Tommy Lasorda. Steve Garvey. Fernando Valenzuela. Kirk Gibson. And now … Joe Kelly.
With two wayward pitches, Kelly penciled himself into Dodgers lore Tuesday night, taking decisive action against the Houston Astros. He fired pitches over the head of Alex Bregman and nearly into the teeth of Carlos Correa, setting off a bench-clearing, socially-distanced brawl. And for good measure, he taunted the protesting Astros with an aw, you poor babies scowl.
It’s tough to feel sorry for Houston, which has so far escaped any real on-field retribution after the revelation of its extensive sign-stealing scandal. But Kelly will nonetheless pay for his actions — justified in the eyes of the Dodgers, sinful in the eyes of MLB — by serving an eight-game suspension (pending appeal).
Granted, Kelly wasn’t exactly Gibson coming off the bench to homer in the 1988 World Series. But given that Los Angeles hasn’t won a championship since then — and the Astros took them out in seven games in 2017, the season of the Trash Can Communication — it’s not hard to see why both the team and its fans rallied behind Kelly, even if he was in a Red Sox uniform back in 2017.
MLB fined the Astros $5 million and took away their top draft picks this year and next, and several executives and coaches are out of jobs. But there’s no asterisk on the Astros’ championship, and the players apparently most involved in the scandal have given off an attitude that’s indifferent at best, what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it at worst. And the eight games that Kelly got are eight more than any player was suspended for, you know, conspiring to undercut the integrity of an entire season.
So you can see why opposing pitchers might decide to create yet another unwritten rule — thou shalt throw at the Astros — to even the scales of justice a bit. They can’t go back and overthrow the 2017 season, but they could make sure the Astros don’t get too comfortable in the batter’s box now. The pitchers, and the teams backing them, are only trying to serve up some frontier justice to a team that, from a ballplayer’s perspective, skated on the scandal.
Yes, throwing at a batter’s head is incredibly dangerous. It’s also worth noting, though, that there’s a small but definitive danger to a pitcher serving up a fastball to a batter who knows what’s coming. You need only look back to July 4, when the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton snapped a liner off the head of teammate Masahiro Tanaka in an intrasquad game. Tanaka ended up being OK, but it took him two weeks to face live batters again. Even now, the sight of him collapsing to the mound in a heap after getting drilled is one every baseball fan dreads.
The length of Kelly’s suspension is significant for several reasons. First, in a 60-game season, eight games is the equivalent of 22 games in a normal season. Plus, according to USA Today, suspensions for hitting batters over the past three seasons ranged from two to six games. (Kelly’s also getting something of a lifetime achievement award; he’s had “trouble” with his control in the past, and was suspended six games while with Boston in 2018 for inciting a fight by hitting the Yankees’ Tyler Austin with a pitch.)
Kelly isn’t the first pitcher to exact his own form of justice on the Astros this year. It’s tough to remember that there was any baseball in 2020 before COVID-19, but in the early days of spring training, opposing pitchers were treating the Astros like target practice — this, despite commissioner Rob Manfred’s explicit warning to other managers not to target the Astros.
From baseball’s perspective, then, there’s a reason for Wednesday’s harsh punishment that goes beyond just slapping Kelly back into line. MLB has a vested, and understandable, interest in halting this kind of literal headhunting early, otherwise every pitcher who faces Houston is going to sling chin music.
Plus, MLB is, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts conceded Tuesday, “under a microscope right now.” After the colossal screwup that was the Miami Marlins infection fiesta just four days into the season, the last thing the league wants now is to have brushback pitches — and, more importantly, non-socially-distanced, bench-clearing brawls — rather than smoothly-running, inoffensive ballgames.
Still, you know the best way MLB could have avoided this kind of Wild West scenario? If it had brought the hammer down on individual Astros, or at least attempted to do so, before opposing pitchers ever began warming up. The opportunity was there, but MLB let it pass through a combination of offered immunity and unwillingness to challenge the players’ union over punishment. So now, the pitchers have the ball … and you never know where it might end up.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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