Best/Worst

Playoff baseball brings out the best in some people. Unfortunately, it also brings out the worst too. Let me be clear here: I’m not talking about the players. I’m talking about the fans.

The best: tens of thousands of people–hundreds of thousands if you include the ones outside the stadium–coming together, ignoring their differences, sharing their emotions. That kind of unity has power. One could legitimately argue that it’s useless power: it doesn’t produce anything, it doesn’t visibly last much beyond the final out, and it comes at the expense of “the other”. But that sense of community lingers. It strengthens the local identity. Even if it only temporarily slows the inexorable creep of global homogeneity, it’s worthwhile.

The worst? Well, it’s the other side of the same coin.

Allow me to set the scene for those who haven’t been following the playoffs.

Yesterday’s Texas/Toronto game was the deciding game of the series, with the winner going to the American League Championship and the loser heading to the “Just Wait Until Next Year” table.

Texas scored a run in the first inning, and held the lead until the sixth, when Toronto tied the score on a solo home run. Which brings us to the seventh inning and a play that most people have never seen before, and may never see again.

You may be able to see it here. Maybe. MLB’s support for video clips is somewhat erratic. But in short, Texas’ Rougned Odor got to third with two outs. With two balls and two strikes on the next batter, Shin-Soo Choo, Toronto catcher Russell Martin tried to throw the ball to his pitcher and it bounced off of Choo’s bat. Odor ran for the plate, crossing it before any Toronto player picked up the ball. While he was running, the umpire called the play dead. After some discussion, the umpires agreed that the play should not have been called dead, Odor was declared safe, and Texas reclaimed the lead.

At that point, fans began throwing garbage, including bottles and cans, at the field. For more than fifteen minutes. When the game finally resumed, Choo struck out.

Odds are, more bottles and other heavy objects landed in the stands than made it onto the field–fans endangering other fans–let’s face it, anyone with the arm strength to hit the field from the upper deck with something that size and weight would be playing baseball, not watching it. But it gets worse.

When Toronto came to bat in their half of the seventh inning, Texas committed three consecutive errors, loading the bases. Two batters, two outs, and one run later–score again tied–Jose Bautista hit a home run, giving Toronto a three run lead, their first lead of the game.

And fans again started throwing garbage at the field. Yes, celebrating by doing exactly the same stupid thing as they did in the earlier protest. Still more dangerous to each other than anyone else. Still forcing the game to halt until the commotion died down and the junk was cleared off the field.

Don’t try to figure it out. It doesn’t make sense. But that same power and sense of community can be directed to the dark side just as easily as to the light. (Insert your own reference to political rallies here.) Once a pattern of behavior is established in a group, they’ll go back to it more readily than they’ll come up with a new one.

I expect there will be calls for laws to try to curb such behavior. I also expect that any laws that are passed won’t do any good. A few hundred police can’t control thirty thousand without escalating the situation to even higher levels of emotion and danger.

As for the rule that triggered the whole mess in the first place–that play is live if the catcher’s throw hits the batter or his bat, and the batter didn’t intentionally interfere with the throw–there are already calls to change it. That’s almost as stupid as throwing garbage.

It’s an incredibly uncommon situation. Consider that there are several hundred throws from catcher to pitcher in every game, there are more than 2,400 games per season, and yet millions of people who have been watching baseball for decades had never seen it happen before yesterday. Granted, it may become somewhat more common, thanks to this year’s rule intended to speed up play by keeping batters in the box between pitches, but even so, this was the first time it happened this year, and the rule has been in effect all season.

Attempts to legislate it away risk unintended consequences. At best, it’ll change the umpire’s responsibility to judge whether the batter intentionally interfered to judging whether the catcher intentionally hit the batter. One judgment call is no better than another.

And let’s not forget that there’s almost never any time pressure when throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Frankly, if the catcher can’t take a fraction of a second to make sure the batter isn’t in the line of fire, allowing runners to advance, or even score, seems like an appropriate punishment for the crime. Remember, they don’t automatically get the next base. If the defense is alert, the runners could be tagged out.

Imagine the excitement–and lack of bottle throwing–had pitcher Aaron Sanchez or third baseman Josh Donaldson grabbed the misdirected ball and thrown Odor out, ending the inning with the score still tied.

6 thoughts on “Best/Worst

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