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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 9, 2008 at 11:16 AM

Hernandez and brawling

I could begin today running off the latest list of Mariners stats. Like their 0-17 record when they fall behind by two runs or more. Or the fact they’ve gone 23 innings without a run. Or scored just once in their last 32 innings. But I’ll bet you’re all getting tired of hearing about those. So, let’s talk about last night’s fight, since that seems to be all any of you are emailing me about.
One of you wrote in, I think it was Faceplant (ironic name, since that’s what several players were having done to them during last night’s brawl) who asked why I’m trying to portray Felix Hernandez as a coward. I’m not. For all I know, he’s the next Bruce Lee with a baseball glove. What I’m saying is, if I’m running the Mariners right now, I’m praying I never have to find that out. It’s one thing for hitters to protect their livelihoods by charging the mound if a pitch is too high and in. Richie Sexson says that’s what he thought. I thought the pitch wasn’t all that close to hitting him and so did the Texas Rangers TV announcers. But it’s a split-second decision on a ball coming in at 90 mph. Remember the Pedro Martinez-Don Zimmer “scrap” during the 2003 ALCS? I was at that game live (still am live). The pitch that started it all, Roger Clemens up-and-in on Manny Ramirez, was quite similar in not really being close to hitting Ramirez.
So, whatever. History won’t care.
But it’s another thing for a pitcher to go actively seeking out trouble the way Hernandez keeps doing. The “hold me back” thing does get tiring. I’m sure his teammates are growing a little weary of it, particularly because no ballplayer really enjoys these fights. There is too much to lose. Too much risk for too little reward. Who wants to see a career end because of a sucker punch, or a gang-tackle from behind when there are seven-figure contracts being handed out like candy these days?

As I said, it’s one thing to charge the mound to uphold baseball’s unwritten code, particularly if a pitcher is coming up at face level. Players understand the need for these things. They may not all agree on it, but they’re resigned to it being a fact of life. Getting involved in a second fight, or prolonging a brawl because a 22-year-old wants to prove his manhood is a different story. Yes, Eddie Guardado deserves kudos for calming Hernandez down. But it’s a little sad that an opposing player even has to do that. Guardado is no dummy. He knows the risk Hernandez is putting on himself. And his teammates. So, Hernandez should cut it out. It’s one thing to protect yourself when a hitter charges the mound. Hernandez is going to get one of those someday, maybe even next week in Texas, and then he’ll have every right to put up his dukes and show the world how good a fighter he is. For all I know, he’s a great one.
But we’ll worry about that when the time comes. For now, his teammates don’t need to be putting themselves at risk to protect him needlessly. And his team, the one investing its future in his progress, doesn’t need him putting himself at risk. I mentioned this last night, but the story of what happened to Bill “Spaceman” Lee of the Boston Red Sox on May 2, 1976 cannot be understated. Lee was a darned good pitcher, if an admittedly goofy one. But when Lou Piniella of the Yankees (why does everything lead back to Piniella in every M’s discussion we have?) got into it with Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, Lee got a little too close to the action. He didn’t do the “hold me back” thing. No one held him back and he was allowed to show how tough he was.
Problem is, the Yankees hated Lee and were gunning for him. In his book, The Wrong Stuff, Lee wrote that Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles were out to hurt him and did. Lee claims Rivers sucker punched him. Nettles later picked Lee up and pile-drived him into the ground, dislocating the pitcher’s throwing arm. Even after that incident, Lee called Nettles a derogatory word and got punched in the face and knocked down again.
Lee’s career was never the same. He pitched several more years, but was not the guy who had three consecutive 17-win seasons as one of the best lefties in the game for a Boston playoff team. The problem with these brawls is, no matter how good a fighter you are, when you’re in a mass of bodies with guys coming at you from every direction, it doesn’t matter. Anything goes.
They’ve pulled all the YouTube videos of the 1976 brawl, which showed Lee getting driven into the ground by Nettles. One of the worst hockey brawls I’ve ever seen took place on Good Friday in 1984. It was Game 6 of the Adams Division final between the Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche) at the old Montreal Forum. It came to be known as the Good Friday Massacre and is a prime example of what I’ve been ranting about here. Just a mass of bodies hurling at each other for minutes on end. And right in the middle of it, a veteran Canadiens defenseman named Jean Hamel will get sucker punched near the boards by Louis Sleigher as the referee is breaking up the combattants and everyone is agreeing to move on. Hamel lost partial vision in his eye and his career ended. See it here around the three-minute mark of the fight. It’s in French, but you don’t really need commentary to figure it all out. By the way, that was only Part I of the brawl. When the players emerged from the locker rooms, they had Round 2 before the puck could even be dropped, as everyone from Montreal went after Sleigher. I won’t post the second part because I’m only showing the first one to make a point.

Anyone want Hamel’s experience for Hernandez? Didn’t think so. Not if he can avoid it. He’s too good a pitcher. You saw what he did during innings three through five last night, despite being at 68 pitches after two frames. You saw what he did in the fifth inning after the brawl. That’s where his anger, rage, manliness, or whatever, should be going. Sometimes you can’t avoid trouble and you fight. But you never go looking for it. On the street, or on the ballfield. Those things never end well.



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