Head Hunting

A friend wrote to me recently about a young Christian who is playing in the minor leagues. One of his teammates got hit in the head by the pitcher and his manager ordered him to hit a batter on the other team in the head. What should he do? He refused to obey the manager and was shipped out. I have only sketchy details, but it has brought up a serious problem. These are the kind of dilemmas faced by some pitchers in the rough and tumble game of baseball. This is called retaliation. You hit my player and we will hit your player. But what if you are a Christian and you seek to live your life according to the values of Jesus Christ?

There are many situations involving this age old problem. Did Nolan Ryan have the right to protect himself from a batter charging the mound? Did he have a reputation for throwing at hitters? I do know that he was very fast and was a bit wild at times. This can work to the advantage of the pitcher. But the moral key here is deliberate intent. It is very hard, if not impossible, to prove deliberate intent, but the player himself surely knows. In my opinion, to hit a batter with deliberate intent is a cowardly and dangerous act. If a pitcher wanted to, and had good control, it would not be that hard to hit a batter in the head. You would simply throw the ball behind the batter’s head a few inches, for the first reaction is to jerk your head back. In all of baseball history, since this is such a dangerous and cowardly act, I suspect that such things have seldom occurred. What is much more common is for the pitcher to hit the batter in the lower part of his body. This serves the purpose of both intimidating the batter and reducing the risk of injury. Nevertheless, we are dealing with deliberate intent, and the pitcher would have to accept the consequences of such a decision. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been many injuries, and even careers ruined, due to pitchers deliberately throwing at hitters. As a Christian, I still must follow the golden rule.

Fortunately, in my 20 years of pitching in the Major Leagues I was never ordered to hit a batter. But in the history of baseball, this act has been repeated over and over. Some great pitchers in the past had a reputation for hitting batters. Today, Major League baseball maintains a tight control over such things, and if a batter is hit, even if it is unintentional, both teams are warned not to retaliate. Even a near miss around the head can result in a quick rejection. It is up to the umpires to control the game without trying to read minds and today the control is much stricter than in the past. The umpires today have more discretion in these matters and seek to prevent problems before they get out of hand. Every successful pitcher has to pitch the batter inside, either off the plate to get the batter out, or what is called the “brush back”. On the brush back, the ball is thrown inside, but not behind the batter where he has no chance to get out of the way. Sal Maglie, a pitcher for the New York Giants, was nicknamed “the barber” due to his reputation of brushing back hitters. Others pitchers, such as Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson, were known for their reputation of hitting batters. The practice was much more common in the past than it is today. But the fact remains, if the pitcher deliberately hits a batter, whether in retaliation or a part of his repertoire, he is responsible for the resulting consequences. As a Christian, this would create a moral dilemma. I would not want to build my career at the expense of causing injury to others.

I am not sure how I avoided the dilemma of a manager ordering me to hit a batter. So I am not totally sure just what I would have done, except I know that I would never deliberately hit a batter. I do know that there are a number of managers and players who believe that retaliation would be the only way to protect players on the team. But I would call that “bush league” baseball. Fortunately baseball at the Major League level is moving away from such tactics. If I wanted to send a warning, I would throw the brush back pitch or throw the ball over the batters head. But of course I had pretty good control and the batter was safer than he might suspect.

That reminds me of this story. I remember hitting only two batters with my fastball during my entire career. Some managers would say that I was not mean enough, although I did have considerable success, and did believe in pitching batters inside. Both occasions happened during a one week period where I was having difficulty with my control. This was in 1967 when I was playing for the San Francisco Giants. I had two strikes and no balls on Ron Santo of the Cubs, and on the next pitch I drilled him in his left side. The ball hit so solid it fell straight to the ground. Ron’s first reaction was to charge me. He took one step and quickly changed his mind. He smiled and went to first. Why? Because we were teammates for three years and he knew that I did not deliberately hit batters. The other occasion happened a few days later when I was pitching against the Astros in Houston. Don Wilson, the very tall pitcher for the Astros, was the batter. The count was two strikes and no balls and I drilled him in the side. His anger flared and he started for the mound. I just stood there not knowing what to expect. Half way to the mound, he changed his mind and went to first. He was still very angry. The next day I was standing in the outfield during batting practice. He walked toward me. Now I am thinking, “What is going to happen now?” Here is what he said, “Mr. McDaniel, I want to apologize to you for my anger. When I returned to the dugout, the players on my team informed me that you do not deliberately hit batters.” Folks, it is all about deliberate intent.

I remember on one occasion facing Ron Hunt, who seemed not to mind getting hit by the ball. He would lead the league every year for hit batters. He would crowd the plate, and anything inside would find his body somehow. He would just turn his body a bit and take one for the team. This time I had two strikes on him, and threw the ball inside. That pitch got away from me and went straight for his head. That was one time he didn’t take one for the team. He went down flatter than a pancake, leaving his batting helmet floating in the air and his bat flying in another direction. He got up and dusted himself off showing no emotion. When he got back in the batters box, I drilled a fastball low and away which he took for strike three. I did enjoy that particular moment. For one thing I knew that I was not trying to hit him. Even though the fast ball went straight at his head, I knew that there was little chance that he would be hit. However there have known cases where batters simply “freeze” at the plate and did not get out of the way. Early in his career, Hank Aaron was often deliberately thrown at by pitchers. But he did not “freeze” at the plate nor would he give in to intimidation. He became a more determined hitter, and pitchers finally quit throwing at him. Perhaps the Lord was watching after me. But I do know that I would rather have ended my own career than be responsible for ending that of someone else. If we cannot practice the values of Jesus Christ on the sports field, in business, or in social situations in general, then where do we practice these values?

Baseball players have paid a big price for bending the rules and going along with the idea that anything goes as long as you win. It would seem to me that men of moral integrity will always elevate the game. Each person still has to look himself in the mirror every morning. I believe even rough and tumble baseball players can play by the golden rule. We need to do more than mere lip service as to good sportsmanship and playing according to the rules of the game. Even if cheating might give a player an edge, in the long run it does neither him nor the game any good. But some people care only about themselves. The examples of high profile athletes do have a influence, both for good or evil, upon thousands of others.

---Lindy McDaniel, August, 2010
Contact Lindy by E-mail: lindymcdaniel41@yahoo.com

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