'There is a lot of testosterone:' Why beefs and brawls are a way of life in the NL Central

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Picture a heated baseball rivalry, and the mind’s eye tends to wander toward either coast: Pedro Martinez slamming Don Zimmer to the turf in yet another Yankees-Red Sox epic, or perhaps Juan Marichal wielding a bat against Johnny Roseboro as the Giants vs. Dodgers rivalry hit the West Coast.

For the past decade, though, the biggest beefs have unfolded not where the national networks are likeliest to point their cameras on a Sunday night, but rather in a tightly packed quintet of Midwestern cities, where rivals warily eye one another across the lake or down the river.

In the National League Central, baseball intensity overflows at the confluence of tight pennant races, irrepressible personalities and unchecked testosterone. Yet as surely as the Ohio flows from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, and Lake Michigan’s thaw heralds a jubilant summer in Milwaukee and Chicago, the bad blood among these rivals cannot be stopped.

This baseball season is barely a month old, and already there have been four bench-clearing incidents among NL Central clubs, three resulting in suspensions. Since 2018, there have been 17 bench-clearing episodes in games involving the teams.

In a sense, this era of intra-division violence traces to 2010, when an epic Cardinals-Reds brawl sparked by Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips’ assertion that St. Louis players were all “little (expletives)” foretold a decade of disruption on the standings and in the field.

It has evolved long enough that one player in the middle of one of the greatest scrums – Chicago’s David Ross – now manages the team he fought alongside.

It has endured to outlast entire careers.

“It’s weird because this has gone on so long,” says retired reliever Jared Hughes, who debuted with the Pirates in 2011, also pitched for the Reds and Brewers and called it quits after pitching for the Mets in 2020. “When I got called up, it had already been a thing – the Cardinals and Reds had fought. I couldn’t tell you an exact reason why there’s issues or tempers get heated, but it happened a lot. It typically had to do with dirty slides or hit-by-pitches, escalates to throwing inside on purpose, which honestly is never good.

“And once you do that on purpose, the benches clear.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a little tap on the shin guards to kick-start an era of enmity.

‘You have to take things’

When Phillips stepped into the batter’s box at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Aug. 10, 2010, the Central was the Cardinals’ domain.

Since the turn of the century, they’d won the division title six times in 10 years, earned a wild card berth another year and claimed the Central’s lone World Series title, in 2006. So when Phillips told the Dayton Daily News that he hated the Cardinals, that “all they do is bitch and moan about everything, all of them, they're little (expletives), all of 'em,” it was as much about carving out space as it was anything personal.

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina took it quite personally. Ever prideful, he refused to accept Phillips’ welcome tap on his shin guards, eventually sparking a confrontation that led to an ugly brawl that spilled dangerously into the netting behind home plate.

“He touched me,” Molina said later, “and (after) the comment that he made yesterday, that he's got no friends over here, 'Why do you touch me then? You are not my friend, so don't touch me.' "

The brawl ended the career of veteran catcher Jason LaRue, who suffered a concussion when Reds starter Johnny Cueto, feeling he was hemmed into the netting by Cardinals counterpart Chris Carpenter, kicked his way out of danger.

Cueto was the lone player suspended, for seven games. The Reds, though, would go on to win 91 games and the Central title, their first since 1995.

Though the Cardinals would claim another World Series title in 2011, the tone for the next decade was set: All five clubs would have a say in the division, by any means necessary.

Brandon Phillips' fight with the Cardinals in 2010 may be the skirmish that started more than a decade of bad blood among teams in the NL Central.
Brandon Phillips' fight with the Cardinals in 2010 may be the skirmish that started more than a decade of bad blood among teams in the NL Central.

“We didn’t like St. Louis, quite frankly,” says Angels manager Joe Maddon, who arrived as Cubs manager in 2015, and before that managed the Rays to their first AL pennant. “And that was the fun thing, like with the Rays, with the Yankees and Red Sox when we first got there, didn’t like 'em. And you had to do something about it.

"You have to take things. Nobody’s giving anybody anything. You gotta take it. When you’re with Tampa Bay you had to take the Yankees and take Boston. And the Cubs had to take St. Louis. Very simple.

“That might cause a little bit of an interesting game.”

'My hand went on his throat'

Maddon has managed teams in three time zones but retains a fondness for the Central, with its ease of travel and towns rich in baseball heritage. In 2013, the Houston Astros relocated to the American League, leaving five teams in a snug geographic footprint.

