Everybody knows about Ray Chapman, the shortstop for the 1920 Indians who was killed by an errant (or intentional, depending on who you believe) Carl Mays fastball that hit him in the temple.  Chapman remains the only Major League player killed on the ballfield, and his name gets trotted out every time some idiot pitcher decides he needs to “send a message” to the opposing team.

But that was more than 90 years ago now.  That was before batting helmets, before lights, and before baseballs were regularly swapped out by the umpires though.  So it’s entirely possible that the cautionary tale of Ray Chapman isn’t relevant today.

But do you know who is still relevant today?  Dickie Thon.

Thon was a 25 year old All Star shortstop for the Astros in 1983, when he hit .286/.341/.457 with 20 homers and 34 steals.  He also was a damn good defensive player.  He looked like he was on the verge of superstardom.  Five games into 1984, Dickie Thon (hitting .353/.389/.471) stepped in against Mike Torrez with Terry Puhl on first base in the third inning.

Torrez told the Associated Press that he had struck out Thon previously with stuff outside, “so I wanted to start him inside.”  Thon froze.  “He started out over the plate thinking I was going outside again and my fastball just took off.  He didn’t have time to get out of the way.”  The pitch ricocheted off of the earflap of Thon’s helmet and cracked off his forehead.  It broke his orbital bone, and left him partially blind in one eye.

He tried to come back in the Arizona Fall League, but couldn’t follow pitches.  Ditto in the winter league in Puerto Rico.  Thon told reporters “I have no depth perception.  Glasses won’t help right now.  It’s not even to that point.  I’ve tried batting practice, but the ball is a blur.”  According to Sports Illustrated, Thon began doing eye exercises and opened his batting stance so that he could use both eyes to track the ball.

He came back, eventually.  But he was never the same.  He didn’t hit well in part-time duty in 1985 and 1986, and “found that if he played too often, his eyes grew tired.”  He was sent to Tuscon to start 1987, played 32 games for the Astros, and then walked off the team in July.  He had a brief resurgence in 1989 for the Phillies, but it didn’t hold up.

From 1981-1984, Thon hit .282/.336/.424 with a 118 OPS+.  For the rest of his career, Thon hit .256/.310/.359, an 88 OPS+.  An errant (and completely unintentional) fastball robbed Thon of much of his abilities, his happiness, and almost his career.  And it robbed fans of a chance to see whether Thon could sustain his incredible level of play from 1983.

None of this was on Mike Torrez.  Mike Torrez never meant to hit Dickie Thon.  He meant to throw inside, which he has every right to do.  Torrez couldn’t have predicted that his fastball would slip, nor that Thon would freeze in its path.  But the point is that sometimes pitchers miss their spots.  And sometimes batters do what you don’t expect them to do.  And sometimes the results of that are absolutely devastating.  And there’s no denying that intentionally trying to hit a batter raises the odds that someone is going to get hurt.

So when Cole Hamels throws at Bryce Harper (note: not inside to Bryce Harper, but AT him), he’s willfully and criminally increasing the likelihood that Bryce Harper will get hurt by the baseball.  Not bruised ribs hurt, but broken bone hurt…broken face hurt.  That’s not toughness.  That’s not “prestigious.”  That’s thuggery (and that goes for Jordan Zimmermann, who plunked Hamels in retaliation, too).

And if Bryce Harper gets hurt by a Cole Hamels fastball that slams into his wrist or his orbital bone, Harper is the one who has the most to lose.  But do you know who else loses?  We do.  All the fans that have enjoyed watching this supposedly brash rookie bust his ass on every single play, hit the ball with authority, control the strike zone, unleash a cannon for an arm, and generally out-hustle every other player on the field.  We don’t get to see what Bryce Harper would have been.  Just like we missed out on Dickie Thon, or Tony Conigliaro.  And that, in and of itself, should be reason enough for us to condemn Hamels.

Look, what Hamels did may have been “old school” in the grand tradition of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale.  But let’s be clear; in addition to being great pitchers, those two were Major League assholes when they were on the mound (and I say this as a great admirer of Mr. Gibson, in particular).  Just because they played a long time ago, doesn’t mean they were right.  It doesn’t mean should have any sway over how the game is played today.

The annals of baseball history are filled with plays and practices that were horrible ideas at the time, and that teams and players did anyway, and practices that are horribly outdated.  And if a stupid beanball war takes out one of baseball’s brightest stars before he even gets a chance to shine, everybody who coddled and empowered this juvenile, asinine, and dangerous behavior is going to be as much to blame as the jackass who throws the pitch.

Comments (23)

  1. Man, this is right on the money. The MLB needs to protect its star player and make sure stuff like this doesn’t happen in the future. I like how you use the word criminally and I completely agree with that because it is assault essentially. Throwing a ball at someone 90+mph is no laughing matter and what Cole Hamels did was wrong.

    http://chrisross91.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/cold-time-baseball/

    • Great article.

      One minor quibble with Chris’s comment: MLB needs to protect all it’s employees (not just its stars) from assaults by anyone especially other employees.

