Ever wonder how two baseball teams -- say, just for the sake of hypothetical argument, the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals -- can get into a scary-looking bench-clearing brawl, yet when the shouting and dogpiling is done, no one ends up seriously hurt?
Me, too. Then I realized: not getting hurt is pretty much the whole point.
Thing is, baseball fights aren't actually fights. Not like a barroom fracas. They're more like the aggression displays you see from angry monkeys on Animal Planet, highly mannered behavior patterns designed to resolve conflict without serious violence. Unconvinced? Take a closer look at the following basebrawl rituals, all of which are de rigueur:
Everyone fights: A bench-clearing brawl is exactly that. The benches clear. Unless you're playing clubhouse cards with Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson, on-field attendance is mandatory. Yet while additional combatants usually equal increased danger, baseball fights work the other way around. More people means more grabbing, pulling, pushing and holding each other back in a big, harmless sea of sunflower seed-spitting humanity; by contrast, nobody leaving the dugout would mean hitter versus pitcher, unrestrained, exchanging dangerous blow after dangerous blow. In essence, a hockey fight. The kind of fight in which people get jacked up.
Put on an angry face: Remember long ago when Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were friends but not teammates, and yukked it up so much during a Seattle-New York brawl that the Yankees' Chad Curtis subsequently got in Jeter's face? It's not that Jeter and A-Rod should have pummeled each other; it's that they did a terrible job faking it. True pros know that the safe dissipation of bad baseball blood is a lot like an ancient scapegoat rite. Ya gotta honor appearances. Take the following exchange between former MLB'ers Jim Bouton and Fritz Peterson in Bouton's classic "Ball Four":
"How's your wife?" I said. "Give me a fake punch to the ribs."
"She's fine," he said. "You can punch me in the stomach. Not too hard."
Keep it clean: Baseball players have bats. They also wear spikes. Two things you almost never see in basebrawls? Stickwork and stomping. Both are against the unwritten rules, along with sucker punching. Why? Because nobody is trying to inflict major damage.
Coaches fight at their peril: For every Pat Listach, the Nationals third base coach who pinned Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad in the brawl Tuesday night, there's a Don Zimmer.
When in doubt, dog pile: The ultimate safety in numbers. When is it hardest to throw a damaging punch? When your arm is pinned under 500 combined pounds of late-arriving middle relievers. In a mild bit of irony, the bottom of a dog pile is akin to the eye of a hurricane: the place where you're least likely to get hurt. As former Baltimore Orioles bench coach and MLB player Jeff Newman once told me, "Usually the guys that get hit aren't the ones that started it. Because they're at the bottom. The guys that take the beating are the ones on top."