Soon, the standings would get even cozier.

Since the Astros’ departure, the division has been decided by three games or fewer in five of the seven full seasons. In all but one of those years – 2016, when the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series – the gap between first and second was closer than the average cushion for the five other divisions.

That competitive proximity boiled over in 2015.

The Central was by far the best in baseball, with the Cardinals winning 100 games and the division. The Pirates won 98 games – most since 1991 – yet their reward was merely home-field advantage for the wild-card game against the 97-win Cubs and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

It was their third straight trip to the wild-card shootout; a year after Madison Bumgarner sent them packing, the thought of a one-and-done game against Arrieta left them salty even before first pitch.

“I think both sides felt like it was unfair we were in that game,” Hughes, who now works in the Angels' baseball operations, recalls. “We were two of the best teams in baseball and we had just one game to prove it. One game. It felt unfair.

“That sets the stage for a situation where, again, tempers flare, emotions are high.”

Arrieta pitched a masterpiece, a five-hit shutout, 11 strikeouts, no walks – but he hit two batters. So with two outs in the seventh, Pirates reliever Tony Watson drilled him in the hip, a parting gift from a team facing elimination.

The Cubs, understandably, were irate. Benches cleared and soon Ross, the veteran backup catcher, and Sean Rodriguez, the Pirates’ fiery utilityman, were at each other’s throats – literally.

In one of the greatest uses of the passive voice in baseball history, Ross said his grip on Rodriguez’s neck was unintentional.

“I was trying to stop him as he charged me," Ross said after the game, "and he bent down, and my hand went on his throat. It was just one hand. It was a total accident. He may have seen it another way.”

Unable to exact revenge, Rodriguez lost it, famously taking his aggression out on a water cooler before serving his ejection.

Years later, he’d confirm his frustrations ran far deeper.

“The team we had was unbelievable,” he told USA TODAY Sports in 2017. “Yeah, I thought we could’ve won the World Series that year.”

Instead, the Cubs advanced to knock out the Cardinals and reach the NL Championship Series; a year later, they’d win their first World Series since 1908, to much fanfare.

The Cubs and Cardinals are the only NL Central clubs to win World Series titles since the division’s inception in 1994. Their potent brands, large fanbases and ever-present narratives – lovable Cubbies, classy Cardinals – can irk the rest of the division.

“Sitting in the clubhouse in Pittsburgh and when MLB Network or any other talk show comes on, you notice these bigger markets talked about, nonstop,” says Hughes. “It was the same in Cincinnati. We knew we were just as good. It was always like, ‘Yeah, we’re just as good as these guys. Why aren’t they covering us?’

“Small market and younger players with something to prove. You’re just getting your shot. You have something to prove. That intense competitiveness was like, ‘Yeah, gotta prove ourselves and we can’t let people take advantage of us.’ And that led to emotion.”

Testosterone boost

Clint Hurdle took over as Pirates manager in 2011, hoping to revive a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season since 1992. Within three seasons, a few trendlines emerged:

The Pirates began to win. They pitched inside with greater frequency. Hit more batters than any team.

And brawled more often with opponents.

Of 14 NL Central bench-clearing incidents between 2014 and 2019 – Hurdle’s last season – the Pirates were involved in eight of them, including four with the Reds, who also had eight.

In five of Hurdle’s nine seasons in Pittsburgh, the Pirates either led the NL or ranked second in hitting opposing batters. In 2014 and ’15, it was particularly painful: The Pirates drilled 88 and 75 batters over those two seasons, in both instances racking up 33 more hit-by-pitches than the league average.

Hurdle stuck around long enough to beef with three managers in Cincy and four in Chicago – Maddon now chuckles about the time he tried to charge the Pirates dugout – and often left opponents speaking through clenched teeth.

Two months before their 2015 wild-card battle with the Cubs, the Pirates spent a wild weekend in Cincinnati that boiled over when Watson (again!) drilled Phillips (still around?) and the scrum got heated when Rodriguez (yep!) squared off with the Reds’ Marlon Byrd.

“There is always something in the air,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “When you pitch inside guys are going to get hit. There is a lot of testosterone.”

If only Price had made it to 2019.

That’s when the Reds and Pirates turned brawling into performance art, with an April epic followed by a July encore, the latter featuring a repeat protagonist who’d actually been traded in the hours before the melee.

