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On the spectrum of baseball dust-ups, the unwritten rules – rarely spoken of, but oft enacted – reign supreme, for better or worse.
That’s followed by a vast, gray area rife with misunderstanding, often arising from turf battles that amount to centimeters on the inside part of the plate, or inches around the second-base bag.
And a few notches below that, there’s what Jose Urena did to Ronald Acuña Jr. on Wednesday night.
In case you’ve checked out of baseball this week (or far longer than that), Acuña, the Atlanta Braves’ dynamic 20-year-old rookie and potential franchise player, led off three consecutive games with a home run – a streak that began with a doubleheader sweep of Ureña’s Miami Marlins on Monday – and had homered in five consecutive games entering Thursday’s series finale at SunTrust Park.
Not since the bygone era of 1996, when Baltimore’s Brady Anderson did it, had a player led off four consecutive games with a home run. And a sport that wants for buzz-worthy moments suddenly had one: Could the great Acuña, whose hot streak helped build the Braves’ stunning NL East lead to two games, lead off a fourth straight game with a long ball?
It is here that Ureña, whose most notable 2018 feat before Wednesday was giving up a home run on the first pitch of the season, quite literally took matters into his own hands. He unleashed the hardest first pitch of a game in his career – a 97.5-mph fastball that rendered the previously indomitable Acuña helpless.
Wrist? Elbow? Back? Gluteus maximus? It was inevitable Acuña would wear this fastball.
Turns out it was in the elbow, and Acuña would later leave the game. Ureña was gone sooner, after benches cleared and umpires determined his intent was indeed malicious.
At 26, and in his fourth major league season, Ureña should know better.
He should know that removing an opponent through physical harm when you cannot vanquish him within the game’s rules is the lowest of sportsmanship.
He should know that, even amid the occasionally toxic masculinity that governs his game, there’s a line between staking out territory or intimidating an opponent and harming the game’s integrity with what we’ll assume is a lone-wolf act of ill-placed machismo.
“It was gutless,” Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman told reporters after Atlanta’s 5-2 victory. “I know that wasn’t the Marlins. That was just Jose Ureña. I don’t understand it. Just because a kid is having fun playing a game and having incredible success makes no sense.”
And Ureña should know that as a competitor, he will get nowhere if he removes himself from defeating a red-hot opponent through an act of cowardice.
At this point, we will pause to note that extricating violence from the game is virtually impossible.
We have instant replay, and rules to protect middle infielders, and rules to protect catchers, and fines and suspensions for those who might throw at a batter or charge a mound in response.
Still, words are exchanged, benches clear, bullpens still jog in and occasionally a haymaker will land. Competing at the major league level requires a chutzpah none of us mortals possess; defeating like-minded individuals will require the occasional pushing of a boundary.
The Dodgers-Giants fracas that unfolded late Tuesday, for instance, looks absurd but is wholly understandable. Two teams – rivals, even – locked in one of 162 battles over a six-month season in which they’ll face each other 19 times.
Call Giants catcher Nick Hundley an ingrate for complaining about Yasiel Puig’s diva act when the .268-hitting outfielder fouls a ball off. Call Puig an overreacting lout when he shoves Hundley, incites the benches to clear and later lands a slap behind the safety of teammates holding him back.
Ureña’s “purpose” pitch, meanwhile, served no purpose other than to remove a young star from the game. And deprive fans of possibly witnessing history. And, above all, mess with a pennant race in which the Marlins have absolutely no stake.
Let’s go ahead and write these rules down, lest Ureña or anyone else forget them.