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Don't you dare time my pitches

By Carl Bialik

Alex Rodriguez's homer led to a bench-clearing brawl between the Yankees and Mariners.
Only in a sports world gone mad could Ben Christensen be allowed to continue playing the game of baseball.

On Fri., Apr. 23, Christensen, Wichita State's star junior pitcher, fired a ball at Evansville second baseman Anthony Molina. The ball struck Molina in the eye, causing damage which could possibly ruin his vision for life.

Baseball can be dangerous. Other players' careers have ended on errant pitches or batted balls. But Molina was standing 30 feet from the batter's box at the time, and Christensen was warming up before the game. The ball he threw at Molina was a bullet, timed by an anonymous scout at 91 miles per hour.

Christensen claims that Molina was edging too close to Christensen and timing his pitches. The fair response, as taught to Christensen by his pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, was to throw at Molina to deter him from trying the same tactic again—much like a soldier would shoot at an enemy to deter him from trying to steal signals.

This analogy made sense to Kemnitz and Christensen, which is what is so troubling about the incident. Their sport had become like a war to them, and they were willing to engage in war-like methods to ensure victory.

The Missouri Valley Conference, of which Wichita State and Evansville are members, suspended Kemnitz and Christensen for the remainder of the season. Problem solved: two wayward sportsmen, taught a lesson and set back on the right track. Surely this incident did not reflect on mainstream baseball.

The right track for Christensen ended up taking him to the Chicago Cubs, who picked him in the first round of the amateur draft in July. He reflected on the Molina incident after being drafted, "It's not right what I did. But it's also part of the game. The people around baseball understand that, and it's sad the people not around baseball don't." I don't think Anthony Molina understands it.

Indeed, while people around baseball rushed to condemn and marginalize Christensen's act, his deed was a none-too-distant relative of practices in the sport that many deem acceptable. On Fri., Aug. 6, the Yankees-Mariners game degenerated into war after pitchers on both teams intentionally hit batters on the other team. In the eighth inning, Yankee reliever Mike Stanton hit Edgar Martinez, whose only crime was batting after Alex Rodriguez hit a home run. In the ninth, Mariner reliever Frankie Rodriguez hit Chuck Knoblauch, who sinned by being on the same team as Stanton. Then both teams' benches emptied onto the field and a brawl began.

This sequence of events—home run, beanball, beanball, brawl—is considered standard in Major League Baseball, so much so that Yankee Chad Curtis felt comfortable criticizing teammate Derek Jeter for talking to his friend Alex Rodriguez during the brawl, rather than mauling him for being on the opposite team. Yet throwing at an opponent because his teammate succeeded makes as much strategic and logical sense as Christensen's violent act—none.

This culture of violence and retaliation is by no means limited to baseball. NHL players eagerly assume the role of "enforcers" who pick fights with opponents. Overzealous NBA coaches publicly announce that they have directed their players to hurt the other team. NFL veterans haze rookies mercilessly and violently, one such incident sending a New Orleans Saints player to the hospital last season.

For a fan, a well-played sports match should be an exquisite form of entertainment, providing drama, intriguing plot lines, and a rush of adrenaline. But it is above all a game, not a war. Players should leave the field and head for the showers, not the emergency room.

Too many coaches at all levels, like Kemnitz, have lost sight of this. Perhaps because their career is shaped around their sport, they view that sport as a war into which they are sending their players for battle. It is with their guidance that Christensen and Curtis could develop from young athletes into narrow-minded soldiers.

When Christensen makes his inevitable major league debut, it is likely that enough fans will know of his past and turn their backs on him. But as he said, what he did is "a part of the game." With that attitude we can expect to see other Anthony Molinas in Little League and Pop Warner. Until the coaches who shape the game can eliminate this warlike attitude from it, we can expect a few more Ben Christensens to emerge.

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