An equitable response to the brushback pitch

MIKE ROYKO

September 01, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

The brushback pitch is a revered baseball tradition. The White Sox once had a pitcher about whom it was proudly said that he would bean his own mother if she dug in at the plate. Nobody ever asked his mother about this, or if they did, she was too frightened to reply.

But is the brushback pitch fair? I think not. And it might be time for the rules to be changed.

For those un-American people who don't follow baseball, the brushback pitch is a ball hurled at or near a hitter.

The idea is to terrorize the hitter so that he will swing feebly at subsequent pitches.

Sometimes it is thrown to rebuke a batter because he or a teammate did something to annoy the pitcher, such as hitting a home run.

If the ball hits the batter, he is awarded first base. But many hitters don't consider that adequate compensation for their pain. So they run to the mound and try to punch or wrestle the pitcher.

This usually brings both teams --ing to the scene, providing the evening news shows with film highlights of 60 or so grown men grappling and pretending to be fierce.

Under baseball's weird rules, it's the enraged batter who is ejected from the game. What could be more unfair? The batter is the defenseless victim. He has been struck by a hard object traveling about 90 mph.

Yet, when the batter responds -- usually with an inaccurate and futile punch -- some fat umpire bellows that he must go to the locker room and bathe.

To compound the unfairness, the umpire then warns the hitter's teammates that if they try to get even by having their pitcher throw at the other team's hitters, their pitcher and manager will be thrown out.

None of this makes sense. If a cop saw someone bounce a hard object off your ribs, you would correctly expect the cop to arrest the assailant. And if a cop wasn't around, you would be justified in defending yourself. But in baseball it is just the opposite.

This lack of justice has resulted in more and more brawls. That's because pitchers are in a win-win situation. If they hit a batter, they aren't punished. And if the batter reacts indignantly, which is only natural, he is punished.

The question is, how to bring equity to this phase of baseball?

I believe I have a solution.

First, pitchers can't be denied the right to throw the ball near or at the hitters. Besides being a tradition, it is part of pitching strategy. Also, it lets pitching incompetents express their frustrations, which is good for their mental health. If they can't let off steam throwing at a hitter, they might throw firecrackers at fans.

But the batter should be permitted to do more than merely glare, spit or use foul language. And it shouldn't be legal for him to rush out to the mound and try to hit the pitcher. That starts the unsightly spats that cause sports columnists to brood that civilization is near collapse.

Also, if the batter is not a strong fighter, he could suffer the public humiliation of being punched silly by the very same pitcher who just bopped him with a pitch. (This recently happened when a White Sox hitter was thrashed by a pitcher old enough to be his daddy, causing many macho Sox fans to feel sheepish.)

However, slight changes could be made to baseball rules that would allow the pitchers to continue the tradition of the &r brushback pitch, but let the hitter respond more effectively and fairly.

This is how it could be done:

A batter is hit by a malicious pitcher. The next time the batter comes up, he should have the option of trying to hit the ball or missing it on purpose and letting the bat slip out of his hands and whirl through the air at the pitcher.

Many years ago, I saw this happen and it was both entertaining and equitable. In fact, it was the only highlight of a bleak Cub season.

A fine Cub player named Phil Cavaretta had tired of a particularly nasty pitcher throwing at him. So Cavaretta swung mightily, missed, but hurled the bat at the pitcher.

The bat spun like an airplane propeller. Had the pitcher not sprawled on the ground, he might have been beheaded. As it was, he appeared quite shaken but his control became much sharper.

Obviously, you can't have batters slinging their bats at pitchers whenever the mood strikes them, although that would be fun to watch and TV ratings would soar.

To prevent excesses, the batter would be charged with an extra strike whenever he threw his bat. And if the bat struck the pitcher, the batter would be declared out. That seems a small price to pay for a gentlemanly defense of honor.

In addition, if the bat struck the pitcher on the brow, causing him to meet his Maker, the batter would be suspended for one full game and required to pay all funeral expenses.

Apologies and public expressions of regret or remorse would be optional.

Of course, this rule would apply only to professional baseball.

It wouldn't be permitted in Little League, except by parents.

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