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Mandy vs. Manfred: Baseball Has a Responsibility To Stop Head Hunting

We’ve already been taught the tragic lessons; why won’t Rob Manfred heed them?

Tee Miller

[Ed. note: For months now, our Amanda has become increasingly distressed about the state of baseball under the Umbridge-like tinkerations of Commissioner Rob Manfred. This week finally presented the straw that broke the blogger’s back, so it is within this swirling maelstrom of fury we present the first installment of a new series: Mandy vs. Manfred. Mandy may be small in stature, but her keyboard is mighty. Fear ye, those who walk where angels fear to Manfred.]

It was 1967 and he was on track to become one of the best of all time. He was the youngest American League player to hit 100 career home runs and the youngest to win a home run title. He was 22 years old when a fastball derailed his career.

Jack Hamilton hit one batter while with the Angles that season. One fastball that strayed. One missed delivery. One pitch that found the face of Tony Conigliaro.

It wasn’t head hunting. An unlucky pitch and a player that liked to crowd the plate simply met to illustrate what happens when ball meets head.

On Friday night, Manny Machado slid into second base with his spikes up, snaring second baseman Dustin Pedroia. The Unwritten Rules demanded vengeance. On Sunday, Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes threw a pitch at Machado’s head in retaliation. Machado’s slide was dirty, no doubt (although it does have its defenders, because of course), but the issues surrounding the slide are for another discussion.

Baseball’s disciplinary committee handed Barnes a four-game suspension and an undisclosed fine.

Four games. Four games for purposely throwing at another player’s head. Four games because honor demanded a head shot. Four games for perpetuating rules that excuse barbaric behavior. Four games for a fastball that could have been unduly damaging.

The pundits wring their hands and declare that baseball won’t address this until a player is seriously injured or killed. We have seen a serious injury. Tony Conigliaro did make a comeback, but he was never the same player and was forced to retire because the sight in his left eye was damaged. Likewise, we have already had a death. In 1920 Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch twelve hours after it struck him in the head.

Baseball implemented changes after each of these incidents. Following the 1920 season the spitball was banned and umpires were required to replace dirty balls. Chapman’s death was later used to mandate that players wear batting helmets. Following Conigliaro’s injury, the ear flap was added.

These safety measures were important, and remain important because fastballs get away. A pitcher loses his grip and makes a mistake. It happens. What does not need to happen is purposefully throwing at a batter’s head. It is barbaric and outdated, and symptomatic of the toxic masculinity and the “right way to play” that continues to pervade baseball.

It’s strange that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred isn’t pushing to change the outdated Unwritten Rules. Modernize is his favorite word, yet he allows players to keep following the archaic self-policing spelled out by the Rules. He worries about baseball’s appeal to the youths, yet his focus has been on intentional walks and replacing the special mud rubbed on baseballs. Modernize, he must whisper to himself as he falls asleep at night, modernize. Yet, his office was happy to hand down a paltry four game suspension for intentionally throwing at someone’s head.

It seems strange that more baseball entities aren’t behind cracking down. For Major League Baseball in general it is a bad look. It’s the NFL with gloves off, where the violence isn’t part of the game; it’s a cold blooded thirst to maim. The player’s union, which generally tries to reduce suspensions, should be protecting its members from this machoism run amok. The owners should want to protect their player investments. Even with insured contracts, they are still out a good chunk of money if a post-free agency Manny Machado is injured.

An old version of baseball allowed for “soaking”, where a defensive player got an offensive player out by throwing the ball at them. In times long since passed, players didn’t use gloves and the pitchers tossed the ball to a location requested by the batter. Baseball has evolved from a gentleman’s game to a rough and tumble working class recreation, to the modern sport where you don’t even have to be that good to be a millionaire. The Unwritten Rules were developed and refined along with the game, but haven’t evolved to encapsulate the realities of the modern game.

This is where I wanted to assert that pitchers throw much harder now that they used to, but in doing some digging to back up that popularly held assertion I see that while it feels true it is not provably true. In fact, a 1917 article in Popular Science deduced that a pitched ball travels 150 mph. I’m going to presume that isn’t a completely accurate number. (The article is a fun look at an early attempt to understand baseball better, certainly something any sabermetrician can appreciate.)

One thing we do know for sure is the realities of head injuries in professional sports. It’s no secret anymore that head trauma has long-lasting and devastating effects. Despite this knowledge, sports leagues across the board have been slow to implement any real change. Amateur MDs can watch any football game and diagnose concussed players who never enter concussion protocol. The effects of head injuries are very real and very serious, and the extent to which this is true will only become more apparent in the years to come.

What no amount of reasoning and scientific research can cut through is the allegiance to the Unwritten Rules. They are worshiped and held up as an exemplifier of player conduct. It is on the players themselves to self-police and keep each other in line. It’s a great idea in theory, except it is too easy for the punishment to far exceed the crime. Those who argue for the enforcement of these pretend and arbitrary rules do so because they believe asserting an outdated notion of masculinity is more important than the well-being of human beings.

It seems crazy that chest thumping should be valued over a functional cranium, but here we are. The Unwritten Rules are so ingrained in baseball that it’s a not simple fix to change what needs to be changed. This is why Major League Baseball’s punishment is so pathetic. It is a terribly bad look for the league, and yet they refuse to attack it the way they should. A much harsher suspension—Jeff Passan suggested 20 games—is what is needed to start fixing the Rules.

Throwing at someone’s head is neither honorable, nor necessary. Major League Baseball and its Commissioner need to put player safety and common sense ahead of dangerous traditions. Manfred has attacked baseball up and down, intent on robbing the game of its quirks and interesting side notes. Why won’t he stand up against behaviors that harm baseball’s soul?

(Perhaps, she declared bitterly, it’s because the perpetuation of the Unwritten Rules helps him in his quest to destroy baseball’s soul.)

Instead of being Jack Hamilton, the pitcher who missed with a fastball and altered a life, he could have become Matt Barnes, the player who willfully altered a life with a 90 mph fastball thrown with all the purpose of intent behind it.

This is not a slap-on-the-wrist occasion. This is deadly serious and needs to be treated as such.

Tony Conigliaro was born in Revere, MA, a hometown hero for the Boston Red Sox. His tragic injury happened in the midst of their Impossible Dream season.

He’s the poster child for what happens when a fastball meets a skull.

We already have our lesson. We already know what happens. There is no reason to allow head hunting to continue.

If Rob Manfred is serious about modernizing baseball, this is where he must start.