Schmuck: Machado, Harper make it clear they won't be constricted by baseball's unwritten rules

This week, it was Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper who got mad as hell and decided not to take it anymore after San Francisco Giants reliever Hunter Strickland drilled him in the right hip with a blazing fastball.

Harper charged the mound, threw his helmet and tried to make like Muhammad Ali, which earned him a four-game suspension. Strickland got six.


Last month, it was Orioles third baseman Manny Machado who dodged several malicious fastballs from Red Sox pitchers, but managed to hold his temper until he got in front of the television cameras after Boston ace Chris Sale took a shot at his oft-injured knees.

It's hard to fault either player for standing up for himself in a sport where the pitcher always gets the first shot and seldom faces reciprocal risk, but there's a larger question that bears some examination in the wake of two such high-profile conflicts over such a short period.


What is it that makes the Mid-Atlantic region's two brightest young baseball stars such lightning rods?

Orioles manager Buck Showalter pondered that question during his pregame media session Tuesday and acknowledged he didn't really have an answer.

"I think that would be a better question for the people who are throwing at them," he said.

Fair enough.

Apparently, Strickland was still holding a three-year-old grudge from the 2014 playoffs, during which Harper homered off him twice and stayed at home plate a couple of seconds too long admiring his handiwork for the Strickland's sensibilities.

Machado's crime was no crime at all. He slid hard into Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and injured him, but there was widespread agreement that the hard slide was not malicious and even Pedroia made it crystal clear afterward that Machado had done nothing intentional to hurt him.

Machado-Pedroia 'controversy' not worthy of the attention it's getting

Nevertheless, reliever Matt Barnes buzzed Machado's head late in a game at Camden Yards and Sale threw behind his knees eight days later in Boston. Barnes got suspended for four games. Sale, surprisingly, did not even get ejected from the game.

For Machado and Harper, the spotlight shined brighter on them than on the guys trying to carve a baseball-shaped tattoo into their skin, which probably shouldn't be all that surprising considering their stature in the game.

They are two of baseball's most exciting players and dynamic personalities, and — fair or not — they each have a history of volatile behavior that allows fans and opponents to form negative opinions of them.

Inside the white lines, they play with a certain flair, which offends some old-school types and is particularly irritating to anyone on the wrong end of their heroics.

The only thing Machado did to aggravate the situation in Boston was to hit a couple of big home runs and then take his sweet time circling the bases, which is essentially what Harper did during the playoffs three years ago.

Does that justify an attempt to injure them? Did Strickland really hold a grudge for three years after giving up two homers in a playoff series the Giants won during a postseason that ended with them holding the big trophy?

Schmuck: Orioles' Manny Machado the only winner to emerge from past week's shenanigans

The debate over on-field histrionics isn't a new one. Hitters legitimately wonder why it's considered bad form to admire big home runs by pitchers who think it's just fine to pump their fists after big strikeouts.

The only difference is that players such as Machado and Harper have made it clear that they aren't going to be constricted by a set of archaic unwritten rules at a time when baseball needs to be celebrating its terrific young stars instead of muzzling them.

Major League Baseball is caught in the middle of this debate, which may explain why Barnes was suspended and Sale wasn't after both threw at Machado. Joe Torre, the game's lord of discipline, played during a much more rough-and-tumble era and obviously doesn't want to completely stifle the emotion on the field, but even the sport's old-school managers — and many current players — don't want their chance to reach the postseason damaged by a foolish injury or suspension.

Harper understands that, but he did not apologize for the action that will deprive his team of his services for four games, barring the minute possibility of a successful appeal.

"You never want to get suspended or anything like that, but sometimes you just have to go and get him," Harper told reporters Monday. "You can't hesitate. You either go to first base or go after him. I decided to go after him."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun