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There’s No Excuse for Throwing at a Player’s Head

Just ask Boston’s Dustin Pedroia, who in stunning fashion disavowed teammate Matt Barnes’s decision to beam a retaliatory pitch at Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado’s head on Sunday

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

It’s not every day a ballplayer makes news for not fighting, but Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia has always been a little unorthodox.

Pedroia left Friday night’s game against Baltimore when Orioles third baseman Manny Machado slid through the second-base bag while trying to break up a double play and spiked Pedroia in the leg. This kind of play has been under scrutiny for years, particularly after Chase Utley Nigel-de-Jong’d the shit out of Rubén Tejada’s leg in the 2015 NLDS.

Machado’s slide on Friday wasn’t a great slide, but it didn’t look like Machado was trying to hurt Pedroia so much as his front foot bounced up off the base, which happens on about every third slide into second base and rarely results in anything worse than getting called out on replay. Machado, being as large as he is and traveling as fast as he was, carries a lot of kinetic energy, and he’s wearing spikes on his foot — these things are going to happen. In fact, you can see that immediately after he made contact, Machado reached out after Pedroia, then caught him on his way down. Careless and dangerous? Probably. Malicious? Absolutely not.

After Friday’s game, Pedroia no-sold the incident while Boston manager John Farrell carried on a two-day-long lobbying campaign with MLB, saying Machado violated the Utley Rule. (To what end I’m not exactly sure — the penalty for a dirty slide into second is being called out for interference.) Orioles manager Buck Showalter, in a moment of clarity that applies to the overwhelming majority of sports arguments, said, “I look at things through Oriole glasses, orange and black, they look at it through [Red Sox glasses]. I understand their feelings, but I do understand ours.”

Pedroia hasn’t played since, and is day-to-day pending an MRI when the team returns to Boston.

But because baseball culture is so obsessed with protocol, and populated by men who positively quiver with repressed machismo, it couldn’t end there.

On Sunday, having had two days to mull it over, Boston reliever Matt Barnes tried to put one in Machado’s ear hole.

That’s unwise, and there’s more to say about Barnes in a minute, but the most remarkable thing about this whole episode was Pedroia’s response from the dugout.

So here’s Dustin Pedroia, the actual aggrieved party and the veteran face of the Red Sox, crossing the battle lines on television to publicly disavow his teammate’s attempt to “defend” him.

“That’s not me, that’s them.”

Pedroia expounded on his thoughts after the game.

I’ve never seen anything like that in baseball before. Pedroia, in case this matters at all, is 100 percent right: Some might say it’s childish to bean a player after an accident, but baseball’s norms being what they are, it’s an acceptable response. But if you’re going to do it, you do it as soon as possible instead of waiting around for two days like a gag from How I Met Your Mother, and you don’t ever go for the head. It’s not surprising that Pedroia would take Barnes, a middle reliever in his fourth season, to task for violating those norms, but normally, he’d do it privately and directly, and none of us would ever have known about it.

Maybe Barnes throwing at Machado’s head was so beyond the pale that Pedroia couldn’t wait. Maybe — as he said repeatedly after the game — he just really likes Machado, which is certainly understandable, and doesn’t want to see him hurt. Either way, it’s extremely unusual to see a player break ranks this publicly, for any reason.

As for Barnes, he deserves to go sit in the corner for a while to think about what he’s done. Ordinarily, you’ll find that more politically progressive, analytically inclined baseball writers are stridently anti-beanball, but I’m not. I think throwing at a guy for flipping his bat or oversliding the bag is a bit of a crybaby act — it’s not “defending your teammate” because, like fighting in hockey, it doesn’t actually deter future acts of violence. But like fighting in hockey, it’s fun, and baseball is an entertainment venture that too infrequently offers moments where passion boils over. So sure, drill a guy in the thigh if the spirit moves you. The game’s more fun when there’s a little bad blood.

But a pitcher can kill someone by throwing at a guy’s head, even if he gets the helmet. Ask David Wright what a concussion can do to a player’s career. Ask Giancarlo Stanton or Jason Heyward about what happens when the ball misses the helmet and hits the batter in the face. Or ask Tony Conigliaro. The occasional bruised rib is one thing — headhunting can end a player’s career or change his life.

MLB should throw the book at Barnes — a 10-game suspension wouldn’t be out of line. Tack on a couple of games for his chickenshit lie about whether he meant to hit Machado. Suspend Farrell for condoning this caveman mentality in his clubhouse, particularly after his own postgame denial was somehow even less credible than that of Barnes, who at least had the gumption to lie directly instead of equivocating. If a retaliatory beanball is a matter of honor, there’s nothing less honorable than throwing at a player’s head.

It’s such a detestable act that it got Pedroia to condemn his teammate, where everyone could see him, while the game was still going on.