On an icy night in Fenway, the century-old rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees added another ugly chapter to its already checkered history. In the top of the third, the Yankees — ahead 5-1 after Sox starter David Price’s disastrous one-inning start — were threatening with runners on first and second and nobody out. Tyler Wade laid down a bunt, hoping to move the runners over. Sox third baseman Rafael Devers fielded the bunt and fired it to second. His throw was somewhat off the mark, forcing shortstop Brock Holt to stretch to receive it.
Tyler Austin, running from first, slid hard and late into and past the second base bag, presumably in an attempt to eliminate any chance of a double play. As he slid his spike flared up, catching Holt’s ankle. It looked pretty painful. By the rules, Austin’s slide was legal, but Holt, his ankle smarting, wheeled around to exchange some words with Austin, which one assumes were not about the weather.
Austin popped up, indignant, and responded to Holt with what we might imagine were an equally forceful couple sentences. Late slides were already a bit of a sore subject for the Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia is still injured from a late slide he took last spring from the Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado. Benches and bullpens cleared, but everybody quickly settled down, and the game continued.
Four innings later (after he had been up again and struck out), Austin came to the plate facing flame-throwing (and struggling) Boston reliever Joe Kelly. Kelly’s first pitch was a slider away. His second was a fastball in, which Austin just narrowly evaded. After another pitch away, Kelly came up and in on a 2-1 count, burying a 98 mile per hour four-seam fastball in Austin’s back. Austin smashed the bat on the edge of the plate, took several steps toward the mound, threw his helmet and charged Kelly. Austin threw a couple punches and missed both, before falling to the ground underneath a couple of Boston players. Kelly attempted to punch the back of Austin’s head as he lay on the ground, but somehow managed to miss both cuts.
Both benches and bullpens emptied, a development that introduced Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to the fracas. They decided to play peacemaker, which was probably a good thing for everyone else involved. Combining for 13 feet in height and 530 pounds in weight, Stanton and Judge looked like middle school teachers sorting out a cafeteria melee.
When the dust settled, Kelly and Austin were both ejected, along with New York third base coach Phil Nevin and Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle; Nevin for getting in a shouting match with Boston manager Alex Cora and Kahnle for swiping away the hand of an umpire.
Baseball brawls are not the most tantalizing skirmishes out there. But for a sport that most find to be intolerably dull, the allure of bad blood and bean ball does a good deal to pique the public’s interest. As tempers flare, so do ratings. So, one imagines that when these fights break out, Major League Baseball’s executives begin a quiet celebration.
Yet the league still finds itself trapped by its obligation to censure players for what, outside of the stadium, would be simple assault. In fact, athletic fights are an interesting tolerated illegality. Only rarely have athletes in the United States ever faced criminal penalties for violence committed during a game. Mike Tyson never saw prosecution for biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear. Nor did Kermit Washington after he infamously sucker-punched Rudy Tomjanovich, who was rushing in to break up a fight. “Bean ball,” the cute name given to the practice of aiming a five-ounce mass traveling one eights the speed of sound directly at an opponent’s body (and sometimes his head), has never been prosecuted. Instead, authorities typically delegate the task of discipline to the sport’s governing body.
Joe Kelly was suspended six games for pegging Austin. Austin was suspended five games for charging Kelly. Both will appeal, and it is likely that their suspensions will be reduced considerably. Both were also fined undisclosed amounts of money. In Massachusetts, battery carries a maximum sentence of two and a half years in state prison.
Debates about whether these punishments fit the crime aside, baseball executives clearly did some part of their job in disciplining players for what happened, pacifying any legal authorities’ anxieties about sports venues become lawless worlds of unpunished violence. As the league handed out these punishments, however, it shamelessly promoted the fight on social media and in the press. Not long after the fight in Boston, the MLB Twitter account posted a video of the fight.
Now, there were two broadcasts of the game, one on YES (Yankees Entertainment and Sports) Network and the other on the New England Sports Network (NESN). MLB chose one of these videos to post on its Twitter. YES play-by-play announcer Michael Kay delivered a sparse, sedate and somewhat morose call of the fight, appropriate for a broadcaster watching millionaires attempt to injure each other. NESN broadcaster Dave O’Brien, however, was elated, exclaiming “here he comes!” as Austin ran out to the mound. If Kay was Walter Cronkite, O’Brien was Howard Cosell. You can guess which video MLB released. And lest the possibility for future excitement was not adequately communicated by the fight itself, the people in MLB’s video room cut in a line from Jerry Remy, the Boston color commentator, which he actually said several minutes after the fight had ended: “So this could make for a very interesting remaining 17 games after tonight.”
Most shameless of all, MLB’s “At Bat” app sent its users a notification, calling the next day’s game between the Yankees and Red Sox “Can’t Miss,” in light of the previous night’s “fireworks.” Meanwhile, Kelly, who was sporting an atrocious 7.71 ERA when he entered the game, now receives standing ovations whenever he appears in Boston, a fact which he described as “freaking badass.”
If the MLB front office is truly this elated to see fights happen, it is possible that the league should rethink how, and whether, it should absorb the delegated task of punishing in-game violence. An organization is not particularly well-equipped to crack down on specific behavior if it actually desires that behavior to occur. This is especially true when the league cannot even hide its excitement at a fight. Fights are exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, Major League Baseball can at least have a little more self-respect. It’s not the WWE.