COMMENTARY | When Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels kicked and fired a fastball into the backside of Washington Nationals' 19-year old phenom Bryce Harper, it triggered a tsunami in the National League East. When Hamels admitted post-game that he hit him purposely, the tsunami hit land. When Washington GM Mike Rizzo decided to chime in on the incident, he stirred up all that rushing water, and in essence, may have cooked up a rivalry.
Hamels intimated that it was a move born out of "old baseball." He went on to talk about how the game was harder for him when he was a rookie, asserting that you had to earn respect in the league. He said, "the league protects certain players." Reading between the lines, because lets be honest, a lot of times when athletes speak you need a magnified glass and a translator to read between anything, Hamels seemed to be saying that Harper is the toast of the town in the major leagues, and the kind of saturating praise he's received in his first couple of weeks in the league needs to be earned over a larger sample size. No matter the hype or pedigree.
If spoken with clarity, Hamels would have said, "Yeah, I know who you are. And now you know who I am. Welcome to the show." In essence, it's a sign of respect because Harper has been excellent in the early days of his career. That excellence manifested itself directly after Harper was hit when he went first to third on a single to left field and proceeded to steal home on a pickoff move by Hamels to first. As if the national media wasn't lapping at the heels of this kid already, that sent the Buster Olneys and Ken Rosenthals of the world into a drooling, Twitter worship session usually only saved for places like Mecca or the Vatican.
We live in an age of professional sports where the protection of players due to the ungodly amount of money teams have invested in them is camouflaged by a sudden desire for player safety. I believe in the safety of players, but let's not kid ourselves for one second by thinking that front offices and the league give one hoo-hah about Bryce Harper the kid more than they care about Bryce Harper the product. Mike Rizzo compared Hamels beaning of Harper to the NFL's and New Orleans Saints' bounty fiasco. So, essentially, Rizzo wants to change 100 years of baseball. The game is played and policed on the field. There is a purpose to pitching inside, and yes, there is a purpose to, at times, hitting somebody.
Did anyone happen to notice that the Phillies woke up and won a game down there after that beaning? Did anyone think that just maybe Cole Hamels had seen enough lackluster baseball and heard enough of the excuses about Ryan Howard and Chase Utley being hurt and just decided to try and light a fire under his club's collective rear end? He tried to say he wasn't doing that. Hamels idiocy was that he lied about the wrong thing. Maybe that's the reason he stood out in front of it. If the pitch slipped, then it slipped, but if he admits to doing it purposely he is saying something to his own team that the GM of the opposition could never understand. He couldn't understand it because that's not his locker room. As someone who never played a day in the major leagues, I'm wondering how Rizzo could possibly understand the nature of a group of players performing at that level and what they might do to try and ignite better ball out of their club.
Rizzo went on to call Hamels, "fake-tough." Well, that may be. In fact, the whole thing may have been an act performed with an alternative motive. Maybe no one in baseball would ever consider Cole Hamels old school. But maybe in that locker room right now his teammates do. Maybe they rise to the occasion and back Hamels' statement up, picking up the pace of their play over the next month instead of hovering around .500. Maybe Hamels knew he would be suspended but did the math and figured he wouldn't miss a start, as is the case.
Who knows if Washington's Jordan Zimmerman was simply trying to appropriately move the feet of a pitcher trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt when he hit Hamels later in the Phillies 9-3 win. He may have known he had a built-in alibi and trusted his electric stuff enough to think that he could pitch himself out of putting a man in scoring position against a Phillies offense that wouldn't scare a small child. He denied hitting Hamels purposely. He denied, truthfully or not, because that's what pitchers do. Hamels was man enough to stand in front of his actions, for whatever reason he took those actions. He could have easily denied that he threw at Harper because Harper's weakness, if he has one, is the inside part of the plate. He can expect to have pitchers busting him inside for a while.
Bryce Harper handled the situation with class. Not only did he take the high road post-game, praising Hamels in fact, he answered the deed with some fantastic base running. He threw it right back at Cole without saying a word. At 19, that's impressive. The league did its job, I suppose. They let it be known, at least, that they won't abide by pitchers being so brazen as to admit they are putting someone on base the old-fashioned way.
It should have ended there, but Mike Rizzo couldn't let it go.
"He thinks he's going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year-old rookie who's eight games into the big leagues? He doesn't know who he's dealing with," Rizzo said.
Does he mean the Washington Nationals or Bryce Harper? If Harper, we'll have plenty of time to find out. If it's the Washington Nationals, I'm pretty sure Hamels already knows. If asked who he was dealing with in the Nats, Hamels might say something like this, "A perennial also ran in the National League East who have accumulated so many 1st, 2nd or 3rd overall draft picks over the years that you figure sooner or later there'd be talent there. A club in a town whose mayor tried to lock out our fans from coming down and taking over their stadium again, probably in an attempt to incite them to come down and spend money in their local economy, not realizing they would have been there anyway. A club with no history. A club struggling to find identity. A club we apparently need to pay attention to because as Ian Desmond said, we really don't ever seem too excited to play them and they're getting the better of us lately. Despite that, they're still a club who's excellent young talent needs to prove something over 162 games before the GM starts yapping at me about anything I do on a baseball field. After all, I may not be old school, but I'm a World Series MVP. You never got a cup of coffee."
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer who has been dissecting Phillies baseball since the now Washington Nationals played at Jarry Park in Montreal.