I thought it was fantastic when Prince Fielder pretended he was a bowling ball after hitting a game-winning homer over the Giants last September. It was clever, it was original, it was funny and it even involved the whole team. Prince Fielder is like a big bowling ball. It made one giggle.
Of course, I Never Played The Game. This spring, when Barry Zito plunked Fielder with his first pitch in an exhibition game, he was praised by the baseball punditocracy for meting out what, in baseball, passes for frontier justice. What Fielder did was "Bush League." He didn't Respect The Game. Fielder needed to be punished. Fielder offended the baseball gods, because, for one brief trip around the bases, he appeared to be enjoying himself. Heaven forbid.
Allow me a moment: There are times that baseball's "unwritten rules" — well elucidated here — are pretty dumb. The whole idea of some sort of secret code that the players and managers use to police themselves seems based on the fundamental problem that baseball is not a contact sport. It is, essentially, a bunch of grown men standing around, occasionally moving their arms in a circular pattern, sometimes running short distances as fast as they can, wielding a thin sliver of sanded wood. This idea of players being thrown at by the opposing pitcher as the ultimate retribution for disrespecting the game is ridiculous. It's all part of this vague macho code that those who play baseball have invented so that it might seem they are playing a man's game, rather than a boy's.
A criticism of the designated hitter is that it doesn't allow pitchers to face the consequences of throwing at batters. The best example of this was Roger Clemens, who never went to the plate against the Mets after his bizarre broken-bat-tossing in the 2000 World Series until an interleague series in 2002. The buildup was immense: Finally, Roger Clemens would have to pay restitution for his crimes. Only in the pretty-boy world of baseball would the idea exist that the only way to get Clemens back would be to plunk him in the ass with a 75-mile-per-hour slider. (Or fail to.) You know, Mets, if you were really angry about the whole Clemens-Piazza affair, you could have always walked over to the other dugout, or waited for Clemens in the parking lot, and punched the guy in the face. That's what a rugby player would do. Those who play Australian Rules Football must be so amused by baseball retribution. Oh, you hit his butt with a baseball. Man, you must be pissed.
One of the worst offenders of this, without question, is Tony LaRussa, who, for all his strategic and locker room brilliance, appears perpetually frustrated that Bill Parcells gets to tell his players to kick other players in the groin and he can't. LaRussa is the grand caretaker of The Unwritten Rules and The Sanctity Of The Game, and lemme tell you, the Milwaukee Brewers absolutely drive him crazy. They untuck their jerseys, they throw inside, they generally feel like layabouts, lollygaggers and raconteurs. (That is to say: They're having fun.) They do not Respect The Game. If Fielder would have pulled that stunt against LaRussa, well, he'll have you know, LaRussa would totally have his pitcher throw a slider near Fielder's knees and then, later, make countless pitching changes in the seventh inning of an 8-3 game to assure that Fielder's rhythm was appropriately off. Take that, Prince! He knows what he did.
Sometimes I think baseball needs a little more Ty Cobb. (Minus the virulent racism.) That was a man who knew how to fight. Respect The Game? Yeah, sure, buddy, as soon as I remove my fist from your mouth. I don't want to see baseball turn into hockey. But a good fight, a real fight, every once in a while, might do everybody some good. Loosen everybody up, let them not act as if a goofy bowling baseball performance art piece was like snorting Lou Gehrig's ashes at second base or something. This pretend retribution, this ascot justice, it's a way to put a mock macho code on a game that, all told, isn't particularly macho. It might be nice if someone acknowledged that. And, jeez, if the fat vegetarian wants to make a dopey joke with his teammates after a meaningless walk-off home run, man, just let him already.