An apple and an orange are both called fruit but are really quite different. The same goes for dogs and cats. So why is it such a delight to remember football and baseball – both great sports – are also still very different? I’m talking about Sunday night’s baseball game between Washington and Philadelphia and the fact that when the Nationals’ 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper took his first at-bat in the widely-televised first inning, Phillies pitcher Cole Hammels promptly plunked him right in the back with a 93 miles-per-hour fastball. Ouch.
Yet the moment Hamels quite professionally dusted Harper, the old baseball beards smiled just so because “the code” is still alive and well in the Ol’ Ball Game.
This is the way “the bigs” work. Are you kidding me? A brash young upstart is facing the rival Phillies and all the TV commentators talk about in the pre-game swag is “the kid.” So, sure enough, the salty veteran Hamels freely admitted afterwards, “I tried to hit him.”
You’ll remember that earlier this year the New Orleans Saint football team was horrifically villanized in the “bounty bucks” scandal, where players were allegedly offered thousands of dollars to purposely injure and take opposing players out of games. Lordy, the thing is still going on but Saints head coach Sean Payton has been banned from the NFL for a year and others have serious punishments pending. Yes, it is a horrible reflection on pro football and is barbaric.
But when Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP who is making a cool $15 million this season alone, drilled a hardball into the rookie Harper’s back ribs Sunday night, there was little if any outcry. That’s because baseball is a real cool game. Harper, very wisely, didn’t dare look at Hamels as the bruised rookie trotted towards his free base, nor did he dare rub his back or show any sign the horsehide bullet hurt.
Instead, young Bryce quickly advanced to third on a hit by Jason Werth and then – as Hamels attempted a pick-off at first – Harper streaked home on a successful steal. Again, no eye contact was made between the two or anything else stupid. It is interesting, though, that Harper hit a single and a double against Hamels later in the game and then – by gumbo -- pushed a drag bunt, which is said to make pitchers real mad.
It is also quite interesting that when Hamels was batting in the third inning, Washington pitcher Jordan Zimmerman deftly twirled a fastball right into Hamels’ lower leg. “Zimmer” said he didn’t mean to do it, all the old beards nodded after a hearty “Guffaw!” and the Washington pitcher was not suspended when Hamels got a five-day suspension on Monday. Don’t you just love it!
You see, it is all part of the game. Ever since the Cincinnati Red Stockings got the major leagues started back in 1869, every ball player has had to earn his way into the clubhouse. The veterans always teach the rookies a thing or two “the hard way” and, for over 100 years, any “young shaver” is going to get plunked if he, so full of bluff and swagger, crowds the plate on a pitcher like Cole Hamel.
"I'm not going to deny it. I'm not trying to injure the guy,” Hamel told reporters after the 9-3 Phillies win. “They're probably not going to like me for it, but I'm not going to say I wasn't trying to do it. I think they understood the message, and they threw it right back (hitting me). That's the way, and I respect it."
Hamel was suspended immediately by the commissioner’s office but, in the way things like this work, Philadelphia has pitcher Cliff Lee coming back into the rotation tonight and then Roy Halladay will go next. Hamel’s next start would have been Sunday anyway so a five-day sit is mostly for show.
What matters is that the “code” is still alive and well. After Hamel plunked Harper, every major-league player on every club knew all about it. Some call it “old school” baseball. "That's something I grew up watching, that's kind of what happened. So I'm just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it." the Phillies pitcher explained.
"I remember when I was a rookie the strike zone was really, really small and you didn't say anything because that's the way baseball is. But I think unfortunately the league's protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball," he added and, obviously, such a stance doesn’t settle well with many of the veteran players.
Charlie Manuel, the Philadelphia manager, understands exactly what happened but wished Hamels had been a bit more tactful in his remarks. “He could have been a little more discreet or less honest,” Manuel paused, shaking his head. “The way I look at it, baseball is going to take care of it between the two teams on the field. To me, that’s the issue. When they hit Cole, it set it even. At the same time, the best way to handle the Nationals is to beat them on the field. I think that if we beat them on the field, that will take care of our business and that takes care of it,” Manuel reasoned.“When they hit Hamels, that takes care of it and we’re back on even ground,” added the manager. “There was no warning or nothing. They had a chance to get even. That even made it a wash.”
Baseball is such a cool game. And, unlike the brutality of pro football, “the code” in big-league baseball is part of the mystique. I just love it.