Yankee player hits a homerun. Tigers pitcher hits Yankee home run hitter in midsection the next time he comes to bat. Yankee pitcher throws behind Tiger star hitter, Tiger star attacks Yankee catcher. Benches clear, many punches thrown. New Yankee pitcher hits a different Tiger batter in the head. Benches clear. New Tiger pitcher hits Yankee batter in the thigh. Benches clear.
Final tally: 3 bench clearing altercations (with one featuring many thrown punches), 3 batters hit with pitches (after four were hit in a game between the teams a month earlier), 8 ejections, 7 fines, 5 suspensions, 1000s of explicatives exchanged, uncountable number of internet clicks and views.
Miguel Cabrera, who initiated the first benches-clearing brawl when he shoved then threw a punch at Yankee catcher Austin Romine, said, “You don’t want to see that. You don’t want to see people hit in the head. You don’t want to see fighting on the field. But people have to understand, we’re human. Sometimes, in the heat of the game, when people throw at you at 97, right at your wrist, you react sometimes.”
Cabrera’s level-headed postgame comments raise a few questions. Is it possible that we really do want them to fight? Would we secretly—or publicly—admit that we find baseball’s expectation of revenge right? Does the sliding-scale morality we find in baseball perfectly align with our own Americanized subjective pursuit of morality?
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We really do want them to fight
Cabrera suggests we “don’t want to see fighting on the field.” Really?
In a nation that produces 50 million viewers for the Mayweather/McGregor fight, one could easily argue that we DO want to see grown men fight one another—especially if we can pick a side. We might argue that a fight breaking out in the middle of a game is lacking appropriate context, but don’t say we don’t like it.
Many of us grew up in homes, Christian or not, where “You get what you’ve got coming to you” was a sensible and unchallenged ethic. It lies constantly just beneath the surface of whatever moralized way we’ve come to practice anything other than retribution. We may have been taught through socialization and the lingering influence of Judeo-Christian morals that we shouldn’t want to see it, but humans love to see others fight and exact punishment on one another. (Even my 14-year-old daughter shocked me with “Daddy, are we going to watch that Mayweather game or fight thingy tonight? I want to!” on the morning of the fight.)
Like seeing the jagged and twisted metal of a multi-car crash on the side of the road, we take a self-conscious but perverse pleasure in watching physical confrontations. If we thought we could win or we thought the collateral damage would be low enough, I wonder how many of us would get in more fights? Are you really satisfied just to blow your horn at the person who cuts you off then gives you the finger on the highway? If you could do so without threat of further harm to yourself, wouldn’t you like to punch them in the face, or at least smash some part of their car? It’s ok. No one can see you nodding.
Evidence exists all around us that we’re a violence loving people. You don’t have to look far. Examine football. Examine the military industrial complex. Examine our various lanes of entertainment: video games, movies, heavy metal, strains of hip hop. Examine The Jerry Springer Show and many other reality-based forms of TV. Examine daytime talk radio. Violence so pervasively and acceptably surrounds our daily life that we’ve become fish in the water of retribution and don’t even realize it most of the time.
We sometimes guiltily and sometimes sheepishly embrace it, but our demand for physical harm is as old as Cain and Abel.
We really do appreciate baseball’s intuitive revenge code
Baseball players, like hockey players, have somehow managed to resist what other sports haven’t: more restrained and humanitarian ways of dealing with on-field wrongs.
But as Americans who genuinely seem to love and have a creative penchant for violence, perhaps we should actually thank players in both sports for keeping it real, for allowing The Law of the Streets to still be the way anger-inducing offenses get addressed.
You hit me with a pitch, I hit you back. You punch me, I punch you back. It’s pretty simple really and aligns itself so easily with natural human impulses. In the same moment, both Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest types and Old Testament eye-for-an-eye types get satisfied, a rarity on the worldview stage. By now, we’ve come to expect it in baseball. To not see revenge pursued in baseball would seem strange at this point.
Baseball not only allows but encourages one of our most fundamental, base impulses to flourish unhindered: to retaliate and survive, to establish superiority by getting the last punch in, the final word, insult for insult, one hit batter at a time. However ugly it gets, at least it’s honest. No pretending. You hurt one of us in a way we determine to be outside the lines, we hurt one of you.
We could make a case that baseball is still “America’s game” for this simple reason alone: it doesn’t hide from the impulse to exact revenge when called for and is still willing to “get you back” for whatever offense you’ve committed.
As anyone who has ever watched little kids picking with one another knows, revenge always produces escalation. The instinct to retaliate, while completely normal and built into our pride-filled, self-justification marred DNA as humans, always produces something worse in the end.
If nothing else, acting on revenge moves a person that much further away from understanding, receiving, or giving forgiveness in the future. Repeatedly throughout history this approach has proven to be a lousy way to live. Baseball’s approach to revenge is appealing, but it also reminds us why we need help as humans—indeed, we need transformation to get free of our natures.
We really do appreciate a morality we can make up as we go
Baseball players serve a real but largely undefined morality system. The “unwritten rules,” a baseball code intuitively passed on from player to player that expects Old Testament retribution for infractions of its law, hovers in the background of every game, waiting for the right circumstances to activate it.
But once activated, players/teams are left to decide for themselves if, how, and when they want to execute it. This is ideal American morality: some loose fitting, unwritten rules that we can apply as we please!
One aspect of the baseball code states quite simply that to exact revenge in defense of yourself and your teammates is not only a right but a duty. Relaxing pitchers who choose not to make the sprint in from the bullpens to engage the scrum insult both the game and their friends. Even if you don’t plan to throw a punch, you better be seen somewhere on the SportsCenter replay holding someone back or dusting someone off.
Within this intuitive code of retribution lie other layers, a sort of moral expectation within immoral behavior. “You are fully expected to wipe out the defenseless second baseman to break up a double play in retaliation for a bat flip by another player on his team, just don’t use your cleats.” “You can throw at the other team’s best hitter and break his wrist or knee cap, just don’t throw at his head.” “You can use the ball as a weapon but do not use the bat as a weapon.”
A restrained lack of restraint expected at all times. Minimal governance, nothing written down, apply (or don’t apply) as you see fit. Just satisfy your own sense of righteousness—up to a limit.
American morality at its best.
Baseball reminds us why the gospel seems so offensive
Jesus knew what he was doing when he suggested we should allow someone who punches us in the face to take a second shot without retaliation (Matthew 5:38-40). He knew both the sense of revulsion and impossibility it would strike in the hearts of his listeners. The notion of resisting evil with good is so contrary to our natural state that only a secondary power source could bring about a different response when confronted with a desire to fight back.
In one sense, the “Bible as Literature” crowd can rightly claim Jesus’ teaching here as enlightened Humanism. It’s really not in our best interest to drink poison and hope the other person dies, so denying our desire for revenge when given the opportunity ultimately benefits both the offender and the offended. It’s 2017, but hippie slogans like “make love, not war” not only still make sense, but also trace their origins to Jesus teaching in Matthew 5.
But Humanists and hippies and everyone else throughout history know—or eventually learn—that while folks can resist the urge to hit back on occasion and perhaps in stretches, every one of us eventually caves in to our natural impulse to fight, demand revenge, and make up the rules to fit our own sense of justice. To take that slap on the cheek and rather than turn to offer the other one, instead focus all energies toward devising a plan to strike back.
So Jesus preaches his Matthew 5-7 message—leaving a bunch of other impossible-to-sustain lifestyle approaches in its wake—then dies, raises from the dead, and says, “Receive my Spirit into your being so you can approach and live the life I described before my death.”
Thus, in a game made up of humans making their own rules, we should expect baseball players to fight, get revenge, and exact their own morality when wronged.
But we might also expect that Spirit-filled Christ followers will at least wrestle with what it means to obey Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek—whether in a game, in class, at work, or driving down the road.
If they won’t think about living radically against the grain of natural human impulse, who will?