  2. Hamels should be charged with a criminal offense. He just admited to assault with a weapon…

    • Think about what would happen if pitchers(or any players, for that matter) could be criminally charged for stuff like this. Accidental hbp, collisions at home plate if they are deemed unncessarily rough, etc. I doubt the game would be played the same way if players thought there was a legitimate chance of legal action against them for injuring another player.

      If you feel that deliberately hitting a batter should have harsh consequences than it should be an in-house matter, like suspension or a fine. That, I think, has a far greater likelihood of maintaining the integrity of the game.

    • There’s a difference here, O_J. Hamels has admitted to his intent to throw at Harper. So he has essentially admitted to assault.

      I agree that there’s a danger of a slippery slope here. So you’ve got to err on the side of caution. But in this case, it’s so egregious and Hamels is so brazen about his actions, that it’s entirely appropriate.

      • That is a play that is part of baseball. As such, there’s no criminality. It’s covered by consent.

      • I can’t think of any reason why an mlb in-house punishment won’t accomplish everything you want it to.

        • Let me clear up my statement.

          Yes, its assault with a weapon.

          Does he deserve a record or jail time? No.

          Suspension, fine, and scrutiny? Yes.

      • There are plays in hockey that have been successfully prosecuted when players were egregiously assaulted on the ice, I believe (I am not Canadian, there therefor not well-versed in hockey (houkey?). Isn’t this the same principle?

        • Yes, and that’s why I’m not a huge fan of it in hockey either.

          • I’m just saying consenting to play the game is not the same as consenting to be assaulted during the game. A person can consent to submit to all manner of things, but if the person who consents to do those things to the other person is unnecessarily reckless, they’re culpable. Case in point: I’m picking you up at your house. You consent to enter my car because you don’t know I’ve had, like, 14 Molsons. We get in an accident and you die. I get charged with vehicular manslaughter, even though I didn’t mean for you to get hurt and you consented to ride with me.

        • See the case of Todd Burtuzzi vs Steve Moore. Happened about a decade ago and it still is a battle. Moore was sucker punched from behind. Instantly ended his career. Burtuzzi plays for Detroit now. Fair world?

          • Not at all. Though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it moreso.

          • In Canada, you can’t consent to assault. See the Supreme Court of Canada case of R. v. Jobidon.

          • I knew everything was better in Canada. Except the beer.

          • Ha. R v Jobidon doesn’t apply in sports, I’m afraid. All those hockey fights are consented to, and are most certainly not assaults. Last I checked, boxing would be assault too…good try though.

            The way sports torts and prosecutions are ordinarily approached is to ask whether the conduct in question could reasonably be said to be a part of the game. The idea is to focus on reasonable expectations, and thus the voluntary assumption of risk.

            I agree that Hamels should be suspended for this. There was not a single good reason to throw at Harper. Still, a pitcher throwing a baseball at a batter is, at times, still a part of the game, whether we like it or not. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to change the culture if we disagree with it, but the thought that such conduct should be criminally prosecuted is asinine.

          • Jobidon doesn’t apply in rough but properly conducted sporting events, such as hockey or boxing. Last I checked, baseball is not considered a “rough” sporting event. If someone fired a pitch at a batter’s head and harmed the batter in Canada, there is a strong argument that could be made that the Jobidon decision is in play.

          • I assume you aren’t a lawyer, because you ignored the voluntary assumption of risk element in your response.

            There is not a good argument at all that Jobidon applies to baseball. Pitchers throwing baseballs at hitters is as much a part of baseball as fighting is in hockey.

            Both are potentially dangerous means of enforcing respect in the game as between players.

  3. hehe annals haha

  4. It’s baseball’s admittedly less dangerous answer to head shots in the NFL and NHL and is remarkably stupid and intolerable. I want to see competitive, fiery baseball as much as the next guy, but there’s no place for this. For all the crap that gets laid on Harper for being kind of an ass, he handled that situation with far more grace and humility than Hamels.

  5. BAM. I couldn’t agree more… what are the odds Bud pulls out some Goodell style punishment? (not good I know… but I can hope) This revelation from Hamels could provide the impetus MLB needs to get serious about these things.

  6. Traditionally in sports where a certain degree of violence is customary consent has been imputed.

    In Canada you can consent to simply assault — for example a consensual fist fight — but not to grievous bodily harm, e.g. during such consensual fist fight the other party kicks you in the head while you lying on the ground and causes brain damage.

    In the context of sport customary levels of violence typically fall under the this umbrella of imputed consent. Cases where players have been investigated or prosecuted are typically cases where the level or degree of violence has exceed what is acceptable in the sport. Hence getting hit over the head with a stick in hockey is potentially criminal while getting punched in the face during a face-to-face fight is not; regardless of whether both acts case the same damages, for example a severe concussion.

    I would assume intentionally throwing at a batter’s body (as opposed his head, although intent would be difficult to prove in practice) would likely be treated as part of the game and hence fall under the rubric of imputed consent. This will only change if and when the culture of baseball changes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *