The easy way to asses the milling session described as a “bench clearing incident” between the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs on Wednesday is to lambast Cubs utility player Junior Lake for his behavior. The video link is below.
We can get past the “Who the hell is Junior Lake?” bit as well as the argument as to whether a hitter or pitcher enthusiastically celebrating adheres to the game’s unwritten rules. This much is clear: Lake pimped a home run that cut a Marlins lead from 6-0 to 6-2 and the Cubs eventually lost 7-3. He celebrated a home run that meant absolutely nothing to anyone other than him. It’s a sign of selfishness and total lack of propriety that has become prevalent in the game today. Baseball is a naturally individualistic sport, but it’s increasingly forgotten that it’s an individual sport in a team concept. The latter half of that – “team concept” – is less and less important in the eyes of many and I don’t just mean the players.
While Lake is a non-entity as a player and an extra body for the Cubs, it’s the potential fallout from his act, the enabling from the organization and their new age manager Joe Maddon, and that the game has changed so drastically and negatively from its self-policing of yesteryear that has resulted in players feeling safe in doing exactly what Lake did. There hasn’t been a mention of any bad blood between the Cubs and Marlins that led to Lake’s leisurely trot around the bases, but judging from the clip, the Marlins bench was hollering at him for his showboating and he responded by “shushing” them with a finger to the lips.
Catcher J.T. Realmuto said something to both Anthony Rizzo and Lake and the benches subsequently emptied. No punches were thrown, but this incident won’t be forgotten by a Marlins team that has gotten beaten around this entire season, has veterans who know how to deal with acts such as that of Lake, and has clearly had enough.
The culture of today’s game has fomented the idea that it’s acceptable to be so overt when celebrating. In part that is due to the shrugging nature of what other teams think. In part it’s due to the tamping down on retaliatory strikes on the part of pitchers. Would Lake have dared to behave as he did if Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson were on the mound? The way the game was played during Drysdale’s and Gibson’s heyday was such that hitters knew they wouldn’t just get drilled, but they’d likely have to duck a fastball heading toward their heads. A contemporary copy of Drysdale and Gibson, Roger Clemens, would also have made certain that someone paid for Lake’s transgression and it wouldn’t have been a journeyman like Lake. The Cubs might not care one way or the other if Lake gets hit for his behavior, but they will certainly care if Kris Bryant or Rizzo take one between the shoulder blades for what Lake did. So too will the players in the Cubs clubhouse as the actions of one player caused other players to be targets simply because they’re more important to the team.
Baseball has tried to stop this in-the-trenches reality, but the fact is that hitting someone other than Lake is dealing with the problem in an effective way.
Umpires are mandated to issue warnings to stop beanball wars from occurring. In truth, like the Field of Dreams line when Moonlight Graham was knocked down as he asked the umpire to issue a warning to Eddie Cicotte and the ump replied by saying “Watch out you don’t get killed,” that was the way the umps of the past oversaw the game. Even they wouldn’t mind seeing a player like Lake being put in his place by the players.
Those who see nothing wrong with Lake flipping his bat and taking his stroll around the bases are speaking from a position of never having played a testosterone-fueled sport and are missing the point that he was drawing attention to himself in a situation that meant, basically, nothing. His home run was an individual achievement in a game that the Cubs were trailing and likely to lose – and they did. “I got mine” is not a team concept. The attention-starved Maddon, team president Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs staff are just as invested in the concept of the world knowing their names and crediting them as they are in winning, if not more. So they’re not exactly on the moral high ground when it comes to telling Lake to tone down the act.
But it can be handled in a variety of ways even if the Cubs don’t want to do it themselves. The key is ensuring there are legitimate consequences for one’s actions. The Cubs and Maddon might shrug off the behavior as the way the game is played today and it’s no big deal, but if they’re running the risk of losing one of their star bats because of Lake, they’ll care and it will stop.