MLB suspensions: 10 games seems like little, but is actually a lot


Baseball lets precedent be its guide, and right or wrong, that guide dictates leniency.

On Friday, Major League Baseball announced suspensions and fines relating to the brawl between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers that took place on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. The most severe punishment, 10 games, was meted out to Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy, "or intentionally throwing a pitch in the head area of Zack Greinke of the Dodgers in the bottom of the seventh inning, after a warning had already been issued to both Clubs earlier in the game." Baseball punishments generally rely on precedent, and in this case the precedents seem to be mostly inadequate.

I did a quick search for some notable incidents involving on-field fighting and found that while penalties in the days before the players unionized could be severe, generally the approach since has been gentle. Now, this was hardly a systematic search, and perhaps you might recall some examples that deviate from the norm, but on the whole Baseball has gone with the slap on the wrist approach:

On July 4, 1932, Yankees catcher Bill Dickey was suspended indefinitely after he broke Washington Senators outfielder Carl Reynolds' jaw with a punch. There had been a lot of hostility between the Senators and the Yankees. There was a close play at the plate, and Dickey momentarily lost track of Reynolds. He heard motion behind him and thought Dickey was about to attack him, so he jumped up and punched Reynolds before Reynolds could punch him. We'll never know what Reynolds' real intentions were, but the contemporary accounts suggest he was just getting to his feet. Reynolds spent the next month eating through a straw and at one point nearly choked to death on his own vomit, because with your mouth wired shut you really can't get out of the way of that sort of thing. Dickey's suspension was clarified to 30 days and a $1000 fine, which was actually a significant chunk of his year's salary.

That was in the days before the Players Association. Before we skip forward to a sampling of more recent incidents, note that any suspensions at all actually represent a heavier punishment than was typically issued in earlier days. The Dickey incident was an outlier -- for example, a 1973 brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox that began when Carlton Fisk collided with Thurman Munson on an attempted squeeze play was met with only fines. Nor can I find a record of suspensions being issued in the aftermath of the Yankees-Red Sox brawl on May 20, 1976 that resulted in pitcher Bill Lee suffering a separated pitching shoulder.

On March 30, 1993, Cleveland Indians pitcher Jose Mesa gave up consecutive home runs to Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo, then threw behind Hal Morris's head. Morris charged the mound and tackled Mesa, separating his shoulder in the process. Both Morris and Mesa were fined and suspended three games of the regular season. Since Morris was going to be out for four-to-six weeks, his suspension was slated to being with his second game after being activated.

In the third inning of the April 15, 1998 game between the Mariners and the Indians at Jacobs Field, Randy Johnson threw at Kenny Lofton's head. Lofton walked out towards the mound and the benches cleared. Indians catcher Sandy Alomar got between the two players and tensions were eventually defused. Lofton took his place in the box, Johnson returned to the mound... and he threw another pitch at Lofton's head. The benches cleared again. This time, Johnson, Lofton, and Alomar were ejected. I can't find video of the incident, so I don't know why Alomar was ejected, but I would like to think that he was extra-violent because Johnson showed him up by restarting the fight after he had talked Lofton down. "Hey, be cool. I know this cat. He's all right, seriously... What? Make me out to be a liar, will you?" Anyway, Johnson got three games.

Armando Benitez of the Orioles ignited a massive fight at Yankee Stadium on May 19, 1998 when he hit Tino Martinez with a pitch. Five players were suspended, with Benitez getting the most severe penalty, eight games. In yet another incident that year, nine players were suspended between one and fivegames and both managers suspended eight games each for a fight between the Angels and Royals in late May. The game featured two brawls, five hit batters, and 12 ejections.

On April 22, 2000, the White Sox and Tigers fought at Comiskey Field when Sox starting pitcher Jim Parque hit Tigers third baseman Dean Palmer in the seventh to start things off, but there were two fights, the second coming with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and 11 ejections. Tigers pitcher Jeff Weaver hit Carlos Lee in the sixth inning. That may or may not have been intentional, but Palmer perceived the Parque pitch to be intentional. Five Tigers were ejected: Palmer, Weaver, Doug Brocail, Rob Fick and Danny Patterson. The White Sox had six players bounced: Manager Jerry Manuel, coach Joe Nossek, Bob Howry, Bill Simas, Tanyon Sturtze, and Magglio Ordonez. Parque was not among those ejected because Palmer rushed the mound whereas Parque did not leave his position. Ordonez was ejected for kicking.

In the aftermath of the game there were 16 suspensions. Tigers manager Phil Garner and White Sox manager Manuel were suspended for eight games each. Tigers coach Juan Samuel was suspended 15 games for throwing punches during the fight. Ordonez got five games, Parque three, Howry (who hit a batter to start the second fight) three, Keith Foulke (who exited the fight with a bloody gash under one eye) three, Sturtze three, and Lee three. Palmer was hit with an eight-game suspension for charging the mound. Note that players and coaches are not covered by the Players Association and therefore MLB can treat them as it wishes.

During spring training in 2003, Dodgers pitcher Guillermo Mota hit Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Piazza not only charged the mound, but also sought out Mota after the game. They each were suspended five games. The famous Alex Rodriguez-Jason Varitek fight of July, 2004 resulted in suspensions of four games for each of the combatant, and three-game suspensions for Tanyon Sturtze, Gabe Kapler, and Trot Nixon.

Finally, almost three years ago, on August 10, 2010, a brawl erupted between the Reds and Cardinals after Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina exchanged harsh words. During the fight, Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto kicked Cardinals utilityman Jason LaRue in the head, giving him a concussion. Oddly, only managers Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa were ejected. Cueto was suspended for just seven games.

In summary, 10 games, tantamount to two starts, hardly seems like an adequate response to buzzing a pitch at a batter's head given the possible risks involved, but MLB has generally done far less.

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