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john baker cubsRetaliation – a.k.a. throwing at an opposing hitter in response to an insulting or dangerous action – is a fairly common occurrence in MLB. While there are certainly different opinions on the matter, I’d argue that the majority of fans – and players – find it, more or less, necessary.

I, on the other hand, have generally found myself – often alone – on the other side of this issue. Watching Giancarlo Stanton, one of the most exciting young stars in the game, get hit in the face was strong enough cause for me to become discouraged and disappointed by one of baseball’s oldest, most dangerous, and most widely-accepted unwritten rules. Intentional or not, the result of that particular incident could happen any time a batter steps into the box with a target on his back.

However, I don’t play baseball. I write about it. And while that does afford me a strong understanding of the game, I’d be remiss if I said I understood everything about this complex sport. So, when former Chicago Cubs catcher John Baker put out a call on Twitter, I took the opportunity to learn about something I seldom understand ….

After a brief back and forth on Twitter, Baker and I exchanged emails and got together on a little project. Below, you’ll find his thoughts on retaliation, and the particular role catchers play in this rarely-addressed topic.

What is your general opinion on retaliation?

“My general opinion on retaliation is that it is situational. Most baseball violence is predicated on a prior action that has either the potential to injure or the power to offend. Basically, we retaliate for two reasons. One, you hit, almost hurt, or hurt our player. Two, you celebrate a common action excessively with the intention to show up our team. It is important to understand the difference in these situations; to me the first reason has more merit, as I said in my article for FOX, I don’t really care about people’s feelings getting hurt over home runs or strike outs. Pitchers should not be mad at the hitter for watching the home run, they should be mad at themselves for leaving the ball up.”

What is the general attitude towards retaliation among other players/coaches around the league?

“There is no general attitude. Most people seem to find retaliation necessary but their reasons vary.”

As a catcher, do you feel a particular responsibility or role in retaliation?

“As a catcher I felt responsibility to do a few things. First, if we were going to hit someone on purpose, the catcher is responsible for making sure the batter doesn’t make it to the pitcher on the mound. Secondly, I made sure to be vocal during altercations because, as one of the more expendable players (for the Padres & Cubs as the back-up catcher), it didn’t matter if I got beat up or thrown out of the game. My behavior led to the ejections of both Matt Kemp and Jerry Hairston when Carlos Quentin charged Zack Greinke and I was a Padre. Finally, if I saw someone watching a homer while I was catching, I’d scream ‘RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN’ in hopes that they would, and we would avoid one of those ugly confrontations.”

Does retaliating against a particular player – a team’s unofficial captain/leader/best player – strike you as an appropriate way to handle retaliation?

“This is where theories really differ. Some advocate hitting the same position on the field, some want to hit the same spot in the order, and some like to wait until two outs to do it. I believe that if retaliation is the intention, then the first batter of the next half inning should wear it, or, if possible in the NL, the pitcher that hit the batter on purpose if the pitcher is forced to hit. The longer a team waits to retaliate, the worse it usually turns out. Long-standing grudges are stupid. This isn’t the 80s where George Brett and Greg Nettles can fist fight at third base without ejections. The only time a team should attempt to hit a star is if their star has been repeatedly hit. We had a bit of this last year while playing the Pirates; they seem to enjoy hitting people (especially Anthony Rizzo) and pitching up and in. I think it is a Clint Hurdle thing, last year the Pirates led the league hitting 88 batters (link here). This year they continue to do more of the same (link here). Since you can’t hit Hurdle or the pitching coach, as they continue to almost injure star players, they are effectively putting a target on Andrew McCutchen’s back. We saw this last year with McCutchen/Goldschmidt and the Diamondbacks.”

Not every issue is black and white; do you feel there is a right or wrong way/time to retaliate?

“The right way to retaliate is immediately. Counter intuitive to how we are raised as human beings. Immediate emotional responses don’t generally work in the real world, but I feel they are required on the diamond. Teams must promptly let other teams know a certain action or behavior is pissing them off. If they don’t, when they do retaliate the action can sometimes seem confusing and lead to unnecessary altercations and feuds down the road. An eye for an eye is better than seven eyes for seven eyes over three series. Get it over with early and make it clear you won’t stand for the behavior and the other team is forced to make an adjustment or retaliate themselves. Justice should be swift and uncompromising.”

Do you have any particular memories or anecdotes on the subject?

“Last year we were playing the Pirates during the middle of the summer in Pittsburgh in a game that Jeff Samardzija was pitching. The Pirates had hit or nearly hit Rizzo quite a few times in our first few series and, of course, Jeff had had enough. One of his greatest assets as a teammate is his willingness to both defend and fight for you. Since the trade deadline was approaching, and all signs pointed to a trade, he wanted to hit McCutchen to pay them back for the stuff with Rizzo before he was no longer Cub. McCutchen was hot at the time, and when that man is hot, he is HOT. We threw at him three times in one at bat, but the Shark was trying to throw the ball so hard he couldn’t hit McCutchen as the Pirates star displayed Mayweather like evasiveness. On the fourth or fifth pitch, Samardzija almost hit McCutchen in the belt with a 97 MPH fastball. In a deft combination of hand speed, self-defense and amazing quickness, McCutchen turned on the fastball, pulled his hands in, and lined the pitch off the top of the left field fence at PNC. This anecdote supports my theory that the only time to retaliate is immediately, and the idea that we can ‘get them back later’ almost NEVER works.”

* * *

That is certainly a lot to unpack, but it is without a doubt one of the more educational, honest and realistic explanations of retaliation I’ve read. Baker’s recent exit from baseball and former position on the field put him in an especially interesting position to comment on the matter. I could feel my position on retaliation begin to become more nuanced as I read through his responses.

For example, I’m encouraged that potentially violent actions on the field are an apparently more meritorious cause for retaliation than a response to showboating. But, I am reminded that two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s a tough sentiment to understand, and one that I doubt will be adopted quickly, but perhaps leading by example is the best way to limit the amount of intentional violence on the field.

Just recently, Marlins’ pitcher Jose Fernandez (clearly) unintentionally hit Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta. Despite clear, immediate remorse and concern, Diamondbacks pitcher Dominic Leone responded with two outs in the next inning, by (clearly) intentionally hitting young Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich.

Yelich is yet another bright young star in baseball, and I cringe when thinking about how swiftly and conclusively his career could have been ended if Leone had missed his spot by just a couple feet. At the end of the day, we – as fans – want to see the best and brightest athletes on the field. Injuries happen, of course, but if they can be avoided or limited in any way, it’s usually worth pursuing.

After considering Baker’s responses, though, my opinion on the matter has evolved.

I still don’t condone the actions Leone took (especially in this particular situation), but I can begin to understand the vast amount of pressure he was likely under to do so. In the mind of the many baseball folk, it was Leone’s job, perhaps even responsibility, to stand up for his teammate and ensure that everything was fair. If he didn’t retaliate, he could be letting his teammates – and let’s face it, his friends – down.

What baseball may need, then, is strong, decisive leadership on the field and in the dugout that stands up against violent behavior on the field (and the off-the-field pressure to engage). If the ultimate goal is keep everyone safe, that very well may be the only way – even if it is the hardest.

That day may very well be far away, and, in the interim, this sort of thing is going to continue happening. For what it’s worth, I do take solace in players like John Baker, who have, at a minimum, expressed an interest in handling things safely and with good reason. He represents a class of player that clearly understands and respects the game, as well as its many unwritten rules – but concedes that there are appropriate ways to navigate them.

Baker is a great follow on Twitter @manbearwolf, and he’s got his own site here.

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