Yankees-Rays beef serves up great drama for baseball. It doesn't need a side of beanballs

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One of the problems with baseball this year is its tendency to skew perfunctory. Stadiums absent any passionate fans feel sanitary, which is both the point and the antithesis of messy, melodramatic communal catharsis. The structure of the postseason format undermines the value of regular season success. Maybe you think 60 games are hard to take seriously. Maybe you feel that way about the very existence of sports during a pandemic.

Sometimes it can start to seem like: Does anyone even care?

That much, at least, was not an issue in the game between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night. The two teams have bad blood dating back several years now that seems to have boiled only hotter in the pressure cooker of a short season — one that has so far skewed toward the upstart and away from the would-be dynasty.

In nine games against each other this season, eight batters have been hit by pitches that may have intentionally turned into beanballs as part of a legacy cemented by CC Sabathia at the end of 2018. The near misses have been just as dramatic, culminating in the final at-bat of the Yankees’ Tuesday victory to snap a six-game losing streak to the division-leading Rays.

By now you’ve probably already seen how Aroldis Chapman came within inches of hitting Mike Brosseau’s head with a 100.5 mph fastball in the ninth inning of a two-run game. This after Rays third baseman Joey Wendle was hit by a Masahiro Tanaka fastball in the first inning.

Only Chapman himself knows the true intent of that pitch which came within inches of inflicting serious harm in the middle of what is literally just a game. Would he really bring the tying run to the plate on purpose? How could an All-Star closer miss that pointedly by accident?

The incompatibility of those equally conceivable options inspired a tepid kerfuffle on the field — saved from further fireworks by a vague adherence to social distancing — immediately postgame, but it didn’t stop there. In comments to the media, Rays manager Kevin Cash blamed the Yankees from the top down.

“It’s poor judgement, poor coaching, it’s just poor teaching what they’re doing,” he said.

He closed his comments with an ominous reference to his own flamethrowers: “And the last thing I’ll say on it, is that I have a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”

I hope his pitchers don’t make good on that threat Wednesday, because then I can safely say that I enjoyed the spicy quotes more than the almost assault. And despite what Yankees fans will inevitably think, that has nothing to do with the uniforms involved in each incident. I just like my beef without a side of beanballs.

Before Wednesday's game, the Rays’ Wendle and Brosseau told reporters about a team meeting to discuss the escalating tensions. They said, publicly at least, that they decided not to retaliate.

"There's no reason for this to keep going. We’re talking about people's lives at this point," Brosseau said. "This is the radar gun era. People are throwing extremely hard. The games evolved from 20 to 25 years ago, shoot, from 10 or 15 years ago. People are throwing way harder. And when you get to that area of the body with that velocity, there's no room for that in this game, in my opinion, I think in a lot of people's opinion. There's better ways, there's other ways, to get a message across either team.”

Tampa Bay Rays pinch-hitter Michael Brosseau ducks away from a pitch from New York Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman during the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, at Yankee Stadium in New York, as catcher Kyle Higashioga reaches for the ball. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
This pitch over the head of the Rays' Michael Brosseau resulted in suspensions for Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and both teams' managers. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

And I bet the Yankees, who will have to play three potentially pivotal games of a shortened season without Chapman, might feel the same. The league suspended him for three games on Wednesday afternoon, and banned Cash and Yankees manager Aaron Boone for one game each. Chapman said he plans to appeal.

Heading into their final matchup of the regular season, these two teams are so mad at each other! Which is great! For the game! I applaud and appreciate their intensity. Such verve to even potentially sacrifice a baserunner to send a message. Such delightfully deluded theatrics to parry Chapman’s chin music with a menacing allusion to your how your guys throw so hard someone could get hurt. We can delight in it, however, only because, so far, nobody has.

What was a budding, simmering rivalry has burst forth as a genuine on-field narrative that serves to propel the final month of the regular season forward while slyly underscoring just how obsolete the Red Sox have become.

But also: These are fully grown adults who are capable of manifesting animosity and even antagonism without resorting to actual violence. In fact, a safe outlet for pantomiming combat is sort of the whole point of sports.

If beating each other (in the game! Not literally!) between the lines isn’t enough, I encourage them to get creative. No one is saying it has to be all business, s***-talking is probably as good for growing the game as any fan giveaway — especially in their absence this year — but s***-talking is a far cry from headhunting.

Maybe that sort of distinction is too nuanced for Little League or hot-headed fans who would condemn a team for demonstrating more bark than bite because they don’t have healthy coping mechanisms. And who isn’t a little stir-crazy these days? But these are professionally competitive people whose success is often a matter of mere centimeters. They can thread this needle.

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