Everyone following postseason baseball saw or heard about the recent Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, when Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez threw at Karim Garcia’s head, and Garcia took some liberties sliding into Sox player Todd Walker at 2nd base.
When the Red Sox came up to bat in the fourth inning, Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens threw high and barely inside to Manny Ramirez. The Sox player went toward the mound and Clemens, bat in hand, mouth in gear, leading to a bench-clearing brawl. Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer, at 72 years old, sprang from the dugout like a pit bull on wheels, and lunged at Martinez, who side-stepped him and pushed him into the ground. What great highlight film!
This rivalry goes back a long way, but the fight that may have started it all was in 1973, when the late, great Yankee catcher Thurman Munson barreled into Sox catcher Carlton Fisk at home plate, and a punchfest ensued. On May 20, 1976, the Yankee’s Lou Pinella bowled Fisk over — poor Fisk again! — and a bench-clearing brawl was the result. Sox pitcher Bill Lee had his shoulder separated during the fighting. A couple of years after that, Bill Lee wrote a newspaper column that linked Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to Hitler, and coach Billy Martin to Hermann Goering. The story goes that Billy Martin, the game’s most volatile coach, had a dead mackerel hung in Lee’s locker with a note that read: "Stick this in your purse, you California faggot." There’s a funny connection here in that Don Zimmer was Bill Lee’s coach for the Red Sox starting midway through 1976.
In almost any hockey arena — except perhaps Madison Square Garden in NY — rivalries and paybacks are played out on the ice, as expected, while fans wearing opposing colors in the stands playfully chide one another, and usually do not have to fret over any impending danger. The same cannot be said in baseball, where, during and after the Game 3 brawl, tension in the stands was said to be "frightening," and Yankee fans filed out of Boston’s Fenway Park to save their hide.
Hockey, of course, has always had fighting as a part of its tradition. For years, assorted anti-hockey wusses have been working vigorously to remove that great tradition from the NHL. As the subject came up on ESPN’s NHL Hockey show the other night, a point was made that hockey, as opposed to baseball, still has that old-fashioned sense of camaraderie amongst teammates, where bad players doing bad things are made to pay — and pay they do, sometimes into perpetuity.
In baseball, the headthrowers like Martinez are never made to pay, except for the occasional, pooh-pooh rush toward the mound that is over as quickly as it starts. Afterwards, every participant is made to whimper and apologize for the TV cameras, because as feminization attempts to work its way into professional sports, guys playing the game surely can’t and shouldn’t be fighting. Meanwhile, dirty, unsportsmanlike conduct in the NHL garners a lifetime of paybacks and berating from opposing players as they exercise a bit of self-policing on the ice.
Consider Claude Lemieux of the Colorado Avalanche. He made permanent enemies out of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans when, in a 1996 playoff game, Red Wing Kris Draper was standing against the boards, trying to get onto the bench at the end of his shift, when Lemieux charged him and barreled into him from behind, jamming his neck and face into the boards. The result? Draper had a face full of serious contusions, a broken nose, broken jaw, and was lucky to escape without a broken neck that could have crippled him. Lemieux was retaliating for when Red Wing forward Vyacheslav Kozlov slammed Colorado defenseman Adam Foote’s head into the glass a week earlier.
After that, the Red Wings-Avalanche battles became perhaps the greatest blood feud in the history of the NHL. Both 1997 and 1998 saw bench-clearing brawls and numerous falling-outs between the two teams, with goaltenders Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy squaring off in the first year, and goaltender Chris Osgood and the same Patrick Roy scrapping at center ice the next year. Since then, these two teams have fashioned the league’s most beloved rivalry. Indeed, us Red Wing fans will forever hate and boo the Avalanche every time they dare to step on our home ice.
All things considered, no one wants to see baseball players fight, for it’s akin to witnessing a catfight between rival supermodels at variance over what to have for dinner: a head of lettuce or a dose of fat-burner pills. But hockey is another thing. Hockey, in spite of all of its seeming "violence," is still the gentleman’s sport, wherein honor is upheld on the ice, via team tactics and intimidation, and, if necessary, the occasional fists. And besides, hockey players actually know how to fight.
Meanwhile, all hockey fans should surely ponder petitioning to draft the scrappy, bull-like Don Zimmer into the NHL, to fill in where Bob Probert left off. At least he has the chutzpah to take on a big task, with or without polish.