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Bob Ryan

This part of baseball full of beans

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 13, 2009

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Don’t you love it when baseball gets macho?

Compared to football and hockey, it’s a noncontact sport, except that its centerpiece item is a hard, round object capable of inflicting major damage, whether propelled by a bat or thrown by a human being. Even relatively small, physically unimposing guys (e.g. Pedro Martinez) can become very dangerous, tough guys when in possession of a baseball while standing on a little hill 60 feet 6 inches away.

Getting hit unintentionally is part of the game. Everyone in baseball accepts the idea that a pitch can get away from any pitcher at any time. The problem is, getting hit intentionally is also very much part of the game. Sometimes this is not so easy to accept.

Kevin Youkilis was most definitely not in a forgiving mood when Detroit rookie Rick Porcello’s first pitch hit him in the back Tuesday night. He unhesitatingly charged the mound, flung his helmet at the Tigers hurler, and chased him until he sacked him in the vicinity of first base. The baseball code dictates that the benches empty - baseball has no third-man-in prohibition - and there was a lot of yelling and finger-pointing and holding people back, but there was no more real physical activity.

Youkilis was, predictably, ejected from the game. After great discussion and the passage of a fair amount of time, Porcello was similarly told that his night’s work was over. Unlike Youkilis, who knew from the moment he took off toward the mound that he would not be playing any more baseball that evening, Porcello was upset about the adjudication. He felt he had done nothing wrong.

And, according to the aforementioned baseball code, he hadn’t. While it’s conceivable he simply threw a bad pitch, the far greater likelihood is that he was following up on the heated activities of the previous evening, plus a first-inning plunking of Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera by Red Sox rookie Junichi Tazawa (unquestionably unintentional, by the way). Knowing what we know about baseball, we have every right to assume that Porcello, with or without direct orders from above, nailed Youkilis - just because.

The situation was, frankly, close to ideal. It’s the bottom of the second, 3-0 lead, you already know you’ve got your good stuff, and not much harm’s likely to come from putting this guy on. Drill him in the part of the body where the worst that could happen would be a bruise, send your nobody-intimidates-us message, and then concentrate on the rest of the lineup.

The complicating factor here was the identity of the plunkee. Kevin Youkilis is hypersensitive about being thrown at. He feels he is thrown at far too much. This was HBP No. 10 of the 2009 season. He had been hit the night before, and he obviously felt that enough was enough. So, mindful of both the short-term and long-term consequences, he decided he would apprehend the perp himself.

Some guys go along with this game-within-a-game better than others. The Red Sox once employed Don Baylor, who regarded getting hit by a pitch as an art form. Like anyone else, he didn’t appreciate pitches thrown at his head, but he had an amazing tolerance for pitches hitting him in any other part of his body. Youkilis, obviously, is not Baylor.

The fact that a baseball is hard, and it hurts, dictates a lot of what goes on in the game. No one can make it to the major leagues if he is afraid of the ball, but being afraid and having a healthy respect for the consequences of being hit by a ball is another matter. The Don Baylors, guys who actually relish being hit by a pitch because it gets them on base and, therefore, helps the team, are the rarest of all baseball creatures. Most people very much want to get out of the way.

Thus, the reality of “knockdown’’ pitches, “brushback’’ pitches or “purpose’’ pitches. Pitchers who feel the need to keep batters from crowding the plate, and therefore reducing their options, will attempt to maintain what they feel is the proper balance of power by throwing a pitch sufficiently inside to make the hitter move. Some pitchers scrupulously avoid throwing at the head when playing the brushback game. Others are less discriminating. They become known as “headhunters,’’ and they become loathed, until, of course, they wind up on your team.

What happens in baseball is that because it really is accepted that people must be thrown near, if not necessarily at, things will inevitably get out of hand. Team A’s batter is hit, and Team B feels the need to retaliate. Retaliation leads to retaliation until the umpires seize control of the situation via warnings and ejections.

There being no DH in the National League, a pitcher who is believed to have thrown at someone in violation of The Code must come to bat himself and face the consequences. Not so in the American League, where it’s all a matter of surrogates. You throw at my big guy and I’ll throw at yours. Then it’s vice, followed by versa, and off we go, until it all runs its silly course. You can only hope someone doesn’t get hurt.

Meanwhile, in modern baseball umpires are asked to become mind readers. Some situations are obvious. If a pitcher gives up a home run and then sends the first pitch to the next guy at his head, well, we all can add two and two, not that the connection makes any sense in the first place. That’s just the way baseball is played.

There are many other times when it’s not so easy for umpires to decide if a pitch is intended to cause bodily harm, or if it isn’t. When in doubt, the arbiters generally choose to err on the side of caution and toss the pitcher out of the game. The foolishness usually stops there.

I’m bored by it all. Should it be that complicated? Managers and pitchers should have enough respect for each other to rule the head out of bounds. Moving guys back off the plate is legit. Throwing at surrogates is absurd.

What everyone in baseball should realize is that, even in the age of helmets, a pitch to the head can cause great damage. Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen is the latest example. He was hit on the head Aug. 2, and is now on the disabled list because he has had recurrent headaches and other problems after sustaining the blow.

A baseball is a serious weapon. Throwing it at an opponent from 60 feet 6 inches away makes a macho man out of no one.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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