sometimes come out.”
Still, some in the industry questioned Puig’s makeup even before he signed his seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers last June 28. Puig did little to allay those concerns when he was arrested in late April for reckless driving, speeding and driving without proof of insurance when police said he drove 97 mph in a 50-mph zone in Chattanooga, Tenn.
It was not his first brush with the law.
Puig was banned in Cuba during the 2011 season for disciplinary reasons, and some interpreted that penalty as related to his attempts to defect. Cuban baseball expert and author Peter Bjarkman, however, told USA Today that the suspension occurred after Puig was arrested on a shoplifting charge while playing in a tournament in Rotterdam, Holland — and that his attempts to defect stemmed from his ban.
Perhaps Puig’s conduct Tuesday night was simply an isolated and understandable reaction to a career-threatening beaning. Or perhaps it was a glimpse into an explosive personality, a sign of further trouble ahead.
On Tuesday, I wrote that Greinke — after getting his left collarbone broken in a fight with the Padres’ Carlos Quentin in April — was foolish to risk injury again by hitting Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero.
On Wednesday, Mattingly all but said that Greinke had no choice to respond for Kennedy hitting Puig in the face.
“To be honest, if he doesn’t do that, he loses a lot of respect in that clubhouse,” Mattingly said. “It’s more dangerous for him not to do that than it is for him to do that.”
Sounds extreme, but Greinke was simply following baseball’s code for protecting teammates — a code to which he faithfully adheres even as a $147-million free agent.
Some Diamondbacks believe that Greinke should have been ejected, and crew chief Brian Gorman acknowledged afterward that Greinke hit Montero “on purpose.” The umpires, who can use their discretion to eject a pitcher under such circumstances, simply issued warnings to both sides, apparently believing — as the Dodgers did — that the Montero plunking settled the matter.
It should have.
Kennedy was not wrong to pitch Puig inside — that approach, in fact, might be the best way to get Puig out. The Dodgers’ objection was that Kennedy flirted with danger by missing up and in. Greinke took action, one player said, to ensure that Kennedy did not get so careless again.
In 2011, Greinke was a member of a Brewers team that kept throwing inside — with considerable success — against the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. But the dynamic changed after the Brewers’ Takashi Saito hit Pujols in the left hand, prompting the Cardinals’ Jason Motte to respond by hitting Ryan Braun in the back.
The Brewers’ pitchers had to cool it, lest their own hitters get hurt.
“Tony (La Russa) was the best at never starting it but always ending it,” Dodgers outfielder Skip Schumaker said of his former manager with the Cardinals.
“If he felt a guy was doing (questionable) stuff — especially up and in, not so much in — he was going to end it. He didn’t want anyone getting hurt. If our guy threw up and in, Tony would be pissed.”
Greinke surely remembered the exchange with the Cardinals, how it forced the Brewers’ pitchers to stop pitching so aggressively inside. That apparently was his intent when he hit Montero. But Kennedy failed to get the memo, hitting Greinke in the upper shoulder, receiving an automatic ejection, earning a near-certain suspension.
In the heat of the moment, Greinke’s reaction was telling. Like Puig, he could have suffered a serious head injury if the pitch had been an inch or two higher. But Greinke, rather than display aggressive body language or issue a verbal response — the way he did after hitting Quentin in San Diego — simply proceeded to first base.
Evidently, he is getting smarter.
Mattingly, in his pregame news conference Wednesday, had reporters laughing out loud when he spoke about the absurdity of relievers sprinting in from the bullpen to participate in brawls when “you can’t even get them to move around during BP (batting practice).”
When you think about it, the actual brawls are absurd, too.
In a game already beset by injuries, nothing good can come out of 50 players — not to mention coaches and managers — engaging in a violent scrum. Yet, baseball allows such behavior to continue, acting as if it’s still 1950 even though many players are now multi-million-dollar assets.
“I’m sure the rules will change,” Mattingly said. “I know baseball doesn’t want to see this.”
One stroke of the pen, that’s all it will take. Charge the mound, and you’re suspended for 10 games without pay. Leave the dugout — or bullpen — and you’re down for one, just like an NBA player who leaves his team’s bench during an altercation.
I’m not talking about a rule against pitching inside; that’s part of the game, a part that the players mostly police themselves, with occasional help from the umpires. I’m talking about eliminating bench-clearing brawls, and the dangers that they pose, once and for all.
Tuesday night was ugly — unnecessarily ugly.
Enough already. Make it stop.