Commentary on sports, current events, and politics

The Baseball Code Is Tired

6:12 PM, MAY 16, 2016 | By LEE SMITH

Rougned Odor (Credit: Keith Allison)

Yesterday, Texas Rangers’ pitcher Matt Bush hit Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista with a pitch. Running from first on a groundball to third, Bautista slid hard, late, and illegally into Rangers’ second baseman Rougned Odor. The infielder threw wildly on the double play, but didn’t miss when he lined up Bautista and clocked him squarely in the jaw.

As if to demonstrate exactly how ridiculous and out of place fighting is in baseball, journalists and commentators clearly thrilled by the violence had trouble describing what kind of punch Odor threw at the Toronto slugger. It was a right jab, said some; no, opined other scribes, ’twas a mighty right hook. Actually, it was a regular right cross, a well-timed, well-placed punch thrown by someone who clearly knows what he’s doing. However, it barely dazed Bautista. The chin, as Canelo Alvarez’s knockout of Amir Khan two weeks ago reminded us, is humanity’s on-off switch. Hit someone there right, and it shuts down the nervous system. But Bautista, obviously surprised by the punch, didn’t even buckle. Sports sites featured the punch like it was the biggest thing that happened in baseball all weekend, which is a shame because it overshadowed a really good baseball story—Matt Bush’s big-league debut after 12 years in the wilderness.

Odor will almost surely be suspended for several games, and likely Bautista, too, for a nasty slide. But they’re getting off lucky because they could have been hurt badly, perhaps even with career-ending injuries. But, say some, that’s the way baseball should be played—hard and in observance of baseball’s unwritten rules. After all, Bautista flipped his bat in a playoff game against the Texas club last year—and in this perverse, pseudo-macho understanding of baseball, he got what was coming to him seven months later with a 98 mph fastball in the back.

It was Bautista’s three-run homer in the seventh inning of game five of the ALDS last year that put the Blue Jays ahead for good and sent them to the ALCS—but it was the bat flip that fans seem to remember, most of them favorably. It wasn’t as momentous as all that—as the actual home run, for instance—but it punctuated the moment, like a mic drop. “I didn’t plan anything that I did,” Bautistasaid at the time of his bat flip. “And so I still don’t even know how I did it.”

The person who was most upset with Bautista’s show of emotion? Yep, the pitcher who gave up the blast, Sam Dyson. “I told [on-deck batter Edward Encarnacion] Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more,” Dyson said. “He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”

What nonsense. Dyson got beat. He got beat by another man in front of tens of thousands of people in the ballpark and millions more watching on TV. And that is precisely what makes baseball a great human drama—two people challenging each other, with success and failure on the line, on either side of which is shame, shame in front of others for losing. Loss and the prospect of loss is part of the event. Bautista wasn’t rubbing Dyson’s face in it, he deserved to exult. In that moment, Bautista was out of his body, enjoying the homer, the spectacle, the event as much as anyone watching.

Cut to yesterday. Matt Bush wasn’t even on the Rangers roster last year. He was still in prison, serving a 51-month term for DUI with great bodily harm. Bush was the first overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft, drafted by the San Diego Padres out of a San Diego high school as an infielder, with a good bat, good hands, good speed and range, and a rocket for an arm. The 18-year-old Bush didn’t hit much in the minor leagues—some reports say he was too hung over to hit. Drinking was a big problem, so was his lousy, entitled attitude, and his careless violence, like beating up a high school freshman, and throwing a baseball at a woman who messed with him at a party.

The Padres moved Bush to the mound in 2007, then dealt him to the Blue Jays organization in 2009. Bush played in the Tampa Bay Rays system from 2010 until spring training 2012 when he ran over a 72-year-old man and was sent to jail. Here’s ESPN’s account of Bush’s prison term, his comeback, how he was scouted in the parking lot of a Golden Corral, how the Texas organization has taken chances on other hard-luck cases with talent, like Josh Hamilton. It’s a really moving story, especially the concern Bush’s dad feels for his troubled but gifted boy. Maybe finally he is really learning how to become a man and accept responsibility, and he will become a man before the father dies and leaves his son alone in the world.

Maybe that’s why Bush threw at Bautista yesterday—perhaps he was trying to prove he’s a big leaguer, a solid teammate. A man who knows he has responsibilities and fulfills them. Or maybe someone told him that Bautista had to eat a fastball, because that’s what the big league code of honor dictated. After all, he flipped his bat last October.

The last guy you want to confuse with a stupid code that requires athletes to throw baseballs at their colleagues’ bodies and heads is a kid who because he was unable to manage his reckless self-pity nearly killed a man. Baseball, like Bryce Harper says, is supposed to be fun, and he’s right that the code is tired. But there is something serious about the game, too, which is the drama staged between the pitcher and hitter, because it’s about failure and success, embarrassment and shame, humility and pride, and how adults are to manage these things in public and private, too. I hope Matt Bush succeeds.

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