We may never know for certain if Pirates reliever Matt Capps deliberately threw at the head of Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder Saturday, an act which earned him an ejection and two days later a four-game suspension. It's sort of an unwritten law of baseball that pitchers who hit batters maintain their innocence and portray astonishment that anyone, particularly the umpire, would think the act was deliberate.
To prove his innocence, Capps said if he were going to hit Fielder he would have done so with the first pitch, not the second. Which sounds very much like he was trying to establish an alibi -- a paper-thin one -- by waiting for the second pitch.
What we know, and for several reasons, is that what Capps did was incredibly stupid.
One of the more idiotic traditions in baseball is that an opposing pitcher respond to a home run by throwing at the next batter. No matter that the next batter did nothing. It's just the manly thing to do.
What kind of sense does that make?
To carry that kind of reasoning a step further, when a guy makes a great play in the field, is his first teammate to bat the next inning thrown at?
Part of the rationale for throwing at a batter after a home run is to let the other team know it had better not get comfortable at the plate. Following a home run seems a bit late to be delivering such a message.
The effectiveness of this strategy can be seen in how it affected Fielder.
The next day, in his first plate appearance after being hit, Fielder was not quite shaking with fright, and he homered in the second inning. In his next at-bat, he homered again. In his next, he just missed a homer. In his next, he singled and came around to score the go-ahead run. After being called safe, he publicly dissed Capps, who was backing up home plate on the play. Humorously, the Pirates' Ryan Doumit was annoyed by this, as though Fielder did not have ample reason to behave in such a manner.
Obviously, a pitch thrown in the direction of his head did not leave Fielder with the belief that he'd better not dig in and take a good swing against the Pirates.
For stupidity, the tradition of throwing at the batter after a home run ranks right alongside the long-held belief in hockey that a tough enforcer will alter the opposition's style of play.
For example, when it was obvious the Penguins were attempting to trade for Georges Laraque, proponents of the deal said the presence of the man regarded as the best fighter in the NHL would "open up the ice" for Sidney Crosby and the Penguins' other skilled forwards.
Such a belief indicates that many or most of the NHL players are cowards, who would step aside from their defensive positions for fear of later being pummeled by Laraque. Hockey players are not cowards. They are among the most courageous athletes in team sports. The fact coach Michel Therrien benched Laraque for three of the Penguins' five playoff games against Ottawa indicates that theory is rubbish.
The same logic applies to the baseball theory. Major-league hitters are not likely to get uncomfortable in the batter's box because they might be hit by a pitch. The ability to not be fearful of a high hard one is precisely what separates major-leaguers from minor-leaguers. If a player is fearful at the plate, he more than likely never will be signed to a professional contract, let alone make it to the majors. In fact, a player is more than likely not to make his high school team if he is fearful at the plate.
Capps appealed his suspension, which was a wise thing. Not only will it allow him to continue to pitch until his hearing, but, in all likelihood, his suspension will be reduced by a game.
Four games, or three, is a lot for a reliever, especially one as valuable to the Pirates as Capps. But it is warranted. Throwing at a batter's head should not be tolerated. Sure, Fielder was wearing a protective batting helmet, and the chances of a major head injury were slight. But there is nothing slight about a broken jaw or eye damage. There's no call to throw at a batter above the shoulders. It is reckless. It is stupid.
If there is a need to send a message, throw for the legs or the butt, not the face or the head.
Capps is a control master. There are few pitchers in the National League who are better at placing the ball in the strike zone. That he would come up so wild on that particular pitch is possible but highly suspicious.
Bob Watson, who deals out punishment for Major League Baseball, is a former player and was a good one. He knows what a pitch to the head can do. He made the right call. Capps got what he deserved.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .