Bean balls: Possibly sports’ most cowardly tradition

Tom Glavine faced 18,604 batters in his major league career, and he plunked only 66 of them with pitches. This speaks not only to the former Braves pitcher’s supreme control on the mound, but his potential candidacy for a Nobel Peace Prize.

When asked how many of those 66 hit batters were intentional, Glavine said, “None that I can remember.”

They never do.

Actually, Glavine confessed to intentionally throwing at a player only once. Most remember it as vaudeville: Glavine vs. former teammate Dale Murphy, then playing for Philadelphia in 1991. There was an ongoing feud between the Braves and Phillies, punctuated when Phillies reliever Roger McDowell (now the Braves’ pitching coach) beaned Otis Nixon. McDowell was ejected, but manager Bobby Cox demanded retaliation and told Glavine to throw at the Phillies’ first batter in the next inning.

“I said, ‘But Bobby, it’s Murph. Can I hit the second guy instead?’” Glavine recalled, laughing. “He said, ‘No. Hit him.’”

And so, the stage was set for baseball’s version of a Mahatma Gandhi-Mother Teresa throwdown.

Glavine tossed four inside super-slow-mo balls at Murphy that would not have ripped tissue. Murphy backed away, but Glavine was ejected. Murphy smirked and took a walk. They remained BFFs.

What is going on in baseball today is not nearly as funny.

There were 1,219 hit batters in 3,802 games through Thursday, which equates to about one every 3.1 games. That’s up only slightly from the average of one per 3.3 games in 2012. It’s way down from the 1,890 hit batters (and one every 2.6 games) in 2001 Obviously, not all, are intentional. But the recent bean-ball war between the Braves and Washington Nationals, as well as the orchestrated assault by Boston’s Ryan Dempster on the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, were celebrated by fans of the team throwing the pitches.

Why? I’ve never understood how something so Neanderthal as a bean ball can be so embraced by so many. Intentionally throwing a baseball at a batter is probably the most cowardly accepted tradition in sports. Also, dangerous.

There is nothing like it in any other sport. The closest probably is fighting in hockey, which the NHL never has attempted to legislate out, in part because of its popularity. But at least in fighting, two players are standing face to face. It’s not one guy throwing a sphere at 90-plus mph at the other from 60 feet, 6 inches away.

The Braves’ Julio Teheran almost certainly intentionally threw at the Nationals’ Bryce Harper, apparently because Harper took too long on a home run trot and that’s perceived as showy. When the Nationals came to Atlanta, Stephen Strasburg threw at Justin Upton, and then twice behind Andrelton Simmons, leading to his ejection.

In Boston, Dempster threw at Rodriguez. Four times. Why? Seemingly only because it was A-Rod. Not only was Dempster inexplicably not ejected, he was given a standing ovation by Red Sox fans.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig wasn’t horrified, but even he felt compelled to do something. So Dempster was suspended for five games. Translation: no dessert after dinner.

Glavine believes bean balls can still serve a purpose. But even he struggled with the Dempster-Rodriguez incident.

“I don’t agree with what Ryan did, and I like Ryan and I’m not a big A-Rod fan,” Glavine said. “When you’re hitting somebody in retaliation for a teammate, or because the guy was showing off, that’s one thing. But hitting somebody just because you have a personal issue with him? If you have that big of a problem with him, go into the other clubhouse and tell him you want to meet him in the parking lot.”

Baseball has had its share of famous headhunters. Pedro Martinez hit 141 batters in his career. He famously launched a missile at the Yankees’ Karim Garcia in the 2003 ALCS that so enraged New York coach Don Zimmer that Zimmer waddled/stormed out of the dugout and went after Martinez. It was like watching a hamster attack a giraffe.

Randy Johnson hit 190 batters, second all-time in the modern era to Walter Johnson (205). A headline over a Wall Street Journal story on Johnson called him, “The Babe Ruth of Beanballs.”

Baseball has shown less concern about bean balls than it has bench-emptying brawls. It largely had succeeded in cutting those down with umpire warnings after perceived intentional pitches. But the league needs to do more: quicker ejections, longer suspensions. An automatic ejection can be problematic because it pressures umpires to distinguish between accidental and intentional, but there seems to be too high of a level of acceptance in the sport.

A 2006 case involving two community college baseball teams over bean balls was dismissed in California Supreme Court. The decision included this wording: "For better or worse, being intentionally thrown at is a fundamental part and inherent risk of the sport of baseball."

But the dangers are obvious. Ask Jason Heyward. Pitchers are stronger today and throwing faster than ever. Plunking a batter on the ribs, hand or elbow will land him on the disabled list.

Throwing at a batter because of an earlier slow home run trot or a bat flip is a weak excuse. So is throwing at a player just because the previous one homered. Glavine: “If you want to hit someone, hit yourself. You’re the one who threw a crappy pitch.”

It’s understandable if a pitcher is merely trying to protect his team after a teammate is thrown at. But here’s a thought: If bean balls were policed more diligently, maybe a response wouldn’t be necessary.