The ugly evidence that may signal intent in the Yankees-Tigers brawl

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Now it is entirely conceivable that Dellin Betances, the New York Yankees’ enormous, flame-throwing relief pitcher, entered into Thursday’s brawl-ridden, testosterone-seeping farce of a baseball game with no intention of exacting retribution against the Detroit Tigers for their part in the festivities. It is totally well within the realm of possibility that on his second pitch of the day, Betances merely lost control of a 98-mph fastball and that fastball happened to run into Tigers catcher James McCann’s batting helmet. It’s perfectly rational to believe Betances, whose lack of control is a hallmark, would never in a tie game in the middle of a pennant race put the go-ahead runner on base purely out of vengeance.

If that’s the case, though, it is one hell of a coincidence. Because here’s the reality about Dellin Betances: Coming into Thursday, he had thrown 1,396 fastballs against right-handed hitters in his career, according to Brooks Baseball. And how many had hit the batter?

One.

That’s upward of 300 plate appearances, and exactly one hit by pitch with a fastball. Not just in the head. No. One right-handed batter – Jeff Francoeur, on the upper left arm, June 23, 2015, more than 20 pitches into an outing – hit by a Dellin Betances fastball, period.

So either James McCann is the unluckiest man in baseball, or he wore a pitch on the dome because Dellin Betances was adhering to the baseball code that calls for some sort of retribution and, in seeking that retribution, may not have hit his intended target, which wasn’t McCann’s head, because it takes a monster to throw at a guy’s head, and from all accounts, Betances is no monster.

Miguel Cabrera (bottom, middle) is at the center of the Detroit Tigers’ fight with the New York Yankees on Thursday. (Getty Images)

He was just a pawn, in this case, in a game whose ideology grows more antiquated and barbaric by the brawl. Hundreds of millions of dollars in players were dressed in Yankees and Tigers uniforms Thursday, and hundreds of millions more in future earning value wore the same, and still, the pettiness with which scores were getting settled – with baseballs being chucked about and benches clearing and an overwhelming amount of biteless barking – was the game at its devolved worst.

How Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association sit back, watch games like Thursday’s and don’t immediately work in a bipartisan fashion on harsher sanctions to prevent future incidents boggles the mind. Brawls run the risk of hurting players. Injuries are bad for MLB. One union member fighting another is bad for the MLBPA. And what are the penalties for that? A middling suspension? A laughable fine? Neither serves as a deterrent.

As cynical as it may be to believe the sport actually enjoys brawls, there is something to the notion. Nothing comes close to a brawl in generating national interest in regular-season baseball. It’s not just the drama or threat of violence, either. Basebrawls tend to contain at least one milk-snort funny moment, whether Bryce Harper’s helmet throw in May or CC Sabathia’s inability to contain his laughter at his teammate, Brett Gardner, playing the hold-me-back guy during the third benches-clearing incident of the day.

Everything started in the fifth inning, when Tigers starter Michael Fulmer hit Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez an inning after he had homered. Fulmer stayed in the game. Half an inning later, Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle threw a pitch behind Tigers star Miguel Cabrera and was ejected. Before play resumed, Cabrera went face to face with Yankees catcher Austin Romine – the brother of Tigers infielder Andrew Romine – and started talking. Austin Romine pulled off his mask, Cabrera shoved him and took two swings, Romine tackled him and out came both teams, trying to separate the masses.

The Betances pitch to start the seventh inning reignited the anger, and Detroit’s rebuttal came in the form of Alex Wilson burying a fastball in Todd Frazier – an act to which Wilson fully admitted guilt after the game, in a moment of refreshing honesty that may get him a longer suspension or larger fine for telling a truth with which the league is apparently uncomfortable.

The backward nature of such discipline is never more obvious than when a declaration of vigilante justice is somehow seen as a negative and the I-don’t-know-of-what-you-speak-sir nonsense helps. Generally speaking, admission of guilt is supposed to assist one’s cause, not hinder it. The public lies baseball players tell to avoid harsher discipline border on hilarious, particularly when years later so many privately recall the incident being part of a long-simmering feud about which nobody knows.

Thursday may have been that, or it may have been something more acute. Whatever the case, Yankees manager Joe Girardi blaming the umpires for the brawl was particularly rich. Girardi acted as if umpires issued a warning after Fulmer hit Sanchez, the incident wouldn’t have escalated into a three-benches-clearing, eight-ejection, memorable afternoon at the ballpark. Because the umpires throw the pitches. And the umpires shove the players. And the umpires come in late to a brawl and throw a punch to a player prone on the ground.

Dellin Betances reacts to being ejected from the game after hitting James McCann in the head with a pitch in the seventh inning at Comerica Park. (Getty Images)

Wait. That was Gary Sanchez hitting Miguel Cabrera and not an umpire? Hmmm. OK.

See, that is how this charade continues to exist. Baseball players absolve themselves of the goonery because it’s a bad look, the league does nothing to disincentivize it and the cycle repeats itself often enough that one of these times, someone is going to get hit in the head. That happened Thursday, and one can only hope this really was a giant, honking fluke, a less-than-1-percent chance coming to life, and that a man with a long career and life ahead of him wasn’t hit in the head by a projectile that thudded into his head at 89.2 mph because some antediluvian code called for it.

Voyeuristically enjoyable as a brawl may be, its dangers were fundamentally apparent on Thursday and will be again so long as MLB and the players accept this as a formality. It doesn’t have to be. It shouldn’t be. But it is, because when it comes to basebrawls and the truth, never the twain shall meet.

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