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Hitters should be able to stand their ground

By John Burbridge

Major League Baseball has a sportsmanship award — the Roberto Clemente Award.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo was the 2017 recipient.

The award’s inception actually came several years before Clemente’s death. It was renamed in his honor in 1973.

The fact that Ron Hunt was never a recipient could be categorized as a travesty.

Hunt was one of few all-star representatives from the New York Mets during their often brutal formative years. Hunt later achieved even greater fame with the Montreal Expos, where he was hit by pitches 50 times during the 1971 season — a post-1900 MLB record.

Seven seasons Hunt led the league in getting hit by pitches. For his career, Hunt was bitten by rawhide a whopping 243 times.

To note, none of these instances provoked bench-clearing brawls as Hunt never charged the mound. Instead, he would often pick up the offending sphere and cordially flip it back to the pitcher before taking his base — even after getting drilled by the not-so-innocent likes of Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson.

Hunt did have his critics who claimed he exhibited more gamesmanship than sportsmanship while “taking one for the team.” Hunt did crowd the plate, and often was accused of leaning into pitches to get hit on purpose.

One thing is for sure: if Hunt was playing high school baseball today, he would likely have more trouble getting free passes to first base.

The National Federation of States High School Association has a rule (8-1-1-D) that states that if the batter “permits the pitched ball to touch him, or if the umpire calls the pitched ball a strike, the hitting of the batter is disregarded except that the ball is dead. It is a strike or ball depending on location of the pitch.”

In other words, if the batter makes no effort to get out of the way of the pitch — even if he’s in the batter’s box and not deliberately leaning into or backing into a pitch — he doesn’t get a free base.

The NCAA has a similar rule, but several college umpires have gone on the record saying that they summarily issue a free base whenever the batter gets hit by a pitch in the batter’s box even if the victim displays the agility and evasiveness of a giant sloth.

You would think that such a rule as being archaic — stubbornly still in the books but rarely invoked. But I’ve seen the rule come into effect several times this high school season alone.

The rule can be subject to interpretation. Against a fireballer, a hitter may not be able to react fast enough to make a move even with every intention to do so in the name of self-preservation.

And the rule could also be subject to manipulation. A common occurrence whenever a wild pitcher plunks his second or third hitter of the game, cries from the team in the field’s supportive peanut gallery vociferously suggest that the “hitters are not getting out of way!” while being directed at the home plate umpire to helpfully remind him that the rule exists.

Let me just state that rule 8-1-1-D is one of the worst rules in high school athletics. I imagine proponents of the rule champion safety for the athletes while encouraging them to bail out of the batter’s box to protect themselves at the microsecond sign of danger. But this not only morphs offensive-minded hitters into defensive-minded hitters now even more vulnerable to curveballs, it doesn’t emphasize reform where it should be directed — to the pitcher on the mound (or circle).

The best way to prevent injuries from wayward pitches is to place more onus on the pitchers not to throw at batters, intentionally or not.

The late great comedian George Carlin had a classic bit about the differences between baseball and football.

“When you make a mistake in baseball, it’s an ‘error’,” Carlin’s bit went. “‘Oops! I made an error!’… When you make a mistake in football, it’s a PENALTY!”

Awarding the opposing team a free base whenever a pitcher hits someone even standing statue-still in the batter’s box is one PENALTY that should be incorporated into high school baseball as well as high school softball.