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The Code made me do it

The brushback pitch is an example of a sacred sports tradition: retaliation

August 04, 2011|Baxter Holmes, Kevin Baxter and Jim Peltz

Buried deep within the soul of every sport is a select group of traditions that are followed religiously. Whenever a competitor feels he's been wronged, these eye-for-an-eye creeds demand retribution.

So, of course, after Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Takashi Saito hit St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols on the left hand Tuesday, St. Louis was going to hit back.

And Cardinals reliever Jason Matte did, the next inning, hitting Milwaukee All-Star Ryan Braun in the back. He was just following the game's long-standing retaliatory rule: Throw at somebody.

"Don Drysdale had a real simple line," said Rick Monday, a Dodgers broadcaster and former major league outfielder. "You hit one of mine, I'll hit two of yours. Let me know when you've had enough."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 05, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Retaliation in sports: An article in the Aug. 4 Sports section about how athletes in various sports seek retribution against other athletes misspelled the last name of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte as Matte.

That's still the preferred way to enforce the Code.

When Angels ace Jered Weaver thought he was shown up Sunday by two Detroit Tigers who lingered in the batter's box after their home runs, he threw over the head of the next batter, catcher Alex Avila.

"When you do something a little too much there's a line that needs to be drawn," Weaver said. "If they want to play the game that way, that's the way it's going to be."

Stephen Sideroff, clinical director of the Moonview Treatment and Optimal Performance Center in Los Angeles, often works with athletes, and he said many feel peer pressure in such a macho, bravado-rich subculture to follow the retribution rules.

On top of that, he said, many professional athletes are emotionally unstable to begin with because they have had so much success through life that there are often unresolved issues.

"So their emotions sit right below the surface and are easily triggered," said Sideroff, who is also a member of UCLA's psychiatry faculty. He said it's as if some of these athletes are "looking for something in the present to get those feelings out."

Athletes usually say an act of retaliation was unintentional, partly because admitting it was intentional would result in a fine or suspension.

"Imagine the uproar that would occur if somebody actually put down in their team manual: "When one of our guys gets buzzed we're going to retaliate.'" said Michael Duca, an official scorer in the Bay Area and author of "The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime."

Sometimes intentions are too obvious to hide.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox rookie pitcher Sean Tracey was pulled from the game after failing to hit Texas slugger Hank Blalock as revenge for White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski being plunked.

White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen berated Tracey, and then demoted him to the minors the next day.

Most players insist the rules of retribution are necessary to keep the respect of teammates and opponents.

But things may be changing. Umpires have less tolerance for pitchers who throw inside, often issuing warnings at the first sign of trouble.

Weaver, for example, is looking at a six-game suspension and a stiff fine.

"The game is played differently now," Monday said. "I can only speak for clubs that I played with. You know what was expected. And it was one for all and all for one."

In his book "Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies," Joe Coakley writes that retaliatory acts accepted by most coaches and players are known as "borderline violence."

Examples, aside from baseball's "brushback" pitch, include the strategically thrown elbow or knee in soccer, basketball or running, dealt in return for rough treatment of a star player or encroachment of one's personal space. In football, a chop block is often the reward for a late hit.

In hockey, Vancouver Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi famously sucker-punched Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore from behind in 2004, leaving Moore with a broken neck. The hit was in retaliation for a hit Moore delivered on Vancouver captain Markus Nasland in a previous game.

Retribution is certainly woven into NASCAR, with drivers' payback sometimes erupting moments after the initial provocation and at other times weeks later.

NASCAR's version of road rage includes drivers banging into other cars in retaliation during a race ("trading paint"), shoving each other on pit road, cursing at rivals on national television and, occasionally, throwing a punch.

In May, for instance, Kevin Harvick was so angry with Kyle Busch after a race in Darlington, S.C., that he tried to punch Busch while Busch still sat in the car on pit road.

After Denny Hamlin's car slammed into Kyle Petty's in a race in Dover, Del., in 2007, Petty slapped Hamlin's helmet visor as Hamlin sat in his car during repairs, prompting Hamlin to respond, "You meet me someplace else and we'll settle it."

Last year, amid a slowdown in NASCAR's once surging popularity, NASCAR tacitly acknowledged that feuds enhance the sport's excitement by saying it would let drivers settle more of their skirmishes among themselves in what became known as the "Boys, have at it" stance.

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baxter.holmes@latimes.com

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

james.peltz@latimes.com

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