The heart of a pro baseball player practically fizzes with stifled emotion, the culmination of a lifetime spent in a highly visible, highly stressful work environment while constantly being reminded of the importance of a “game face.” In all but a handful of cases, the facade never slips.
But athletes aren’t made of stone. From time to time, a player will lose their cool—and that’s what happened in Tuesday night’s Dodgers-Astros game.
This game was a rematch of the 2017 World Series, a bizarre, peripatetic affair that could very plausibly have hinged on the Astros’ illegal electronic sign-stealing operation. Early in spring training, back when the words “global pandemic” were the stuff of Michael Crichton novels, the fallout from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal was set to be the most fascinating ongoing subplot of the season. Murmurs about the Astros suffering a season of beanballs got loud enough that in February, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had to remind the league that “retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated. Whether it’s Houston or anybody else, it’s dangerous, and it is not helpful to the current situation.”
Since then, five months passed in which everyone had bigger fish to fry, relegating the Banging Scheme to the back pages of the sport’s consciousness. But baseball is back now, and Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly showed up on Tuesday ready to get back to frying this fish.
3-0 pitch from Joe Kelly ends up going behind Alex Bregman. pic.twitter.com/q6P8CD5oqj— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) July 29, 2020
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Kelly threw a 96 mph fastball behind Alex Bregman’s head. Then, after striking out Carlos Correa, Kelly tossed some colorful idioms and a goofy face at the Astros shortstop as they walked off the field.
The result: A benches-clearing stand-around-and-yell incident and, on Wednesday, an eight-game suspension for Kelly (pending appeal), as well as a one-game suspension for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for failing to maintain the peace. It is, as The Athletic’s Andy McCullough pointed out, the first discipline handed down to an active player as a result of the sign-stealing scandal.
And yes, that’s kind of perverse. The Astros cheated, possibly to the extent that they swung at least one championship, and while GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were each suspended for a season (and subsequently fired), none of their players were disciplined. In MLB’s estimation, players could offer more detailed testimony if they were offered immunity, and parceling out specific blame to specific players would have involved a nearly impossible ethical calculus. While that reasoning is logical, it also led to a conclusion that carries the undeniable and inescapable odor of wrongdoing unpunished.
There’s a visceral allure to the idea of the cheating Astros—their attempts at contrition falling somewhere between clumsy and disingenuous—facing vigilante justice. While the scandal undermined baseball’s competitive integrity, it also provided a shot of entertainment to a frequently poker-faced sport, and offered neutral fans an obvious bad guy to root against. And to be clear, it absolutely rules that Kelly barked and pouted at the Astros, that his chippiness played a part in touching off a near-total loss of emotional control.
But vigilante justice is just as illegal in baseball as it is in real life, and clumsy application of discipline in one case does not precipitate the abrogation of all law. And while the suspension looks absurdly long—if Kelly serves the whole thing, he’ll miss 13 percent of the shortened season—such a draconian-looking punishment is justifiable.
As MLB noted, Kelly is a repeat offender. In 2018, while he was with the Red Sox (a team that was recently sanctioned for a sign-stealing ring of its own), Kelly sparked another benches-clearing incident by throwing at Tyler Austin. If Kelly sat out six games for his first offense, eight games for a second offense isn’t that big a leap. And while Kelly’s sitting out a larger percentage of the season this time, what if he’d actually hit Bregman? Certainly Bregman’s fractured orbital bone wouldn’t have healed faster because the 2020 season is only 60 games. Shortened season or no, heightened emotional circumstances or no, you can’t throw at a batter’s head. Being hit in the head with a pitched baseball has been the cause of some of the most gruesome injuries in the history of the sport, from Tony Conigliaro to Ray Chapman, and even if headhunting was tolerated then, it can’t be tolerated now.
That issue is about as morally uncomplicated as any you’ll find in sports. It doesn’t matter how badly the Astros behaved or how unsatisfying MLB’s response was; Kelly and the Dodgers can curse and pout and yell until their faces match their uniforms. And they should! It’s fun to watch! But throwing at batters’ heads is a long-established no-no in MLB, and for good reason. Kelly can’t throw at batters just because he’s upset. Or rather, he can, but he ought to be prepared to take a suspension.