Derek Dietrich started it. Keone Kela decided to finish it, or at least thought he needed to momentarily channel his inner John Wayne.
Pirates reliever Kela threw a 97 mph fastball high and tight to the Reds’ Dietrich Tuesday night in apparent retaliation for Dietrich taking too long to admire a long home run against Pittsburgh ... four months earlier.
Baseball’s famous “unwritten rules” allow for such nonsense. A batter on Team A showing up a pitcher on Team B — which most unbiased observers familiar with baseball culture would agree Dietrich did by lingering in the batter’s box to watch his home run off the Pirates’ Chris Archer sail into the Allegheny River on April 7 — has long been viewed as license for a pitcher on Team B to then take aim at a Team A hitter.
Thankfully, society has progressed in 2019 such that that’s no longer as common as it once was. The retirement of Tony La Russa went a long way toward ending that practice, although at least the longtime Cardinals manager is on record in Buzz Bissinger’s book “Three Nights in August” as never approving one of his pitchers throwing at an opponent’s head.
Kela didn’t extend Dietrich the same courtesy. His pitch near triple digits sailed uncomfortably close to the brash slugger’s noggin.
The message was clear enough before Kela — in postgame comments somewhere south of brilliant because of the impact they will have on his likely suspension — copped to throwing where he did on purpose. And he implied he did it because of Dietrich’s alleged offense in Pittsburgh in April.
“People could say it’s overdue,” Kela said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “At the end of the day this is baseball, and I have to protect my teammates. I have to do what I feel is right.”
Never mind that the Reds and Pirates had played five times since their April skirmish, and that Dietrich batted 16 times in those five games, and none of Pittsburgh’s other pitchers felt the need to throw at his head.
Or that Archer had already policed the situation himself by throwing a 93 mph fastball behind Dietrich (technically, Archer claimed he accidentally “yanked” that pitch) in the at-bat after Dietrich’s prodigious dinger.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto took offense to Kela’s actions and let Kela know it as the inning ended on Tuesday.
“Today was an example of us standing our ground for what we think is right,” Votto said after the game. “At some point, a group of players has to do that.”
Kela and Dietrich’s interaction and Votto’s rejoinder happened in the seventh inning Tuesday. Tensions continued to build from there.
Reds reliever Jared Hughes plunked former teammate Starling Marte with the first pitch of the ninth inning and was ejected. And back-and-forth chirping ensued until finally Cincinnati reliever Amir Garrett lost it and charged the Pittsburgh dugout, touching off a brawl that included actual punches and lasted about five minutes.
Garrett carries his fair share of the plenty of blame to go around for what happened, but it seems unlikely things would have transpired the way they did without Kela’s instigation.
That some players still go about “protect(ing) my teammates” — especially when the term “protect” is not literal in this case — by literally endangering an opponent’s life is a problem Major League Baseball has not been able to solve.
The tinderbox for this sort of mess will remain until MLB institutes suspensions and fines with teeth that make pitchers think long and hard before they throw at batters.
Or make managers think long and hard before ordering and/or condoning such tactics, which the Reds widely believe is the case with Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle.
"I definitely do think they teach that in that organization," Garrett said. "I don't think it's right to throw at somebody. That's not something you should do. If you have a problem, handle it like a man."
Concurred Cincinnati manager David Bell: “It’s a shame that this is allowed and that they’re able to get away with it. They celebrate it, they support it, they clearly allow it. I don’t know if they teach it, but they allow it. It’s dangerous.”
MLB should be glad dangerous is all it was, at least on this night, and not something worse.
Reach ZACK KLEMME at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.