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The Problem of Revenge

On Sunday afternoon in Texas, Blue Jay fans got to watch a modern revenge plot played out. By now, even the most die hard Raptor fans must know that while the Raptors were blowing out the Miami Heat on Sunday (to continue the most successful NBA season this city has ever seen), the Jays were involved in a dramatic series of events that was eight months in the making.  It all started with the Texas Rangers atoning (in their minds) for the disrespect shown to them by Jose Bautista in last year’s playoffs.  There were batters getting thrown at, fielders getting charged at, punches being thrown.  Who were the winners of Sunday’s battle?  Who were the losers?  Who was right and who was wrong?  Let’s break it all down.

It all started with ‘the bat flip’.  Anyone who has followed the Blue Jays or owns a television in Toronto knows what I’m referring to.  It was one of the defining moments in Toronto sports history.  It had all the elements of a great moment.  The team had not been to the playoffs in over 2 decades.  They had just come back to tie the series after nearly being eliminated.  It was late in the deciding game and they were trying to come back after falling behind due to a fluke play that threatened to end their season.  The man at the plate was the team’s most recognizable star, a player that the Jays plucked from obscurity and who had become a superstar.

This was no ordinary home run.  The moment deserved a celebration.  The weight of the city’s expectations and hopes had just been lifted off their shoulders with one swing of the bat.  The reaction was a natural one to Jose Bautista.  A flip of the bat.  He had triumphed.  The city rejoiced.

On the other side of the ball were the Texas Rangers.  Here was a team that had taken a commanding series lead against a favoured opponent, and now was trying to hang on to a lead late in the deciding game.  Suddenly, their team forgot how to play defense for a few minutes, and the game was slipping away.  Then came the blast.  Their hearts sunk.  And they look up to see the other guys seemingly showing them up.

As I have written before, I am a huge fan of the bat flip.  I loved every minute of it, and I totally understand that it was a natural reaction to such a huge play.  I don’t believe Bautista was trying to show up the Rangers or Sam Dyson (the pitcher).  He was simply reacting in the moment to what was the most important home run of his career.  I know that baseball has a ‘code’ that says to not show up your opponent.  And while I’m more of an old school fan than most, I am also a fan of a lot of sports where the equivalent of the bat flip would be considered a subdued celebration.

On the flip side, I am also a guy who believes that Jose Bautista is an emotional guy whose actions often display a me-first attitude that ends up hurting the team.  After reflecting over the past few days, I’ve realized that I don’t believe him to be an inherently selfish guy.  I believe he wants his personal success to contribute to team success.  However, he is an emotional guy, and his actions and reactions can end up hurting the team.  Whether it’s complaining to umpires about balls and strikes or breaking the rules with an illegal slide because he felt wronged by the opposition, his actions can cost the team outs and chances to win games.

Fast forward to last Sunday.  Whether it was an orchestrated plan or a pitcher taking matters into his own hands (I believe it was the former), the Rangers decided to wait for Jose Bautista’s last at bat of the season against them  to exact their revenge.  This revenge took the form of a mid 90s fastball straight into the ribs courtesy of journeyman pitcher Matt Bush, who was in prison last October and not even a part of the Ranger team at the time of the bat flip.  The timing of the beaning and the chosen hit man were curious choices, to be sure.  The home plate umpire immediately recognized the intent of this play and warned both teams that no further revenge would be tolerated.  He did not, however, choose to eject Bush.  Perhaps this decision had an impact on what followed, perhaps not.

Here is where the problem of revenge started for me.  The Rangers felt that they were shown up by Bautista, and they felt that this evened the score.  However, Jose felt that no apology was needed for the bat flip.  So when he got drilled with a pitch, he felt slighted and wanted to get revenge.  He chose not to get this revenge on the pitcher that threw at him.  Perhaps this is because he expected the umpire to take care of things by throwing the pitcher out of the game.  Perhaps it was because Bautista didn’t want to tangle with a guy that had done hard time in prison.  Either way, he went to first base with revenge on the brain.

