The biggest storyline of the 2018 MLB season to date has been the rise of Shohei Otani. The second biggest storyline of the 2018 MLB season has been players’ increasing tendency to punch each other. Less than a month into the season, there have already been several major fights that have resulted in benches emptying and gloves flying all over the diamond. Last week, the Padres and Rockies had a scuffle that ended with four players suspended Meanwhile, the Yankees and the Red Sox threw themselves a 2004-style brawl. The fisticuffs above replacement stats are blowing up across the league, triggering a bunch of confounding conversations between parents and kids. (“Dad, is brawling part of baseball?” “I mean… maybe?”)
Some fans dismiss the increase in incidents as mere happenstance. Others have taken out their violins and begun decrying the end of sportsmanship. The truth is that fighting in baseball is neither an indication of social collapse nor a side effect of steroid use. Baseball players continue to fight for the same reason baseball players have always fought, namely that someone ignored the “unwritten rules.” Catchers get pushy when a hitter admires a dinger or flips a bat. Words are exchanged. Alternatively, a hitter charges because an inside pitch seemed intentional. This is old school stuff (though, now that hitters know the dangers of concussions, they are more likely to get pissed). This is nothing new.
Benches clear, punches thrown in Yankees-Red Sox after Tyler Austin is hit by a pitch from Joe Kelly. pic.twitter.com/wvqoak8QMV
— MLB (@MLB) April 12, 2018
It is, however, a reflection on the state of the game.
All of the most exciting eras in baseball’s storied past involved legendary, bench-clearing brawls. Why? Because it’s a tense sport and that’s how it goes. Pete Rose went after Bud Harrelson in the 1973 ALCS. Nolan Ryan put Robin Ventura in a headlock in 1993. Varitek stuffing his glove in A-Rod’s pretty boy face in 2004. These incidents were not indicative of baseball’s decline. To the contrary, they were indicative of baseball being so damn exciting that the players couldn’t contain themselves.
On-field skirmishes have always walked hand-in-hand with the game’s relevance. Want proof? Just look at the dearth of baseball fights over the past several years.
People who call baseball boring are, taken as a population, awful. But they’ve had a point for the last decade. The league has lacked genuine superstars and bonafide personalities. The league has lacked drama. Not anymore. There are some big personalities and unpredictable lineups and rivalries. Yes, there are fights. Yes, that bothers people. No, that’s not a bad thing. Fights are an unfortunate symptom of awesome.
Does Bryce Harper seem cocky and arrogant? Sure does. Is he a spectacular player? Sure is. Is he making baseball fun again? Yes, yes he is. Traditionalists who worry that swagger threatens the sport need to get with the times. Beef doesn’t make professional sports bad; beef makes professional sports fun. Look at the NBA, which is definitely the healthiest of the major sports leagues. It’s basically a telenovela. And it works. Everyone gets a storyline. Everyone glares at everyone. The crowd goes wild.
And, yes, this means players will sometimes behave like children. So be it. Kids play sports for the joy of it and get upset because they care. Better that than taking third strikes on the way to a payday.
If Major League Baseball is going to survive its steadily decreasing ratings and rapidly decreasing attendance, it’s going to need storylines. Fights won’t get this done, but they will happen as the league moves that way. Chill out about it. Fighting isn’t ultimately part of baseball and I know that for sure because I’ve seen baseball players fight.