Missing From Baseball Fights: Fighting – Wall Street Journal

Tampa Bay Rays players and Texas Rangers players clear their benches during a short confrontation earlier this year.
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Nothing signals the possibility of violence in Major League Baseball quite like the sight of benches clearing. One player gets angry with another. Teammates spill out of the dugouts. Relievers run in from the bullpens. Headlines are made.

But the modern-day baseball melee has become devoid of one seemingly essential element: actual fighting.

For all players’ bombast and gesticulating, the incidents commonly labeled as bench-clearing brawls look a lot like the two that occurred Sunday. In Cincinnati, the Reds and Pirates jogged to the infield grass, where players proceeded to hold each other back from opponents holding each other back. In Toronto, the Blue Jays and Royals huddled around a handful of players yelling at each other, one of whom later expressed his rage by calling the other “a little baby.”


How rarely do baseball fights include actual fighting? To find out, we reviewed video of every benches-clearing incident in MLB from the start of the 2014 season through Wednesday.

In the 32 games in which the benches cleared, there were a grand total of five punches thrown that were clearly caught on camera. And only one of those punches connected.

Only five players were taken to the ground. And in 28 of those 32 incidents, no one was even pushed.

“Nowadays, it seems like it’s more bark than bite,” said Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. “You don’t really see anyone do a whole lot.”


Players remain adept at looking very dangerous, scowling and shouting as if ready for battle. In 23 of the 32 incidents, at least one player was physically restrained, as if he were about to go after an opponent.

But they tend to be more aggressive with their gear than with their fists. The 32 incidents included eight pieces of equipment thrown: two bats, two helmets, one ball, one glove and, in a vicious exchange of polyester, two hats.

“That’s all bull— when that stuff happens,” said retired first baseman Keith Hernandez, who was involved in four all-out brawls with the New York Mets in 1986 alone. “That’s all crap. Especially the relievers.”

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, yells at Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman, right, during a bench clearing scuffle on July 10, 2014.
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No participants in baseball’s fight-less fighting ritual draw as much ridicule as relievers. Since most bullpens are located beyond the outfield wall, tensions have often dissipated by the time they reach the scrum.

“Both bullpens empty,” Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said during a Sept. 23, 2014, dust-up between the Dodgers and Giants. “That’s a show of…whatever.”

During a June 6, 2014, fracas between the Orioles and Athletics, Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne said, “Bullpens will get their only exercise of the game.”

Orioles reliever Darren O’Day said teams’ relief corps are merely trying to stand up for their teammates. But the layout in some ballparks makes for an awkward scene.

When there is a single, shared stairwell through which pitchers exit the bullpens, pitchers from both teams merge politely into one line. “You’re running out of the bullpen with the guys you’re supposed to be angry with, and you’re all kind of filing through single file,” O’Day said, “and then you get out to the middle of the field and you’re acting tough.”

This fierce band of brothers will go to any length to defend a teammate’s honor, as long as they don’t trip and fall. O’Day recalled running down the bullpen stairs at Angel Stadium during one incident in 2008 and hearing another pitcher yell out, “Be careful on the steps!”


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The causes of such incidents vary. Of the 32 since 2014, 11 were sparked by a batter being hit by a pitch, eight were caused by taunting or trash talk, six resulted from inside pitches, five started with a hard tag or slide and two stemmed from some violation of baseball’s unwritten code. But former players say these skirmishes are less likely to result in brawls than they used to be.


“Back when I played, when the benches cleared, somebody was getting hit,” said former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, who was involved in an ugly brawl with the Yankees in 1998. “There were some angry people.”

Bordick said the pervasiveness of steroids at that time may have made players more prone to rage. By contrast, he said players today simply don’t want to hurt themselves in a fight. “I think the game has—I don’t want to say softened—but there’s just so much money involved and the risk of injury is so substantial,” he said.


Players are also generally more amiable with players on opposing teams. In at least three of the 32 incidents, a member of one team exchanged pleasantries with someone on the other team.

“I’ve been out on the field during a heated exchange between two other guys and I’m out there talking to my buddy who I played with the year before,” O’Day said. “Like, ‘Hey man, let’s just hug it out, me and you, if this thing goes south.’”

The result is a lot of very animated standing around. At a time when MLB is trying to speed up the pace of play, the 32 benches-clearing incidents since the start of 2014 delayed games by an average of 4 minutes, 7 seconds each.

Other sports leagues, such as the NBA and the NHL, have adopted rules that penalize players from leaving the benches to participate in a brawl. But while MLB rules call for an automatic ejection of a player who charges the pitcher, there are no rules against leaving the dugout. Of the five players who threw a punch since 2014, four were in the dugout when the fray began.

An MLB spokesman said, “This topic has been a subject of collective bargaining in the past, and it could become a subject of conversations with the [players’ union] again in the future.”

—Camden Hu contributed to this article.

Write to Brian Costa at brian.costa@wsj.com and Geoff Foster at geoff.foster@wsj.com

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