When a ground ball was hit, he opted to run hard and slide late into the second baseman, Rougned Odor.  It should be noted that a year ago, this slide would have been considered a normal but aggressive baseball play, but recent rule changes have made it illegal to slide the way he did, and he knew it.  Bautista admitted quite clearly that his intent was to send a message.  To be fair, the slide was hard but he did not show any real intent to injure, and the slide on its own would likely not be noteworthy if not for the actions that preceded it and the actions that followed.  Bautista got up defiantly, and after some shoving, he took (with apologies to Nolan Ryan) the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown on a baseball field.  Odor, the offender, was quickly targeted by other Blue Jays rushing out of the dugout to defend their teammate.

Order was eventually restored, players and coaches were ejected, and thankfully no one was seriously hurt apart from a few scrapes and bruises (and maybe some bruised egos).  The story had a final footnote, however, when Toronto pitcher Jesse Chavez felt that Texas was now owed further punishment for this incident, and chose to throw a ball into the leg of the first batter he faced, Prince Fielder.  The scene was done in such a workmanlike fashion it was almost comical.  Fielder just laughed and waved goodbye to Chavez.  Jesse, knowing that the teams had already been warned not to do this, just put his head down and walked to the showers, knowing that his day’s work was done.  I remember wishing at the time that he had a lunch pail to pick up on his way out.  Just a guy doing his job, and that job in this case was ‘sticking up for his teammate.’  People from both dugouts came out to jaw back and forth a bit more, but it was a much more subdued version, almost like they were going through the motions and posturing because that is what they were supposed to do.

So, who was right in all this?  First, let me state the obvious and say that I don’t know any of the people involved personally, so I can only make assumptions of their intent based on what they’ve said and the actions that they’ve showed.  I have tried to give people the benefit of the doubt wherever possible.  Gregg Zaun (who I like to call Zaun Cherry for his loud suits and louder opinions) stated that everyone did what they were supposed to do in this situation.  I disagree.  In my opinion, everyone here did what they felt was the right thing based on their perception of the revenge ledger at the time.  Should the Rangers have retaliated for the bat flip?  On one hand it was 8 months ago, and many feel that if revenge was going to be served, they should have done it at the first opportunity and not waited until the last.  Honestly, this is the only element I’m divided on.  One could argue that by waiting until the end of the series, they were hoping to avoid 7 games of bad blood between two teams trying to ‘even the score’.  Overall, while the timing and delivery method were suspect, I actually don’t have a real problem with Texas choosing to send a message to Bautista that his actions weren’t appreciated.  Having said that, the whole incident could have been avoided had Texas decided to just let things go.

Once he was hit with the ball, Bautista had a few options. It was clear to him that this was retaliation. He had to know there was a strong possibility that it was coming, so he would have had plenty of time to think through his response. He chose not to charge at the pitcher. It’s possible that he thought the umpire would throw Bush out of the game and that would end it. Another aspect was that all this happened in a one run game. He may have thought that the best revenge would be to make Texas pay for their foolishness by finding a way to score and go on to win the game. This would have been a great approach. It may be that it wasn’t until the ground ball was hit, and he was surely out, that he opted to send a message. As I said off the top, I don’t think Bautista is intending to be selfish. He wanted atonement and to send a message. He just didn’t think through the possible consequences of his actions in terms of fines, suspensions and possible injuries. By choosing to escalate the issue, he put his teammates at risk.  However, to be clear, the biggest escalator of the situation was Odor, and the 8 game suspension he received was a good reflection of this. Bautista responded to one hard baseball play with another hard baseball play. Odor responded with a hard punch. Both players overreacted, but Odor without question was the main reason for the brawl that followed.

So, who was right and who was wrong? In my opinion, no one was right. And no one won out of this situation. The Rangers ultimately won the game, but both sides suffered fines and suspensions, and all sides are lucky there wasn’t a serious injury.  The problem with revenge is that it is hard to even the score if both sides have a different view of what’s right and what’s wrong, and what is owed and what isn’t. You either keep escalating, or you decide to move on. Hopefully the Blue Jays and Rangers have realized that there are no winners here, and that it’s time to move on.