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'Brawls' exist more in our minds than reality

April 12, 2018

If you take a step back from it, there really isn't anything more ridiculous than a baseball brawl. Look at it like an alien might look at it. One human wearing a red uniform that some might confuse for pajamas takes a small round object and throws it at another

If you take a step back from it, there really isn't anything more ridiculous than a baseball brawl. Look at it like an alien might look at it. One human wearing a red uniform that some might confuse for pajamas takes a small round object and throws it at another human who's carrying a wooden stick and wearing a blue uniform. The one in the blue uniform thinks the round object was too close to hitting him, or maybe even it did hit him, so he throws down the wooden stick and sprints toward the man in the red uniform, yelling and gesticulating wildly.
The two men then, oddly, do not proceed to fight, as much as they go through the motions of pretending to desperately want to fight, in what must look to the alien like a particularly awkward mating ritual. There's a grab here and a push there, as well as a healthy smattering of scowls. Then a bunch of other men wearing the same uniform, none of whom were involved in the initial dispute, come running toward them from out of nowhere, also less interested in fighting than they are looking like they'd be willing to fight, as long as you give them a second to catch their breath -- it's a long run in from the bullpen.
Watching this, one imagines one alien turning to the other: "It will be very easy to conquer this planet."
We saw two such instances of this behavior on Wednesday. During an afternoon tilt at Coors Field, Colorado's Nolan Arenado charged San Diego's Luis Perdomo when a fastball went behind him. And then on Wednesday night, the Yankees and the Red Sox had a rousing scuffle after Joe Kelly hit Christopher Austin with a pitch, which followed another brushback pitch and a rough slide and all sorts of Very Serious Glares.

We'll get more in depth on the brouhaha in Boston since it's the perfect template for your typical mound melee. Austin threw the bat down and ran at Kelly, who prepared for combat as Austin tossed his helmet aside. (I always find it almost chivalrous to get rid of your helmet before a fight. Surely the helmet would come in handy if there were to be blows to the head, no? Fittingly, Arenado did the same when he charged Perdomo.) There were a few punches thrown, not many landed, but each of them had a slightly bloody lip (which is an injury you can get from shaving) and Kelly had a torn jersey (which you can get from standing too close to a vacuum). I am not an aficionado of fighting, but it appears to me there is more physical action during the blocking out to rebound a free throw. In middle school.
But in the parlance of baseball, this was a full-fledged donnybrook. "The rivalry is back," cry observers desperate to see the equivalent of Pedro Martinez tossing aside Don Zimmer. (What would the equivalent of this be? David Price grabbing Mike Harkey's head?) To hear both Kelly and Austin speak postgame, you would believe they had just both charged into a war zone under heavy fire with nothing less at stake than the very foundation of our democracy.
Here's Austin: "I didn't want to let anybody push myself around or do anything like that. That's why I went out there."
Kelly is even stronger: "Someone comes on my property in my backyard? I have two dogs. Ready to come on my property and I'm being attacked, then I'm ready to defend myself."
I feel obliged to point out this picture of Kelly with his dogs.

While I'll confess the notion of Kelly -- a man so charming and silly he once interviewed Nelly in an old-man costume -- protecting his "property" surrounded by snarling dogs is an amusing one, it was hardly just the players play-acting. According to's Bryan Hoch, after the game, a newspaper reporter and photographer even nearly came to fisticuffs while jockeying for position to interview Austin. This "I'm so mad I'm nearly going to fight you" epidemic is contagious, apparently. And if you think player fights are bad, wait until you see two media people try it.
The point is, this baseball fight, like most baseball fights, exists more in our minds than in reality. There were a couple accidental punches landed -- Austin appeared to have hit the Red Sox's third-base coach in the flailing scrum, and I'm pretty sure that guy didn't have anything to do with this other than the color of his pajamas -- but all in all, the lasting image is of Austin running to the mound, the two men rolling around on the ground, and everybody rushing in from the bullpen before separating and blaming the other side for what happened, whatever it was.
It reminds me, more than anything else, of an online fight. One person says something mean, or something someone takes as mean, about someone else. That person strikes back at them: "Burn! Owned!" Then everyone else watching pops in and starts yelling at everybody else, assigning the worst possible motives to anyone on the other side, and that goes on for a while until they all get tired and they grumble quiet insults at each other as they go back in their respective corners.

We all got to beat our chests and stomp around a bit, but no one actually got hurt or really did much of anything. It's just like Austin said: "I didn't want to let anybody push myself around or do anything like that." That's what this is always about. The optics. It's not about being a tough guy. It's about making sure nobody thinks you're not one.
This is probably all fine: I'd rather have baseball fights where players all pretend they want to hurt each other to hold onto their pride than baseball fights where players actually do hurt each other. Which is why the most amazing baseball fight moment I've seen in the past 15 years remains Rougned Odor cold-cocking Jose Bautista with one punch.
That is something only a 20-year-old kid who doesn't know any better would do. Rougned, the trick isn't to actually fight; you just want it to look like you do. You'll figure it out when you get older, kid.
Austin didn't want to look like a chump. But he didn't want to kill Kelly either. We all got we wanted: A pretend fight that revs up our Red Sox-Yankees Hate Each Other Again narratives, where everybody turns out fine, snarling at each other from their dugouts but otherwise no worse for the year. That's the beauty of a grand baseball fight: The best fights live only in our imagination. Otherwise? Lemme at 'em! Lemme at 'em! Good thing this guy's holding me back!

Will Leitch is a columnist for