There’s a terrific scene in the old movie “Bad News Bears” (in fact, there are a lot of them) in which the pitcher for the hated Yankees team, coached by Roy Turner (played by the late Vic Morrow), throws at one of the Bears batters. Turner, a complex character, hustles to the mound and yells at the pitcher, his son Joey, played by Brandon Cruz.
The movie takes a bleak (and sometimes hilarious) look at what the makers saw as an over-emphasis on competition in youth sports. Made in 1976, it now looks almost quaint, a fond gaze at a simpler time. But even in the competitive setting, Turner, who will do almost anything to win, can’t abide intentionally throwing at a batter.
In professional ball, things are different. Pitchers are expected to throw at batters now and again, especially as quid pro quo when one of their teammates has been plunked. Some pitchers gain a reputation for their willingness to throw at a batter. If the umps suspect their intention, however, the pitcher is thrown out of the game. MLB in no way condones the behavior.
Which is why it sounded so strange when Philadelphia pitcher Cole Hamels admitted after a weekend game that he hit Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper on purpose. Hamels said the ‘welcome to the big leagues’ gesture – drilling him in the back – was a way of honoring an “old school” baseball tradition.
A surprising number of sports-talk folk have sided with Hamels, who was hit by a pitch later in the game – the inevitable payback. Hamels’ blustery supporters give the “it’s part of the game” argument, as if poor sportsmanship is okay as long as it’s gone on for a long time. That opinion never has made a lot of sense to me, but in a game played by millionaires they’re free to do what they want, I suppose.
My deeper concern is the example it sets for players at the youth sports level. Does it grant them carte blanche to break the rules and risk injuring another kid? Could they defend their actions by pointing to how the big leaguers behave?
It would be worth a coach’s time to take a few minutes and explain that, no, what Hamels did wasn’t right and that excuses like being “old school” are stupid and wrong. One of our most important jobs as coaches is to teach the basics of good sportsmanship to the kids, values that will serve them well long after they’ve hung up their cleats and moved along with their lives.
Firing a fastball at a batter could have serious consequences, especially at the youth level, where few pitchers can control where the ball goes after its thrown. Whether thrown in anger, as retribution, or to honor some bogus tradition that never really existed, the pitch is a very poor choice and a potentially a dangerous one.
The Hamels-Harper story is getting a lot of attention in the media, meaning that even kids who don’t follow the major leagues on a daily basis will hear about it. Coaches and parents need to explain the situation to their kids and let them know how they’re expected to act on the field.
They can add that Hamels knew exactly where his pitch was heading and that other than a bruise on his back Harper will be just fine. They also might add that Hamels has been a bit quirky since he came into the league – even for a left-handed pitcher. And oddball left-handed pitchers definitely are a long-standing tradition in the National Pastime.