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The Most Futile Debate In Baseball

For much of the day I've been trying to compose a list in my head of the worst arguments you could ever get into as a baseball fan. I don't mean 'worst' like 'stupidest' or 'most irrelevant' - I mean 'worst' as in the kind of argument where you already know ahead of time that, no matter what anyone says, no one's going to change the other side's mind. The kind of argument where you spend an hour or three becoming more and more heated, and when you finally give up and look back on everything that's been said, you realize that it was a complete and utter waste of time. The kind of argument where you ought to know from the get-go that you're not going to get anything accomplished, but you try anyway, because you're so confident that you're right, and for whatever reason a part of you doesn't believe that the other side is trenched in every bit as deep.

There are a lot of them out there. About Derek Jeter. About intangibles. About who should be eligible for the MVP. About the uncertainty of prospects. About clutch performance. About what wins in October. About how to value youth in trades. About the umps. About track records. And so on and so forth. Go to any baseball message board or active blog and chances are good that at least one such debate will be taking place around the clock. They're everywhere - the same arguments you've read time and time again, in countless different locations - and they never fail to escalate to the same level they have every time before, for as long as they've been going on.

While I was putting this list together, though, it occurred to me that there's one specific argument that stands head and shoulders above the rest. One argument that gets people so riled up that at no point does there seem to be even the slightest possibility of a rational, collected outcome. One argument that always manages to suck people in like a fight in Andy Capp even if they know better when they do it. And that's the argument of intent when a pitcher beans or comes close to beaning a hitter with a fastball.

There's nothing in baseball that gets people running on pure adrenaline faster than a beanball. Even if you fancy yourself one of the more calm and objective followers of the sport, if you have a favorite team, it's almost impossible to stop yourself from getting upset when one of your players gets drilled with a heater. There are certain occasions when it was obviously a mistake - like Mariano Rivera hitting Jacoby Ellsbury in the ninth last night, for example - but quite often there's no clear answer, and fans will immediately side with their player without so much as a second thought. After all, it's your guys who're the gallant warriors, right? And the other guys are the filthy, crude Visigoths who're just out for blood. Of course your guys are in the right. That's why you root for them instead of some other group of ignoble cheaters.

The instinctive, impassioned response is unavoidable. For both sides. And when they meet, mayhem inevitably follows. And where other arguments are able to call on statistics for a little objective and factual support, here there's nothing. There's no statistical way to prove intent. It doesn't matter if the pitcher on the mound has a track record of beanballs or pinpoint control; anything can happen on one pitch (ask Tony Saunders), as there exists no smaller sample size. Take it from a guy who used to put on a uniform - pitches can get away from you, even when you feel like you have perfect control. It makes no difference who you are.

This lack of statistical support is what keeps the flame burning so hot for so long, because the fire is fueled by emotion, and emotion pretty much by definition involves the absence of reason or logic. Without any kind of legitimate proof either way, you're left with an argument between two heated and irrational parties that, at its base, boils down to "my team's players are more professional and noble than yours." Which nobody wants to accept, because even if it's only subconscious, everybody believes that his team is better than all the others, if not athletically, then ethically. That's what's at the heart of all fandom, and it's what the Mariners tried to capitalize on a few years ago as they went through their "good guy" phase. You don't want to believe that someone on your team acted poorly in the heat of the moment because accepting such would force you to question your loyalties at their most fundamental level.

I've seen this argument a million times before, be it about a pitch that "got away" or about a hockey player who delivered a "dirty hit." And on no single occasion was it ever resolved. All it manages to do is get people riled up and pissed off at each other, sometimes even long after their respective teams have walked it off and moved on. A lot of beanballs can be understood as mistakes or an act of unspoken historical gamesmanship, but when you get something like Joba Chamberlain throwing two fastballs over Kevin Youkilis' head - that just sets off what might be the most futile debate in all of sports. It's heated, it's pointless, it's irrational, and it's oh so unbelievably appealing. The next time something like this happens with the Mariners, please, all I ask is that you pay attention to that little voice that's telling you it isn't worth it to jump in. It's not, and hours later you'll be glad you listened. You'll find that staying out of these things completely can make your day substantially brighter than it would've been otherwise.

Besides, we all know the Mariner was totally in the right.