New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game Three

Let’s be clear: Justin Verlander is not alone in the following sentiment, tweeted after last night’s NFC Championship Game:

This is less about Justin Verlander and more about baseball culture: if somebody does something like Richard Sherman did on Sunday night — loudly celebrates their own accomplishments between the lines — they are pending for a fastball to the ribs. This is the conventional baseball wisdom. But as reckless and disgusting as I find it, I have to admit it comes from an understandable place: people hate losing, and they hate being reminded about it even more.

The problem isn’t with that initial feeling of anger or irritation. The problem is that we — whether “we” means baseball players or “we” means sports fans and observers — can’t let it go. We can’t accept being beaten by somebody like Richard Sherman, and so, as the cult of masculinity demands, there must be retaliation.

In baseball, the default form of retaliation is the bean ball. It’s the only form of violence you can still get away with between the white lines. The fact that it is violence is brushed away, secondary to the affronted player or team’s need to get tough. The fact that players can be hurt, even seriously so, is not even acknowledged as a possibility. Kevin Towers put it like this in October:

“Back probably when Gibby (Kirk Gibson) and Tram (Alan Trammell) and (Don) Baylor and everybody played, I — I wouldn’t say the game’s always been the same, but those were things that were taught to you very early in your professional career, you know, eye for an eye — you know, not that you’re out to end somebody’s career or hurt somebody, you know, you read enough Tony La Russa books, who’s old school — even Dusty Baker — that doesn’t happen, it’s not gonna happen.”

Listen here if you prefer. It’s more striking in audio form:

Somehow, this philosophy — this eye-for-an-eye attitude, this necessity to retaliate against somebody who had the audacity to beat you and be happy about it — is mistaken for toughness. Somehow, responding to being bettered in athletic competition by firing a projectile into the body of an opponent — no matter how safe aiming for the ribs or back or thigh instead of the head might be — makes the better person, or somehow undoes the loss on the field. Perhaps it looks like toughness and sounds like toughness, but nothing could be more fake.

At least when it comes to Sherman, we know he’s not worried about taking a hit, whether it leads to a bruised back or a concussion. But if a competitor wants to retaliate against a player Richard Sherman, throwing at him — or those like him — accomplishes nothing but reinforcing your previous losses. If you want to beat a Richard Sherman, if you want to shut him up, the solution is singular and simple: best him on the field of play.