Red Sox find Rays fit to fight

BOSTON – Never mind that in the middle of a massive fracas three hours earlier he had pulled another man’s hair. The testosterone was still simmering, the cameras had cleared out of the clubhouse and Carl Crawford stood shirtless in his corner of the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse and issued a warning.

“He better not have said my name,” Crawford said. “Coco don’t know me.”

Coco was Coco Crisp, the Boston Red Sox outfielder who did, in fact, say Crawford’s name. He said that in the pigpile of the biggest baseball brawl of the year, the one Crisp instigated Thursday by charging the mound in the second inning, Crawford had tugged the dangling ends of his cornrows, like “a little girl.” And Crisp kept talking, because, you know, it wasn’t like the burgeoning Red Sox-Rays rivalry needed any more lighter fluid for the next time they meet.

Already the June 30-July 2 series carries gravitas, what with the two teams duking it out for first place in the American League East, which Boston maintained with a 7-1 victory amid the samba of phalanges.

Brawling and verbal grenades and unfinished business only add intrigue, making the Red Sox and Rays – dare we go here? – the most interesting AL East matchup this season. Because while the Yankees-Red Sox games have lapsed into comfort, bordering on clich, the Rays bring a welcome change, a group of players who, with both talent and attitude, inspire something from the Red Sox.

Granted, it took a cheap shot from Crisp on Wednesday night to awaken Tampa Bay’s scrappiness. Miffed that Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett blocked second base with his leg on a previous steal attempt, Crisp tried to swipe second later in the game and slid hard, his fist precariously close to second baseman Akinori Iwamura’s nether regions.

The second pitch Crisp saw Thursday hit his right thigh. For a plunking, Tampa Bay’s James Shields kept it rather innocuous. Intent being intent, Crisp dropped his bat, flipped off his helmet and dashed toward Shields, who unleashed a haymaker that, had it hit, would have made Kermit Washington look like Glass Joe. Crisp ducked from harm’s way, fired back a weak shot and soon thereafter found himself under a pile of flying limbs.

The Rays’ Jonny Gomes raced off the bench and threw roundhouses. Iwamura showed why he plays baseball and doesn’t box. Crawford, asked whether he pulled Crisp’s hair, said, “I don’t know what happened,” which is code for: yes.

Five minutes into the melee, after Jacoby Ellsbury yanked Crawford away and Rays coach Tom Foley hurt a finger pulling others off, Crisp escaped the bear hug of Rays catcher Dioner Navarro and slithered out of the pile. The top two buttons of his jersey came undone. Scratches across his head formed a plus sign, and another on his left cheek was the size of a caterpillar. He shrugged his shoulders. The Fenway Park crowd chanted his name.

Umpires met to mete out punishment. Crisp was ejected for charging, Gomes for the delight he took in pounding another human and Shields for activating the mess, even if he was more like the kid on the playground who threw the second punch but got caught first.

In the Rays’ dugout, players flocked toward the steps as Shields made his way toward them. Nearly everyone gave him a pat on the back or butt. He is Tampa Bay’s No. 2 starter, perhaps on his way to an All-Star appearance, and by hitting Crisp – and admitting afterward that was his intent – he’ll likely get a 10-game suspension that covers two starts.

Shields’ voice carried no remorse. He called Crisp “dirty,” his slide “bush league.” Shields, abiding by baseball’s admirable, if misguided, code, felt it necessary to show loyalty to his teammates by dedicating to them a welt on Crisp’s leg.

“We’ve been getting stomped around the last 10 years, and it’s not going to happen anymore,” Shields said. “I had to let him know early and know right away.”

Finally, the most relevant point of the night.

The Rays and the Red Sox have brawled before. Remember in 2000 when Pedro Martinez hit Gerald Williams, the first batter of the game, sloughed off Williams charging the mound and carried an otherwise-perfect game into the ninth inning? Or in 2002, when Trot Nixon winged a bat at Ryan Rupe? Or two springs ago, when benches cleared after Julian Tavarez punched Joey Gathright?

However much beef existed, the Rays’ ineptitude rendered it inconsequential. It was like they were the little kid picking the fight with the neighborhood bully, and maybe they got in a good shot or two, but, ultimately, they weren’t worth the time.

Now that they’re legitimate – tough to question that anymore – the Rays register as a threat to Boston, and that translates physically likewise. Sure, the Red Sox swept this three-game series, and they swept the previous one at Fenway, too, but Tampa Bay won all three games in its home series earlier this year, and the franchise’s record against Boston, 61-117, figures to improve.

“It’s over with,” Crisp said. “If something else happens, that’s something to get angry about. I’m through with it. It’s up to them if they want to make another move. I don’t make the first move.”

No sense in parsing Crisp’s logic. It’s tough to get a read on the Red Sox these days. Two innings after the brawl, another skirmish took place – in Boston’s dugout, between teammates Manny Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis. Television replays showed grainy footage of Ramirez looking like he backhanded Youkilis, and teammates and coaches pulled the two apart.

Neither bothered to stick around after the game, accountability apparently not a strong suit, leaving the secondary fight open to speculation. Did Youkilis slag Ramirez for loafing out of the dugout to join the brawl? Did Ramirez tell Youkilis to quit his bellyaching about ball-and-strike calls? No one in the clubhouse wanted to divulge, dirty laundry being what it is.

So they talked about how they’ll miss Jacoby Ellsbury, out indefinitely with a wrist injury, and about the next series against Tampa Bay, and, yes, about the brawl. Navarro, the Rays’ catcher, shook his head and cringed at the idea of Shields’ right hand connecting with Crisp’s jaw. Never had he seen a pitcher throw such a hard punch, an allegory for how the AL East is playing out in real life.

“When a guy comes after me,” Shields said, “my dad always told me, ‘You’d better knock him out.’ “

June 30 can’t come soon enough.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 6, 2008