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How MLB will inevitably get the suspensions for the Angels-Mariners brawl wrong

MLB has an opportunity to send a message, but there’s a 99% chance here they’ll send the wrong one

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Angels
normal baseball behavior
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sunday’s Angels-Mariners brawl was one of the ugliest we’ve seen in a while, but here’s the real kicker: it was also entirely preventable. All it would have taken was for the umpiring crew to be even halfway competent in their jobs, recognize what every single other person in the building, down to the peanut vendors, seemingly knew was coming, and issue a warning to both benches pre-game. They then should have immediately ejected Andrew Wantz the second he threw at Julio Rodríguez. Then Wantz isn’t in the game to hit Winker, and a whole different series of events unfold.

Much of the fan-assigned blame has fallen on home plate umpire John Bacon, a Triple-A umpire up as a vacation replacement, but this whole umpiring crew—Bacon, Rob Drake, Will Little, and Adrian Johnson—bears the brunt of responsibility for not recognizing the overall situation, nor the Angels’ intent to act on that situation by making a late substitution to use an “opener”, and not immediately issuing warnings and then immediately ejecting Wantz. It’s the crew chief’s decision to make, and I’m not sure who that was for the game—not the rookie Bacon, certainly, but probably Johnson, whose name also shows up in the box score as ejecting people in the game—but whoever is crew chief deserves the lion’s share of the blame for an utter failure of leadership.

Unfortunately, because of MLB’s obsessive need to protect their skeleton crew of umpires at all costs, we will never see consequences handed out to the people who are the most at fault. Umpires don’t get punished or suspended for bad games; the worst ones, names who are famous among baseball fans, continue to be employed despite objective performance data that shows they’re bad at their jobs. Aside from Supreme Court Justices, baseball umpires enjoy the best job security in the US, regardless of performance.

Since the umpiring crew will obviously go consequence-free, others will have to bear the brunt of punishment. In a just world, the majority of the punishment falls on Disgraced Former California Angels interim manager Phil Nevin. In the legal system, premeditated crimes generally carry harsher sentences because they show willingness and intent to harm other people, a plan that has been enacted rather than a spur-of-the-moment decision. Clearly, when the Angels walked out a lineup card bearing the name of Andrew Wantz as a starter after saying Jose Suárez would get the start, that was a decision that came with premeditation. And when Wantz threw at Julio Rodríguez, the Mariners’ young star—who was not the first batter of the game, meaning they specifically targeted Julio—that satisfied another condition of a first-degree crime, “intent.” The decision to insert an opener—an expendable soldier in a overly-dramatized, whipped-up battle—shows premeditation, and in actually hitting Winker, demonstrates both intent, and a disregard for both the safety of one of the game’s great young stars and one of its All-Stars. If MLB has any compunctions at all—or care, as their social media channels would have us believe, about letting “the kids play”—they will suspend Nevin for the remainder of the season.

Of course, that won’t happen. MLB’s pattern is to punish the actors, not the puppet-masters. Buck Showalter was suspended one game earlier this season when Yoan López threw at Kyle Schwarber; López got three games. Dusty Baker got one game when Hector Neris threw at Ty France and then Eugenio Suárez; Neris got four games. Keegan Thompson got a three-game suspension for hitting Andrew McCutcheon; his manager David Ross got one game. (As a surprise to No One, the biggest suspension this year has been handed out to someone who dared make contact with an official, Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez.) So Andrew Wantz, who gave some laughably BS excuses about being “nervous” about starting his first “day game,” will likely receive a much heavier suspension than Nevin, unless MLB startlingly reverses course and shows some backbone in punishing the person who told him to throw at a hitter. To be clear, Wantz absolutely deserves a suspension—he is the one who agreed to throw at the Mariners’ two best batters, even if he was enacting someone else’s plan—but this pattern of punishing the players and not the masterminds behind it is stupid, even if it ultimately damages the team more to have the talent off the field instead of the talking head (imagine the “why not both” gif here).

Unfortunately, since MLB likes punishing the actors, that probably means some heavy suspensions are coming down for your Seattle Mariners. Jesse Winker’s actions will certainly carry a significant punishment, as he’s the one who (regrettably) shook off HP umpire Bacon—trying desperately to stick his finger in a dam with 40 million acre-feet of water pressure building behind it—when he tried to restrain him from approaching the Angels bench. As Zach pointed out in his recap, this battle was already lost for the Mariners when the Angels were allowed to throw at Julio without consequence, ensuring that once Winker was hit, tensions would erupt. The Disgraced Former California Angels did a lot of posturing after the game, talking about how they’re a “family,” but the Mariners are every bit that family, with Winker here playing the role of protective older brother:

Probably, the Mariners also won’t get any credit for this:

The Mariners have a policy of not retaliating, because retaliating is stupid and also, usually the retaliator is the one who gets the outsized punishment. But perhaps other clubs have twigged on to that, and are using that as a way to try to punch at the Mariners (as Zach would say) with impunity. But in deciding the punishment for the clubs, this kind of context is one that should be taken under advisement, as well. It won’t be, but it should be.

In doling out punishment, MLB has a chance to show that they care about protecting young stars like Julio—the players who will be the face of not just the Mariners, but of baseball itself, for years to come. They can send a message that deliberately throwing baseballs at other human beings is barbaric and has no place in the modern sport. And they can do the impossible and acknowledge their umpiring crew made a mistake and allowed things to get to this point.

Instead, they’ll do none of these things. Precedent shows that they’ll punish Wantz heavily, Nevin lightly, and every Mariner they can find throwing a punch on film. The umpiring crew will continue on their merry way, and at some point this whole scene will unfold again, because there is virtually no accountability for the people charged with keeping players on the field safe.

Were this a civil case, the Mariners would have a compelling argument to prove that they don’t deserve any consequences. They were failed by the negligence of the officials to clamp down on this from the get-go, creating an unsafe environment, and then were targeted by two separate attacks on their best players, from a club that acted with premeditation and intent to do harm. They were also failed by the unfair ejection of Julio Rodríguez, who was trying to pull players off the pile, as he’s done in the past, who later said he just wanted to have fun out on the baseball field. Nothing about Sunday was fun, but for that, the fault lies squarely on MLB’s failed umpiring crew, and Phil Nevin and the Disgraced Former California Angels.