It’s impossible to turn away from a bench-clearing brawl on a baseball field. I was reminded of this sad truth last Tuesday, when the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds had a 50-man dust-up before the home team’s first at-bat at Great American Ballpark. Hardly your average “he-threw-at-my-head” tantrum on the part of a hitter, the benches cleared for these two division rivals after Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina and Red second-baseman Brandon Phillips went face-to-face after Cincinnati’s leadoff batter entered the box. (Phillips had used some incendiary language the night before, openly expressing his hatred for the Cardinals.)
This particular brawl was especially dramatic, considering the histories of the combatants. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa and Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker have been pointing at each other since Baker’s days as manager of the Cubs (2003-06) and Giants (the Cards and Giants faced each other in the 2002 NLCS). Given the chance to calm the atmosphere last Tuesday, the two acted like parents unwilling to admit their children could possibly have done any wrong, instantly lowering the maturity meter behind home plate, and pushing things toward an ugly end. (Major League Baseball handed each manager a two-game suspension.)
And beyond the managers, you had two recent Cardinal heroes — Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds — in Cincinnati uniforms, trying to restrain former teammates like Molina and Chris Carpenter, loyalties determined solely by the logo on their jerseys. It was great theater, really.
Then Johnny Cueto started kicking. Taking the legend of Ty Cobb sharpening his spikes to the ultimate extreme, Cueto —backed into the net behind home plate, as were several players, including Carpenter — began kicking, first the back of Carpenter, then the face of Cardinal backup-catcher Jason LaRue. (LaRue’s finest days as a player were, of course, as a Cincinnati Red.) Just like Juan Marichal and Bert Campaneris before him, Cueto managed to turn what was essentially a grappling match into a bloody, cover-your-face street fight. The MMA act earned Cueto a seven-game suspension.
While hockey fights are legitimate and NBA fights are just funny, baseball’s code of behavior makes the brawls we see now and then compelling drama. Punches are acceptable (however rare), but kicks are definitely a no-no. And grudges last entire careers. The day will come when Johnny Cueto has to bat against Chris Carpenter. It will be impossible to turn away.
• I asked a Memphis Redbirds official about why Double-A catcher Steven Hill leap-frogged the Redbirds’ Bryan Anderson when the Cardinals needed to promote a replacement for LaRue. (Hill was leading the Texas League in home runs and RBIs at the time.) It wasn’t so much that St. Louis has crossed Anderson off its list of prospects, but the Redbirds were playing in Reno at the time, and traveling from Reno to Cincinnati was problematic. Hill homered for his first big-league hit in Sunday’s loss to the Cubs.
• The Cardinals have contenders for each of the National League’s three major awards. Albert Pujols (.315, 30 homers, 86 RBIs through Sunday) is making his annual run toward Most Valuable Player honors, with his chief competition being his first-base counterpart with the Reds, Joey Votto (.322, 28, 79). If only Pujols and Votto had gone chin-to-chin last week; would have been a priceless photo.
The NL’s Rookie of the Year trophy was essentially given to Atlanta’s Jason Heyward (.259, 12, 51) in spring training, then passed to Washington’s Stephen Strasburg upon his headline-making debut in June. But with Strasburg’s arm ailing, the Cards’ Jaime Garcia has quietly made a case for himself as the finest first-year pitcher in baseball (10 wins, 2.71 ERA). He’s already surpassed his career high for innings pitched in a season, so we’ll see if the lefty hits a wall during the dog days. Giant catcher Buster Posey (.337, 9, 43) and Cub shortstop Starlin Castro (.314) are in the picture.
Finally, the man who should have won the 2009 Cy Young Award, Adam Wainwright, has caught Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez to force a two-arm race for this year’s hardware. Waino is near the top of the NL in wins (17), strikeouts (158) and ERA (1.99). Best bet in baseball: Wainwright pitching at Busch Stadium (where he’s undefeated) in a day game (he’s undefeated under sunshine, too).