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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 16, 2010 at 9:07 AM

The Cliff Lee incident: It happens, even in spring

marfight.jpg

In Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, the Mets Darryl Strawberry launched a home run off Boston’s Al Nipper, then trotted slowly and flamboyantly around the bases — too slow and flamboyant for the tastes of Nipper and his teammates. So when the two teams hooked up the next spring in Florida, Nipper let Strawberry know how he felt by drilling him., In a Grapefruit League game. A brawl ensued, or what’s called a brawl in baseball — someone charges the mound, he’s restrained, and everyone else pretty much mills around. Occasionally, it gets genuinely violent, but not too often.

These kind of incidents do happen in spring training — often enough that I can think of three bench-clearing events that I’ve covered in spring. That’s not counting yesterday’s relatively mild dustup involving Cliff Lee and Arizona’s Chris Snyder in Tucson. There was another confrontation in a spring-training game yesterday, indication that the dog days of spring have hit. In Port St. Lucie, the Mets were upset over a high-and-tight pitch to David Wright by the Cardinals.

marbrawl2.jpg

It doesn’t take much to rekindle existing grudges, or start new ones. Here’s a more detailed account of the Strawberry-Nipper incident from the Hartford Courant’s Jack O’Connell a few years ago, which highlights some other examples of spring training fisticuffs:

Red Sox and Mets fans of the 1980s can recall one of the great spring training scenes of that era. It occurred in 1987 in the first spring meeting between the previous season’s World Series foes. The Red Sox starting pitcher was Al Nipper, who had made no secret over the long winter that followed the Red Sox collapse in ’86 of his disdain for Mets right fielder Darryl Strawberry.

In Game 7, Nipper gave up a home run off the Shea Stadium scoreboard to Strawberry, who then seemed to take seven minutes to go around the bases. Strawberry’s slow trot was probably aimed more at his manager, Davey Johnson. Straw was still stewing from being double-switched out of the late innings of historic Game 6 two nights earlier. Nipper didn’t know anything about that. He was just livid that Strawberry had shown him up.

Strawberry was in the Mets lineup that spring day in St. Petersburg, where the team then trained. The Red Sox motored in from their Winter Haven home at the time, and the tiny press box at Al Lang Stadium was jammed with New York and Boston reporters who anticipated having their story of the day handed to them once Strawberry stepped to the plate against Nipper.

The principals did not disappoint. Nipper’s first pitch to Strawberry, a batting-practice fastball, plunked him on the right hip. It wasn’t enough of a drilling to raise a welt, but it turned out Strawberry was as ready for Nipper’s delivery as was the press corps. Strawberry headed toward the mound and both benches emptied. It was the usual yelling and shoving stuff with a few punches, but mostly guys holding teammates back that is commonplace in what baseball players comically call a brawl.

To many witnesses, it was almost funny. It was certainly unusual. Few writers on hand could recall seeing such hand-to-hand combat in an exhibition game. And grudge matches such as that one were rare.

Judging from what has gone on in this year’s spring training, that is no longer the case.

Mets catcher Mike Piazza’s rage after being hit by a pitch from the Dodgers’ Guillermo Mota last week was merely one of several such incidents this spring.

Expos right fielder Vladimir Guerrero still had a bat in his hand when he charged Marlins pitcher Brad Penny after being hit by a pitch. Astros pitcher Shane Reynolds gave up three home runs to the Pirates, then nearly triggered a fight with some chin music to Brian Giles. Phillies reliever Jose Mesa has backed off threats that he would like to kill Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel. Out in Arizona, the Diamondbacks and Mariners squared off when Bret Boone was drilled as apparent retaliation for Luis Gonzalez getting hit.

Piazza and Mota also had an altercation last year. Many Mets, including general manager Steve Phillips, believed Mota’s approach to Piazza was in line with the Nipper-Strawberry grudge of 16 years ago. The kind of warfare that was once reserved for the regular season is becoming part of the exhibition season.

Yankees manager Joe Torre, whose team was embroiled in a spring fight with the Indians in 1998 when Hideki Irabu’s wildness resulted in two hit batters, considers all this a sign of the times.

“We’re watching a different game,” said Torre, whose major league playing career was from 1961-77. “I said when I was playing that when I got older I’d never say, ‘Back when I was playing.’ … Now I hear myself saying the same stuff , but it’s true. It used to be you’d take retaliation three different times before you’d see fisticuffs. Now we see guys charging the mound the first time, even when it’s clear the pitcher had no control.

“I’ve managed guys who charged the mound when they were hit by a pitch when the bases were loaded. Could they really think it was intentional?”

You might recall that just two springs ago, the Yankees and Rays had a heated bench-clearing incident in St. Petersburg — at the same ballpark where the Mets and Red Sox rumbled, in fact. It was the precursor to a season-long rivalry beween the two teams; the Rays ended up getting the upper hand by making it to the World Series while the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs.

This spring brawl occurred when the Yankees’ Shelley Duncan slid spikes high into the Rays’ Akinori Iwamuri — apparent retaliation for the Rays’ Elliot Johnson barreling over New York catcher Francisco Cervelli in an earlier Grapefruit League game. Cervilli’s right wrist was broken.

“In Tampa, that play you saw at home plate was a good, hard baseball play. What you saw today was the definition of a dirty play,” Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters after the game. “There’s no room for that in our game. It’s contemptible. It’s wrong. It’s borderline criminal, and I could not believe they did that.”

The lesson: Just because it’s spring training doesn’t mean the teams aren’t taken it seriously.

(Photos of yesterday’s Mariners-Diamondbacks game by Associated Press)

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