Why baseball's unwritten rules are as much to blame as Manny Machado

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
Why baseball's unwritten rules are as much to blame as Manny Machado
Why baseball's unwritten rules are as much to blame as Manny Machado

Every night, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado holds a 33 ½-inch, 31 ½-ounce weapon. People bring baseball bats to fights because they are wildly effective implements: light enough to swing with great force, hard enough to brutalize, form following function to subhuman perfection. There is an unspoken trust among baseball players that they regard one another enough to avoid using it for such nefarious purposes. When that accord crumbles, so too collapses the tenuous foundation of decorum on which baseball perpetually teeters.

Surely somewhere in the back of his mind Machado understood this. He grew up in Hialeah, the baseball-mad outpost near Miami, which teaches its sons to respect the game. The balance between that and the self-respect preached in even greater doses fell out of equilibrium sometime over the weekend. First he intuited a tag by Oakland A's third baseman Josh Donaldson as some sort of grievous insult that existed only in his mind. Then he twice allowed his weapon to clip A's catcher Derek Norris' head, which may or may not have been intentional but looks awfully dubious in retrospect following what came next: His bat tomahawking down the third-base line – after Fernando Abad came far too close to his surgically repaired knee with a fastball – in an attempt to ... warn the A's he would not be intimidated? Show them that he's the one holding two pounds of lathed-and-lacquered hardwood? Or maybe remind himself that playing club-wielding barbarian allows him a moment, at least, to forget that he's hitting .229 with no power.

Baseball believes the best way to break an ingrained culture is to punish it. That's why its performance-enhancing drug penalties keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger: Major League Baseball wants to equate bad behavior with bad consequences. So the five-game suspension handed down to Machado on Tuesday afternoon, along with no penalty for Abad aside from a puny fine, practically gave players carte blanche to continue with this macho idiocy that pervades the game because its stewards allow as much.

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Manny Machado's wild weekend started Friday when he thought he got tagged too hard by A's third baseman Josh Donaldson. (AP Photo)
Manny Machado's wild weekend started Friday when he thought he got tagged too hard by A's third baseman Josh Donaldson. (AP Photo)

The culture that encourages this isn't just shepherded along. It's romanticized among players, former players and baseball men alike. Baseball is their frontier, and they mete justice out by enforcing an unwritten code with rules malleable like warm candle wax. They are bent and shaped to the whims of each individual, only to be broken easily once they seem hardened. When the David Price-David Ortiz kerfuffle turned into a week-long affair of brushbacks and beanballs and words commingling inside a cauldron of testosterone and false pretenses – of acting like baseball has some cosmic scale that needs individuals to monitor its homeostasis – the absurdity of the sport's self-delusion boiled over.

Baseball emboldened Manny Machado to act like this. By previous accounts, he is a perfectly fine human being, agreeable, coachable, a little cocky, but then if you could hit a baseball like he does and spend the week after your 21st birthday wearing an American League All-Star uniform, you might be, too. He learned from older men, though, ones who encouraged him to protect his team and protect himself especially because this game is hard and grinding and taxing. The seeds for this behavior get planted early, and the better a player is, as the great Dirk Hayhurst observed, the greater leeway he allows himself to interpret baseball's tacit constitution.

If baseball truly believes in the power of disincentivizing bad behavior, Machado and Abad would have served as object lessons. Certainly the union would have appealed harsher suspensions, and maybe it would have won, but MLB's voice would resonate: No longer do petty feuds over perceived slights play out in a war that involves a five-ounce projectile or, heaven forbid, a two-pound stick. If the union wants to fight that thinking, let it. This is something everyone in the game should support because it leads to a safer environment for players.

As much as they want to argue that the current system does work – that players police themselves – the methods through which they do so drip with savagery. Here are the places where anger over a slight, imagined or real, is answered with someone getting hit by something really hard: a boxing ring, a football field, a hockey arena. All three suffer from destructive rates of concussions and exist in a vacuum of ignorance, where the viewers consciously separate themselves from the horrific consequences they understand happen with every play.

Here is what baseball said Tuesday: Throwing a ball at a player will cost a millionaire a few grand and throwing a bat – following a couple of pops to the head that left Norris concussed, by the way – will lead to a suspension softer than the six games Red Sox pitcher Brandon Workman received for throwing a pitch behind Evan Longoria after the Price-Ortiz nonsense. Throwing a bat is not as bad as using pine tar (10 games), not close to as bad as shoving a cameraman (20 games), in a different country than using PEDs (50 games) and a planet away from the sin of being A-Rod (211 games).

Oh, and Machado will appeal his suspension and could get it knocked down to the four games of the last player to throw a bat like that, Trot Nixon.

Talk of demoting Machado is a massive overreaction. (AP Photo)
Talk of demoting Machado is a massive overreaction. (AP Photo)

In the meantime, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette told Sports Illustrated and FoxSports.com he would consider demoting Machado to Triple-A. Like the kid he's potentially punishing, it is a massive overreaction to a situation that calls for measure, reason and logic. If Machado weren't going to the minor leagues before – and there was no sign whatsoever that was a possibility – he surely ought not now. He needs the Orioles' support, not their condemnation.

This isn't a matter of protecting him from himself. Machado doesn't need that. At least, he didn't throughout his first two seasons, when Orioles personnel fell all over themselves talking about his maturity. No matter how idiotic Machado was – and it's somewhere between very and very – one lost weekend does not signal some change in character.

It serves as a reminder of how baseball culture can brainwash someone into manufacturing a problem. It overwhelmed Machado into forgetting about his responsibility, the one that is in his hands, literally, every night – a responsibility he, of all people, should understand.

Because a little more than two years ago, in May 2012, the 19-year-old Machado was playing in a Double-A game against San Francisco's affiliate. He took a rip, and his backswing popped catcher Tommy Joseph in the head. He shook it off, played three more innings and eventually left the game. Joseph missed most of 2013 with concussion problems. He already hit the disabled list once this year for a concussion.

Almost certainly it was an accident, because the idea that one person would do that to another intentionally is nauseating. And yet we can't forget that this time around, Manny Machado did just that. He let go of his bat and watched it fly in the direction of a player. He felt bad and apologized and that is all well and good, but it cannot take away what happened.

The trust faded. The accord crumbled. Baseball's foundation of decorum – the real culprit more than some frustrated kid – collapsed again, like it always does, on the flimsiness of its unfortunate existence.

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