Cole Hamels And Ratcheting Up The Hyperbole

Washington, D.C., USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper reacts after fouling a ball off his leg in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. The Nationals defeated the Phillies 7 - 1. Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

Sunday night, Cole Hamels hit Bryce Harper with a pitch, and then he owned up to doing it on purpose. What a coward! What an unthinkable act, what gutless behavior!

Sunday, the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox played baseball against one another for 17 innings. It was all one game, and not a scheduled doubleheader, and the winning pitcher wound up being corner infielder Chris Davis, with the losing pitcher being outfielder Darnell McDonald. The Orioles finished off a three-game sweep in Fenway Park. You might've thought that would be the big story of the day.

Think again. A little later on, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals got started with a game of their own. Bryce Harper batted against Cole Hamels in the bottom of the first inning. Here's the first pitch of that match-up:

Hamelsharper

That's a fastball, right in the small of the back. Immediately there was suspicion that Hamels had done it on purpose, trying to send some sort of message. Afterward, Hamels removed all doubt, admitting to his intent of trying to send some sort of message. I honestly can't remember a pitcher admitting to throwing at a batter. I'm sure that it's happened, and in fairness I can't remember if I've checked the mail today, but it's rare. Even under the most obvious of circumstances, you expect a denial, because where there's denial there's doubt, and where there's doubt there's less severe punishment, if there's punishment at all.

Hamels will presumably be punished. Major League Baseball is investigating the matter, and they essentially have no choice. If they don't punish Hamels, then that sets the wrong sort of precedent. Unless Major League Baseball is looking to mold its game to look more like MLB SlugFest 2003. Hamels will receive some suspension and then MLB will be like, "if you're going to throw at a batter, don't say you were throwing at a batter. That forces us to do this." That's not what they'll say, but that's what they'll mean.

It was ... odd that Hamels did what he did. I found his explanation to be insufficient. If it was intended as some kind of hazing, I don't get it. If Hamels just simply doesn't much care for Bryce Harper, I kind of get it, because I can see how Harper would rub some a lot of people the wrong way, but that doesn't mean you just hit him. Why would you just hit him? What does that actually accomplish?

But odder still might be the reaction from Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. You've heard this by now, but to briefly review:

"Players take care of themselves," Rizzo said after I called him this morning. "I've never seen a more classless, gutless chicken [bleep] act in my 30 years in baseball.

"Cole Hamels says he's old school? He's the polar opposite of old school. He's fake tough. He thinks he's going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year rookie who's eight games into the big leagues? He doesn't know who he's dealing with."

Cole Hamels hit Bryce Harper in the back. He didn't hit him in the hand, he didn't hit him in the head, and he didn't throw anywhere near the head. I'm not saying it's impossible for a player to be injured when he's hit in the back, because baseballs are hard and they go fast, but Harper got hit right about where you'd want to get hit. He took his base, none the worse for wear. Here's Rizzo just flipping out.

The most powerful word he used was chicken ... well, I assume it was chickenshit but I can't be absolutely certain! As a very close runner-up, we get gutless. Gutless is not a kind word within sporting circles. And I'm actually struggling to figure out how what Cole Hamels did was gutless. Classless, sure, but gutless? I think it takes some guts to hit a guy and own up to it, even when you know that doing so will get you punished and cost you money. I don't think gutless is the right word at all.

And this isn't the first time we've had a team official use that word this season. Jim Tracy, barely a month ago:

Saying he has lost all respect for his former ace, manager Jim Tracy unloaded on Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez on Sunday, calling his plunking of all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki "a gutless act."
[...]
"It’s the most gutless act I have seen in 35 years of professional baseball. I have lost all respect for him."

Cole Hamels hit and didn't injure a guy, and it's the most gutless play Mike Rizzo has seen in 30 years. Ubaldo Jimenez hit and didn't injure a guy, and it's the most gutless play Jim Tracy has seen in 35 years. Roger Clemens threw a shattered baseball bat at Mike Piazza in the World Series but I guess Rizzo and Tracy were asleep. Hamels and Jimenez might have acted without class, but even accounting for emotion, the responses were disproportionate.

They aren't the first disproportionate responses in baseball history, mind you. Said Braves manager Joe Torre following a brawl between his team and Dick Williams' Padres in August 1984:

"The guy who caused it all was Dick Williams [...] It was gutless. It stinks. It was Hitler-like action. I think he should be suspended for the rest of the year."

Joe Torre - the beloved Joe Torre, the revered Joe Torre - once openly compared an opposing coach to Hitler. Joe Torre couldn't say that now. It's actually somewhat surprising to me that Joe Torre still became Joe Torre after saying that then. Let us all just think about this Joe Torre quote for a little while.

Cole Hamels hit a guy in the back on purpose. Ubaldo Jimenez hit a guy, probably on purpose. It's an ugly side of the game, because baseballs are dangerous even when they're intended to be minimally dangerous, but it's also a side of the game that's been present from the beginning. Pitchers have long been sending messages. Managers have long been ordering pitchers to send messages. It's fine to be upset if you're on the other side. It's also important to be reasonable about how upset you really are. All Mike Rizzo is doing is fanning the flames. If he's worried about his players' safety, his words didn't help the situation. There's something brewing here between the Nationals and the Phillies, and it's going to carry over.

Emotions exist and they can be hard to control, granted. Just as Hamels might've been running off a little too much emotion, the same could be said for Rizzo. But Hamels' actions were kind of dumb, and Rizzo's actions were kind of hyperbolic. From one perspective it might be refreshing to hear such statements from a team executive, but from another perspective it's unbecoming. There's defending your player, and there's going over the top.

But really, what's important here is that Joe Torre quote. I mean, man. Really, Joe?

***


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