The Old Brawl Game

Baseball trades fights for hugs in the age of steroid testing

When the Cubs' Michael Barrett slugged A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox in the jaw during an interleague game between the Chicago rivals last weekend, a good, old-fashioned bench-clearing brawl broke out.

Emphasis on the "old-fashioned." It was only the second fight of a season that's already nearly two months old. Back in the day it seemed like whup-ass cans were opened just about every time a pitcher tossed a brush-back ball. So what's with the Major League group hug? Here's a thought: They're off the 'roids.

Everyone remembers the fracas following Jason Varitek's glove-to-the-face of Alex Rodriguez in July 2004, almost as vividly as they recall Pedro Martinez knocking portly septuagenarian Don Zimmer to the ground the year before (following, as it did, a brawl between Yankees' players and a Fenway groundskeeper who was cheering too loudly in the Bombers' bullpen).

It's important to note that there's little way for the public to know whether any given player back then was on the juice—certainly Zimmer, who charged Martinez, would have been an unlikely positive.

But it's also worth noting that there has been no such angst through the two teams' seven meetings so far this year. And the most heated moment in the rivalry last season came when the Yanks' Gary Sheffield went for a line drive and was smacked in the head by a Sox fan. Sheffield gave him a courtesy shove, then went back to playing ball.

After the record-setting exploits of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and company were called into question, stricter steroid testing was instituted last year, ostensibly to level the playing field. But might the pronounced reduction in on-the-field violence – suspensions in 2005 were down 21 percent from 2003, according to a league official – be an unforeseen result of players staying off drugs that are notorious for stoking rage?

A look at the press releases MLB issues when disciplinary action is taken shows that, through the course of the '05 season, there were only three disciplines for team tussles. And a review of last year's game recaps finds only one case of a batter charging the mound. That's right – one batter: Detroit's Carlos Guillen, who took offense at being popped in the head by a fast one from Kansas City's Runelvys Hernandez in July.

"A pitcher cannot throw at a player's head," Detroit's peacenik catcher Ivan Rodriguez reportedly said after the game. "It's not a good thing to do." C'mon, Ivan. There's no crying in baseball.

Though there was the usual spate of grumpy players throwing balls, helmets, and other paraphernalia onto the field last year, at least they didn't throw it into the stands, as Rangers' reliever Frank Francisco did with a chair the year before—he broke a woman's nose and was later charged with felony battery. (He wasn't thrilled with the fans' heckling, he said.)

MLB data show that 36 players were disciplined for bad behavior in 2002, almost twice the 20 similarly disciplined during the 2005 season. When asked to what the league attributes the drop-off in suspensions and ejections, Vice President Bob Watson, the league disciplinarian, issued a statement citing MLB's efforts to improve umpires' handling of "on-field situations."

"This, combined with steps taken to further educate the clubs and their players on the discipline process, have led to a positive trend," Watson's statement read.

Does the league see any link between lessened violence and the steroid ban? Said Rob Manfred, the league's executive VP for labor relations, in another statement: "Overall there's not enough evidence to even speculate as to whether there's a correlation, and that's the only thing the league can say."

While suspensions for violent behavior have dipped, another kind of suspension has gone way up: the kind handed out to players who violated the league's new anti-steroid policy. Ten Major Leaguers were penalized last year for violations of the drug rules, which would be an increase of infinity from the zero steroid violations noted in the year prior. At least 85 minor leaguers were suspended last year on drug charges, too. Another spate of minor leaguers has been similarly penalized this year, though no big league player has yet to test positive in '06.

So the players who used steroids were punished (most famously, Rafael Palmeiro, less than six months after he told Congress, "I have never used steroids. Period."), and those who might have been considering using them were put on notice. The two fights so far in 2006 come despite a record plague of batters being hit by pitches – the surest trigger for a scrap. Through May 24, according to Stats LLC, 574 had been plunked. That's a higher figure than at that point in any year since 1998, when the league expanded to 30 teams. Batters are less aggressive, and the pitchers seem to know it.

Though it's bad news for headline writers fond of the old "BASEBRAWL!" cliche, maybe the league's newfound pacifism is a sign players really are steering clear of drugs that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says can cause "aggression and other psychiatric side effects," such as "extreme mood swings ... including manic-like symptoms leading to violence."

Kinda sounds like a slugger who just took one high and tight, circa 2002, doesn't it?

 
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