In Sunday’s Red Sox vs. Rays game, the Rays tried to steal third base with a four-run lead in the seventh inning. In Wednesday’s Thunder vs. Spurs Western Conference Finals matchup, the Spurs continued to shoot (and make) three-pointers late into a game that had long since been a blowout and its outcome a foregone conclusion. Both of the leading teams in these scenarios were acting to increase their already overwhelming probability of winning, with very, very different outcomes. The defeated Thunder players finished the game and didn’t seem to care much that the Spurs were trying to push their 99.8% odds of winning to 99.9% in the closing minutes, in line with what happens in nearly all lopsided NBA games. The Red Sox, however, had other plans in mind. Sensing DISRESPECT in direct violation of THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF BASEBALL, the Sox knew what they had to do: provoke a bench-clearing brawl.
In baseball, fights take a form not seen in any other sport: a conflict forms on the field, words are exchanged, the involved parties inch toward each other intimidatingly, then ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE comes out of the dugout and people run all the way from the bullpens to come to the aid of their fighting teammates. The people coming from the bullpen often jog just briskly enough to feign a sense of urgency, but really they’re upset that their in-game routine of chewing tobacco and throwing baseballs with their phone numbers on them at women was temporarily disrupted. But EVERYONE HAS TO GO. Usually nothing of any consequence happens, the umpire warns both teams, and we play ball again. Other times, though, punches are thrown or people are shoved, and it’s usually for really dumb reasons, like the one we saw this Sunday. There are usually several unwritten rules coming into play each time a situation like this boils over. For instance, if a player is perceived to show off after hitting a home run (breaking an unwritten rule), and a pitcher then tries to throw at him during his next at bat (because of an unwritten rule), and the batter charges the mound (okay, according to unwritten rules), then the benches clear and maybe some people try to actually fight and get ejected (a few more rules for the road).
If NBA players started getting into bench-clearing brawls, every news outlet and social media platform would have a field day. However, this is not a thing that ever happens, because a player gets suspended the second he leaves the bench to join a fight, as probably makes sense if your league doesn’t want its players getting in fights during televised games. In this way, basketball benefits greatly from gaining its popularity in a more modern time, less marked by the antiquated mindset espoused by baseball. Instead of solving legitimate gripes, however, baseball’s bench-clearing altercations in 2014 are most reminiscent of the “antiques” lining the walls of chain casual-dining establishments. They feel more like something that a team is expected to do than a spontaneous show of anger, like I’m assuming they were in the early 20th century, when Ty Cobb was sliding spikes-first into everyone and calling them awful racial slurs. At least in basketball when any kind of physical conflict breaks out, you feel like those people must really dislike each other, and they’re not acting on the vague suggestions of their predecessors. Some may say that the ritualized bench-clearings are part of the charm of the game, but this is already a sport that makes 70-year-old managers dress in full uniform. Is this the path we want to continue on, or should we only fight when it’s warranted, like if someone goes Full Clemens?