Players are fired up, and it's only spring training

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- From the same people who brought you Guillermo Mota vs. Mike Piazza and Vladimir Guerrero vs. Brad Penny, we turn your attention to the ring -- er, ballpark -- for the MLB Wrestling Association's latest main event:

Larry Bowa versus Roy Halladay -- and friends.

It was supposed to be just another laid-back spring-training afternoon. Sun peeking through the clouds. Two certified aces -- Toronto's Roy Halladay and Philadelphia's Kevin Millwood -- tuning up for Opening-Day showtime next week.

And then, without warning, a relaxing Wednesday on the last week of spring training turned into an extravaganza Vince McMahon could have been proud of.

With two on and two outs in the bottom of the third inning, Halladay fired a first-pitch cutter that veered eastward in an attempt (unsuccessful) to bore a hole in the right arm of a certain $85-million free agent by the name of Jim Thome.

Thome checked to see if Bud Selig's signature was imprinted on his arm, then spun, grimaced and stared at Halladay on his way down the line. Halladay saw the look in Thome's eye, and decided: "I knew what was coming."

Hey, Miss Cleo couldn't have called it better. A half-inning later, Halladay happened to be the leadoff hitter -- and the first batter du jour for reliever Rheal Cormier.

Correctly guessing where Cormier's first pitch was heading, Halladay lurched backward to safety. Ball one. Cormier's next pitch sailed in the same direction, but the body it collided with didn't belong to Halladay. It belonged to home-plate ump Eric Cooper. And you knew that was trouble.

Cooper let out a yelp, then pivoted directly toward the mound. When he arrived, he pointed at Cormier, then pointed at both dugouts and issued an official warning that pronounced the head-hunting portion of the afternoon to be over.

Ah, but the real action was just beginning.

Bowa, being the lovable little fireball that he is, exploded out of his seat and bolted toward Cooper. After they'd compared restaurant reviews for a couple of highly-animated minutes, it was hard not to notice that Bowa's faced had turned approximately the same shade of red as his shirt.

Whereupon Bowa remembered he had other folks to visit while he was out there. So he swerved toward home plate, where he told Halladay: "You've got better control than that."

"He said a lot of things," Halladay reported later. "But when he finally came close, I said, 'I didn't mean to hit the guy.' And he said: 'xpfdtltsdrf' (or perhaps another popular expression) -- and a few other four-letter words."

At that point, Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca started feeling left out. So he popped out of his chair and sprinted plateward himself.

"When somebody starts screaming at one of my players, that's my responsibility to go out and try to stop it," Tosca said. "I was screaming. He was screaming. I really couldn't hear what was being said."

But words were irrelevant at that point. It was time to empty those benches, roll that videotape and make a mental note to hustle home in time for SportsCenter.

It was, as always, a colorful scene, even if the closest anyone came to violence was some possible illegal use of the hands involving Blue Jays second baseman Orlando Hudson and Phillies coach John Vukovich.

"I didn't see any blows," Cormier reported later. "Just a lot of F-bombs."

"Same old stuff," said catcher Todd Pratt. "A lot of grabbing and nothing to do."

The grabbing, tugging and creative vocabulary lasted a minute or so. Then Bowa was awarded his hard-earned first spring ejection. And the Phillies were so clearly inspired, they erupted for seven runs off Halladay -- who hadn't allowed a run all spring before Wednesday. Which might have been what the ever-volatile manager had in mind.

But we'll never know, because Bowa was pleading innocent to just about all charges.

Asked if "what happened" could have served as a wake-up call for a talented team having a somewhat listless spring, Bowa snapped: "Nothing happened."

"What happened?" he asked. "The benches empty all the time. It's not a big deal."

Asked at another point if a team could discover the joys of unity after "something like that," Bowa retorted: "Something like what? Nobody threw at anybody."

Asked what Halladay said to him after he'd cast aspersions on his "control," Bowa replied, cheerfully: "I don't know what he said, to be honest with you, and I really don't give a (darn)."

Asked later if he noticed any of the extra-curricular action involving Hudson, Bowa -- who could tell you the career stats of everyone who's played since about 1938 -- deadpanned: "Who's Orlando Hudson? I don't even know who the (heck) he is."

Bowa at least showed some remorse for paying Halladay that visit at home plate, saying: "I shouldn't have said that to him. I should have just walked off." And at least that made for one thing both sides could agree on.

But the question of the day was: What was this really all about? And if you can answer that one, President Bush would like you to head for the U.N. Security Council immediately.

Ask yourself this: Why would Halladay be trying to drill Thome to load the bases for Pat Burrell, who had homered off him two innings earlier? That wouldn't make much sense in July, let alone the last week of spring training. Would it?

"I don't understand why anybody would think I'd intentionally hit Jim Thome in that situation," Halladay said. "After all the times I faced him in the American League and never hit him, I can't imagine why they thought I'd intentionally hit him here."

Amazingly, several Phillies afterward had total recall of Halladay's spring stats (two walks, zero hit batters all spring). But Halladay said he'd "never been involved in something like that" in his life -- any league, any time of year. So sheer logic would suggest this was no time to start emulating Don King.

But because of WHO he hit, it might not matter what Halladay meant to do. The Phillies' whole season is built around their new first baseman. So the sight of Thome walking out of the ballpark wearing an ice pack the size of Saskatchewan didn't rank as their favorite spring-training moment, even if he didn't appear to be hurt seriously.

Cormier and Bowa both had their alibis straight, claiming that Cormier was experimenting with pitching out of a windup for the first time since 1997. But Cormier also said, revealingly: "You get down to the last couple of days (of spring training), and somebody throws a ball at one of your best players, you've got to try and protect him."

If the Phillies were trying to make that point, though, Halladay didn't see why they needed to force 60 players to run onto the field to make it.

"I didn't mean to hit the guy, but I understood why they were upset," Halladay said. "So you take your shots at me. Then it's over and done with. That should have been the end of it. ... If he hits me, fine. He tried twice, and he didn't get me. But to come out there screaming and yelling ... that was ridiculous."

Well, it sure didn't fit America's image of the joy and serenity of spring training. But it's been one of those springs.

After the Piazza-Mota brouhaha, the commissioner had to dispatch his security forces to Mexico to keep an international incident from breaking out the next time the Mets and Dodgers met. And with the Expos and Marlins scheduled to meet 19 more times this year, you haven't seen the last of those Guerrero-vs.-Penny videotapes, either.

So at least we're learning that spring training is more than just a six-week tanning festival.

"The thing is, these guys are competitors," Tosca said. "And they get hot because they're competitors. Sometimes they just get caught up in the emotion of the moment. But that's part of being human."

What's also part of being human, though, is that, after six weeks of spring training, they're ready for some action that actually counts. Especially lovable little fireball managers whose team is gearing up to win for the first time in a decade.

Asked if this was a sign that maybe he'd had enough of spring training, Bowa quipped: "Noooooo. I like it here. I like the sun."

Right. Funny how that sun looks a lot brighter when his first baseman is smiling -- instead of walking around wearing a bigger iceberg than the one that nailed the Titanic.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.