Many, many years ago, Wayne Gross hit a home run off Ed Farmer and took his time running around the bases. Farmer was furious and wanted to retaliate, but being a reliever who often worked only one inning per game, he didn't face Gross again for three years. And when he did, it was spring training, and they were teammates. The first pitch in batting practice, Farmer hit Gross right in the middle of the back with a fastball at 90 mph.
"What was that for!" Gross screamed at Farmer.
"That was for three years ago!" Farmer yelled at Gross.
"OK," Gross said.
And then it was over.
Thursday night, the Dodgers and Padres engaged in a brawl after Zack Greinke hit Carlos Quentin with a pitch, and Quentin charged the mound. In a collision with Quentin, Greinke suffered a fractured left collarbone and will miss eight weeks. Quentin was suspended for eight games. The Padres and Dodgers meet Monday night at Dodger Stadium, and even though Quentin won't play because of his suspension, retaliation is always possible. It always is.
Baseball players are the most macho, remorseless, vengeful people I've ever met. If you mess with their game, if you mess with them, if you mess with a teammate, they are going to get revenge, no matter how long it takes, even if it's three years, even if the guy is your new teammate. If Terrell Owens were a baseball player and he did the baseball equivalent of disrespecting the star at the 50-yard line at Cowboys Stadium, Roger Clemens would have hit him in the head in his next at-bat, and then he would have hit him again. And so would have Nolan Ryan, and thousands of other pitchers in baseball history. Ryan would throw at a hitter for bunting on him in the early innings. "He threw at me for taking a big swing against him," said Harold Reynolds. "And I didn't even make contact!"
The worst fights I've ever seen in my life are baseball fights. I saw one in a sandlot game when I was 12 years old, and I still remember a player, in his 30s, jumping off the top of a dugout fence and landing, metal spikes first, on the back of a player. It is a really ugly side of the game, but it is also, on some strange level, an admirable side. It's all about protecting a teammate, it's all about the team. When the Rangers got in a fight in Kansas City in 1983, Rangers manager Doug Rader, as tough and as old-school as they come, said after the game, "Well, I was hoping we wouldn't go the whole season without a good fight." In the NBA, you get fined for leaving the bench during a fight. In baseball, for the past 120 years, you get fined -- that is, you lose face with teammates -- for not leaving the bench.
Leading the way are the pitchers; they have the longest memories. When one of Rick Sutcliffe's teammates got hit by a pitch intentionally, he would go right up to him and ask, "Who do you want me to get?" Then Sut would drill that guy. Stan Williams, a big right-hander who pitched from 1958-72, would carry a list of names inside his baseball cap.
"What's that for?" he was asked.
"Those are the guys I have to get," he said.
"Why do you keep them in your cap?" he was asked.
"So I don't forget any of them," he said.
The angriest analysts in ESPN history -- any sport -- were ex-pitchers Rob Dibble and Jeff Brantley, but only on that day in 2002 when the Mets' Shawn Estes was trusted to hit Clemens with a pitch in retaliation for Clemens' hitting Mets star catcher Mike Piazza in the head with a pitch two years earlier. Estes' first pitch was at butt level and behind Clemens: He didn't even hit him. Clemens looked at Estes as if to say, "Is that it? Is that the best you can do?" That day, I was sitting next to Dibble and Brantley, two rough, tough pitchers who would hit anyone if a teammate deserved protection. They were furious. Dibble was especially angry, and that night's "Baseball Tonight" show host, Brian Kenny, told Dibble not to mask his feelings, to bring that same anger to the show that night.
"I will!" Dibble said.
"No you won't," Kenny said.
He did. Dibble was so angry about Estes not doing the job, he unleashed a riff that was so passionate and hateful, all that was missing was the F-bombs. I was afraid sitting next to him.
Many years ago, the Braves and Phillies were involved in an altercation, and one of the Phillies needed to get hit with a pitch to settle things. Tom Glavine was pitching to one of his former teammates, Dale Murphy, the single nicest man ever to play major league baseball. Glavine is somewhere on that list, and he knew what had to be done, but he couldn't hit Murphy with a pitch; he liked and admired him too much, so he threw one way over Murphy's head. Glavine was ejected immediately. And he walked right off the mound. Later, Murphy was angry, or as angry as he can get, at Glavine for not hitting him with the pitch. That's the way the game is played. Murphy could take it, and he was angry at Glavine for showing compassion to a friend. There was no room for that in baseball, at least not in the situation in which -- like it or not -- the game requires retaliation.
Thankfully, the game is not as ruthless as it used to be. In 1952 in Columbus, Don Zimmer was hit in the head by a pitch by Jim Kirk. Zimmer was unconscious for 13 days. When he left the hospital after 31 days, he had lost 42 pounds and had four holes drilled in his skull. His wife had to hold his hand while he walked. On a good day, he could make it 50 yards. "I was this close [to dying]," he said, his index finger and middle finger were a half inch apart. He sat out the rest of that season but came back and played the next season. When he first came back, the pitchers threw at him just to see if he still had his courage.
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver was one of the few who wanted no part of all this machismo. He told his pitchers -- most of whom were really good -- never to throw at a hitter because, he said, "you might get ejected, or you might get in a fight. And if you get ejected or get hurt in fight, you are going to miss games. Our players are better than their players. So we are going to lose in that exchange. So don't throw at anyone. And don't fight."
But they are baseball players. They fight and they defend themselves, their teammates and their game under all circumstances. One of Weaver's former players, Al Bumbry, crossed home plate many years ago and just steamrolled the opposing pitcher, Dennis Eckersley, who was backing up on the play. Bumbry made it look like an accident, but it was not an accident.
"What was that all about?" teammate Mike Flanagan asked him.
"That was for him hitting me with a pitch in 1975!" Bumbry said.
"That was seven years ago!" Flanagan said.
"I know," Bumbry said, "but it hurt. I had to get him back!"