That's not how the game is played

June 08, 1993

Baseball is seldom a contact sport -- sliding into a base is about the only exception. So it was startling to see the brawl that erupted Sunday at Camden Yards. True, there are several a season -- an equally serious one took place just last week between the California Angels and Toronto Bluejays. But somehow 20-minute melees like that between the Orioles and Seattle Mariners seem more incongruous than in other major sports.

Most baseball fans have conflicting emotions at the spectacle of two teams clearing their dugouts and their bullpens for a free-for-all. One is some sympathy for the players' need to protect their teammates. Baseball lore holds that it is a pitcher's obligation to retaliate against the other team for dusting off or actually hitting one of his teammates with the ball. It's not part of baseball lore -- but a fact just the same -- that the chosen target is often one of the other team's best hitters, or at least a batter who has recently done some damage to the pitcher's ego.

The conflicting emotion, however, is the belief that brawling has no place on the baseball diamond. While a hockey fight can be far more damaging -- sticks and sharp skate blades can get involved -- at least the players are well padded. It sometimes seems the fights are encouraged by owners who think a little bloodletting draws audiences. Until recently, at any rate, signs of serious disapproval have been few. Hockey has not benefited, as a sport or a spectacle. Nor would baseball.

Emotion can run high on the baseball diamond as in other sports, with few safety valves during the game. For every studious, level-headed baseball player there are a couple of perpetual adolescents. They play in a macho world, where the equivalent of a barroom brawl doesn't require the fuel of alcohol. But they also live in a world of rules and regulations. Their managers control many aspects of their behavior. It's not likely a pitcher would deliberately throw at a batter against the boss's orders, or on a club where that tactic is clearly unwelcome.

Together with team management, American League President Bobby Brown can make it clear that dusting off or beaning a batter is not acceptable conduct. In these days of high salaries, fines may not be a strong enough message. But a few games watched from the clubhouse would make major league baseball's displeasure clear.

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