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Let's quell melees on the mound

Brush-back" pitches are as much a part of baseball as hot dogs, squeeze bunts and resin bags. "Purpose pitches" were a pre-World War I strategy, and it continues in the year of Desert Storm. Cy Young "low-bridged" Shoeless Joe Jackson. Early Wynn played "chin music" with Mickey Mantle. Don Drysdale was accused of "head-hunting" against Hank Aaron.

A tactic of the ages.

Last season, Joe Morgan admitted ordering Boston flamethrower Roger Clemens to throw at an enemy batter. Managers claim, "If you don't do it, you won't survive." Pitchers know, "It comes with the territory." Batters dislike being missile targets, but have traditionally understood "purpose pitches."

At least until now.

In 1991, every inside pitch is a potential bomb fuse. A fastball singes a batter's chest hairs, and he thinks "it's expected" that the mound be charged. Go attack the pitcher, and 24 teammates from each side leap into the scrap as though it's Wrestlemania XVII.

In the 1950s, a beanball fight occurred once a month. Now, it's nearly every night. ESPN SportsCenter may soon offer a feature called, "Maalox Melee of the Day." Little Leaguers see big-boy millionaires do it, and on sandlot Saturday mornings it's 10-year-old Johnny warning 9-year-old Sally, "Throw another one close to me, and you're dead meat."

Calm the savages, please.

Modern major-leaguers aren't tougher, they're just wealthier and more brazen. Fines of $500 or even $5,000 don't deter tempestuous tycoons. Forget the fines. Suspend them for a month without pay, and fights will diminish.

Early Wynn, a right-hander for the Cleveland Indians of 35 seasons ago, says he would take "two for one. Hit one of my guys, and I'll hit two of yours." A hairy attitude, but it seldom triggered gang wars.

Pitchers have two reasons for brush-back throws. First, they help establish territory, and dissuade hitters from digging in too close to the plate. Second, it's for purposes of retaliation. If two consecutive batters smack homers, the next man up has traditionally figured, "I'd better hang loose."

Salty idea, but it's manageable.

Great hitters are seldom deterred. Gene Mauch was a manager who threatened to fine his own pitchers if they low-bridged Frank Robinson. Frequently, after brushbacks, Robinson would cream home runs. Mauch figured it was smart to not upset Frank.

Sal Maglie, a Giants right-hander of the 1950s, was nicknamed "The Barber" because his throws so often closely shaved rival batters. Remember the 1980 World Series, when a "purpose pitch" by Philadelphia's Dickie Noles spun George Brett like a corkscrew, setting a tone of fear the soon-to-be-beaten Kansas City Royals never overcame?

Understandable tactic, to a point.

But it must be policed.

In 1920, a Cleveland Indians batter named Ray Chapman was felled by New York Yankees submariner Carl Mays. Chapman never woke up. Fifteen hours later, he was dead. Next morning's Cleveland Press carried the banner headline, "Beanball Must be Banned." In the 71 years since, no major-league batter has perished from a beaning. But we must keep working at minimizing the chances.

Drysdale, a 6-foot-6 Dodgers right-hander, was a notorious 1960s brush-back practitioner. If some skinny 1991-model batter like Atlanta's Otis Nixon had charged Big D, the guy would've probably left the ballpark in a vehicle with siren and flashing lights. But when a Nixon goes after a pitcher, he knows all two dozen fellow Braves will follow. Maybe it can't be stopped, but it can be throttled.

"It's a different game than it used to be," Drysdale told Hal Bock of Associated Press. Baseball created an anti-headhunting rule. Big D calls it a farce. "They should let the players take care of it, like they always have," he said. "Too much burden was put on umpires. It's tough enough to call balls and strikes without having to be a psychologist or mind reader."

Aluminum bats, a junky idea that should be outlawed above the level of Little League, are also to blame. Inside pitches are less efficient than against traditional wooden bats. Teen-agers don't learn to effectively throw inside. Batters don't learn how to deal with being pitched inside. So, when they become big-leaguers, we see trigger tempers and nightly melees.

Somebody had better quell it.