Reds-Pirates, Acts I and II also included just about every trope of the modern basebrawl.

Start with a flouting of the unwritten rules, with musclebound Reds utilityman Derek Dietrich admiring an April home run he slugged 436 feet into Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River. Continue with Pirates starter Chris Archer throwing behind Dietrich in his next time up, the umpire warning both benches, Reds manager David Bell irate that his pitchers were warned for no good reason.

And then mix in a heaping dose of Yasiel Puig.

The Reds outfielder would earn a three-game suspension for inflaming the situation after calmer heads seemingly had prevailed; a much-memed photo of Puig gives the appearance he, alone, was taking on the entire Pirates roster.

Dietrich would later slug another ball into the Allegheny, which a few thousand feet away joins with the Monongahela to form the Ohio River on its way to Cincinnati.

And that’s where the action would resume.

The teams staged a brief interlude in May, when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Cincinnati’s Eugenio Suarez in the wrist, drawing Suarez toward the mound and an agitated Bell from the dugout; Suarez suffered a broken thumb when he was struck by a pitch from Pirates starter Jameson Taillon in 2018.

“Clearly, we're not going to get protected,” Bell snarled after the game. “We've got to take matters into our own hands. ... They need to protect themselves with any means necessary."

Cue Act II.

Great American Ballpark may not see another night like July 30, 2019, which began with a rumored trade for an eventual Cy Young Award winner and ended with a one-on-25 fist-flying battle between Amir Garrett and All of Pittsburgh.

The hostilities were renewed in the seventh inning, when Pirates reliever Keone Kela threw a pitch over Dietrich’s head. Reds first baseman Joey Votto expressed his disgust toward the Pirates dugout, words and gestures alike. For the heck of it, Puig spiked his helmet on a questionable strike call, drawing Bell out of the dugout to earn an ejection.

In the ninth, Hughes was summoned to pitch. His friend and former minor- and major-league teammate, Starling Marte, was leading off.

Pirates reliever Kyle Crick (30) falls between Eugenio Suarez, left, and Amir Garrett of the Reds during a brawl in 2019, one of several incidents involving Garrett in recent years.
Pirates reliever Kyle Crick (30) falls between Eugenio Suarez, left, and Amir Garrett of the Reds during a brawl in 2019, one of several incidents involving Garrett in recent years.

Hughes hit him in the thigh with a 92-mph fastball. Even now, freed from disciplinary restraints, Hughes stays true to the code.

“Just get a first pitch strike, and the ball slipped, and it hit him in the thigh,” he says from the safety of his Texas home, “and I hope he’s OK.”

Hughes was ejected and Garrett summoned from the bullpen, a fateful move. The 6-5 lefty was to be lifted four batters later, after yielding a three-run homer, but never made it to the dugout. Not with the Pirates chirping, and honor to be defended.

Fearing no man – or, in this case 30 of them – the former St. John’s basketball player charged at the opposing dugout, fists flying, the Pirates bobbing back and forth, midway between fighting back and parrying Garrett’s fury.

Bell emerged from the clubhouse – a huge no-no, post-ejection – and made a beeline for Hurdle, getting tackled and emerging in various stages of undress. In the you-get-him, I’ll-take-them world of basebrawls, Pirates strength and conditioning coach Jim Malone took it upon himself to restrain Bell, leaving Puig to roam the perimeter, and get nose to nose with Pirates pitcher Kyle Crick.

After seven minutes of mayhem, a surreal aftermath: Votto, his heart rate down, calmly gathering up teammates’ discarded hats and gloves and distributing them. Puig, exiting the Great American diamond for the final time, on his way to Cleveland in exchange for Trevor Bauer, earning reverential applause from the stadium grounds crew as he departed, an epic four-month cameo in the division concluded.

Four outs later, it was finally over.

“It gets to a point where nobody’s protecting us. I was angry,” Garrett said. “Today it wasn’t about baseball. It was about protecting my teammates and protecting this brotherhood. I’m going to accept any punishment I have. As a man, I take on that responsibility. I apologize for my actions but in the heat of things sometimes it gets the best of you.

“The person that has the bat is defenseless. That’s not something you should do. If you have a problem, handle it like a man.”

Two days later, Joe Torre’s office within MLB rendered its verdict, with eight suspensions: Kela 10 games, Garrett eight games, Josh Bell six games, Jose Osuna 5 games, Hughes, Crick and Puig three each and Hurdle – always lurking under the radar –- two games.

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The suspensions came with further overtones – stern warnings from the league office that future incidents will be treated more harshly.

“The emotional crossing into the physical realm, which is never good,” says Hughes, who insists Hurdle never ordered any “Code Reds” during his time with the Pirates. “In hindsight, not good. It’s not a good example to set.”

New school, old beefs

The 2021 season was just 13 innings old when Cardinals pitcher Jake Woodford hit Nick Castellanos with a pitch, one game after Castellanos punctuated a long home run with a skip, prance and bat toss. Castellanos eventually scored on a wild pitch, Woodford on the ground after a failed tag attempt, and the Reds outfielder punctuated his revenge with a phrase popular among the youth these days.

“Let’s (expletive) go!,” he exclaimed, with a poster-worthy flex above Woodford.

Cue the first Central rhubarb of the new season.

Woodford took exception, Molina followed Castellanos and touched his neck, and a brief melee ensued, not that Castellanos wanted a piece of Molina.

“That guy could have punched me in the face. I’d still ask him for a signed jersey,” Castellanos said after the Reds’ victory. “I’ve got nothing but respect for that cat, bro."

CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 03: Nick Castellanos #2 of the Cincinnati Reds is hit with a pitch thrown by Jake Woodford #40 of the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth inning at Great American Ball Park on April 03, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775626593 ORIG FILE ID: 1310653381
CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 03: Nick Castellanos #2 of the Cincinnati Reds is hit with a pitch thrown by Jake Woodford #40 of the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth inning at Great American Ball Park on April 03, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775626593 ORIG FILE ID: 1310653381

He and the Reds felt less charitable a few days later, when Castellanos was suspended for two games for “aggressive actions” and “instigating a benches-clearing incident," while Woodford and Molina ducked any discipline, begging a question.

Does incitement begin with a plunking or a profanity-laced exultation?

The Cubs and Brewers are struggling with that concept, as well.

Three days after the Castellanos kerfuffle, they had the first of two incidents in a seven-day span, rooted, naturally, in old history.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has now been hit by seven pitches from Brewers hurlers this year and last, including three in a five-game stretch this season.

A week later, after Cubs manager Ross urged that the Brewers, at some point, “have to be better,” Chicago reliever Ryan Tepera threw behind Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff; Tepera had the temerity to admit as much, saying, “There was no malicious intent. It was a message that we'd had enough."

Tepera was suspended three games, appealing it down to two, or, the same punishment as Castellanos’ flex.

And just one week ago, a trio of longtime Central lightning rods – Garrett, Rizzo and Cubs shortstop Javy Baez – converged for one more go-round, a bench-clearing gathering borne of the struggling Garrett’s strikeout of Rizzo and resulting exuberance.

Ross called it “garbage.” Baez said he was “disrespecting” the Cubs. Garrett merely waved off the barbs and chided Baez – they also squared off in 2018 – for hopping the dugout rail and remaining there.

“Brother, he didn't jump over the railing and try to come at me, I can promise you that," Garrett said. “He jumped over the rail, stood there and yelled. We're grown men. If you want to come and get me, you can come and get me. If I wanted to go and get him, I could've went and got him, but I wasn't trying to take it there.

“It's a waste of my time and money and all that.”

Garrett was suspended for seven games. Baez was fined.

The Garrett punishment seems to make it clear that MLB – whose disciplinary wing is now helmed by former Marlins GM Michael Hill – will take prior violations seriously. Yet it can’t legislate passion.

It can’t take away proximity. And it can’t regulate the intensity of competition in a division that’s seen three division champs in as many years, with at least four clubs expected to contend for the title this year.

Divisional play revs up again this week, beginning with the Reds visiting the Pirates. Hurdle won't be there, fired after that 2019 season turned internally toxic. Puig is without a job, Dietrich in Class AAA with the Yankees.

That's not to say anyone's guard will be lowered. It's a long season, with some long histories among franchises not often cast in the spotlight.

“Things just happen over the course of the year,” says Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “You play each other a lot. We’d prefer to run away with the division, of course, but it’s a competitive division and when you’ve got multiple teams competing, that’s what’s taken place – hard-nosed, hard-fought, game-matters competition. When that happens, emotions tend to be higher, more is at stake.

“You’re going to see some things that are a byproduct of that.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Basebrawl: Why beefs and brawls are a way of life in the NL Central