A recent rash of baseball fights turns out not to have been a rash at all but a healthy glow, a pink flush returned to the cheeks of a long-cadaverous game. Have you noticed? Baseball fights are full of virtues that are too often missing from baseball itself. Take team unity. You can scarcely find two members of any club willing to unite as whist partners. But throw a fastball near the noggin of one utility infielder, and 24 of his mates will be all over you like a discount poncho. "Taking care of business," as Anaheim Angels pitcher Chuck Finley said of his team s recent Wagnerian, 12-ejection free-for-all with the Kansas City Royals, "brings the guys closer together."
Those who say fights give the game a black eye haven't seen the fights, which couldn't give Peter McNeeley a black eye. Baseball fights are only slightly more dangerous than fights between hockey goalies, who resemble bar patrons in inflatable sumo suits wrestling over free tequila shooters. Nobody gets hurt, and that's by design. "There's a certain etiquette within the brawl," says Royals manager Tony Muser, who demoted shortstop Felix Martinez to Omaha for violating that code by sucker punching the Angels' Frank Bolick. "If you're going to hit somebody, you would hope that person's eyes are on you."
In what other context does a ballplayer concern himself with etiquette of any kind? Only in fighting would a Wally Post make like Emily Post, and that's reason enough to praise the bare-knuckle baseball bout. That point of view has long been embraced by hockey. "We're going to have to do something about all this violence," Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe once said, "or people are going to keep buying tickets."
That quote is included in World's Greatest Sports Brawls, which sounds like (and perhaps will one day become) a Fox television special but is, in fact, a newly published book whose existence speaks to the public appetite for fights. The cover of this roundhouse roundup features a photo of 46-year-old Nolan Ryan headlocking and haymakering 26-year-old Robin Ventura in their famous 1993 throwdown. The picture of Ryan literally striking a blow for golden-agers still sends a frisson of satisfaction up the lumbar-braced spines of a great many AARP members.
But it was another May-September slugfest that elevated the spoils brawl to performance art. When New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy served as a living ankle bracelet to Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning this spring, the resulting tableau was a grotesquerie, to be sure. But were you able to look away?
Indeed, the Knicks and the Heat annually reinvent the concept of the bench-clearing basketball fight, a practice condemned by the NBA but one that actually speaks to the best nature of man. What's wrong with loyalty, with coming to the aid of a comrade-in-arms? Chivalry isn't dead—it's living in the NBA rule book, under an assumed name: Leaving the Bench During a Fight.