Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

March 4, 2008

The National Pastime's Pugilistic Side

Baseball's biggest brawls get book treatment.

Carl Bialik

John Marzano, Graeme Lloyd, and Michael Barrett won't be mistaken for baseball immortals. But hitting stats are immaterial in Spike Vrusho's Benchclearing: Baseball's Greatest Fights and Riots; he cares more about knockouts and brushbacks.

Spike Vrusho in the Prince Albert pub at Notting Hill Gate, London. Photo by Sophie Clark.
"Most players are trying not to get injured or use the brawl time to discuss luxury autos, agents, and other important issues usually seen on Entourage."

Spike Vrusho in the Prince Albert pub at Notting Hill Gate, London. Photo by Sophie Clark.

Baseball's brawls are often based on team rivalries and player feuds and ignited by the oddballs and hotheads of the sport—though even the greatest bouts would hardly be considered sweet science, as Vrusho acknowledges. The melee instigators, though, are dwindling in number. Part of the problem is that the color being drained out of the majors is leaking from the minors, as well, as bush leaguers try to impress as if they're at a job interview at an investment bank.

Benchclearing fits Vrusho's interest in the unexplored side of sports, a beat he mined for 12 years at New York Press and for barely a year as editor of the short-lived New York Sports Express. Vrusho, age 43, spoke to Gelf about the Nanny Society, his dream lineup of sportswriters, and life as a Pirates fan. The interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity. You can hear Vrusho and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, March 6th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Why do so many baseball brawls turn out to be awkward and clumsy?

Spike Vrusho: Because more than half the team is asleep or not watching or pitching sunflower seeds or scratching themselves when the fuse is suddenly lit. When everyone knows a fight is going to happen, the umps are hip to it and that also stalls the momentum because the anticipation can kill the spontaneity. Also, in the book I mention the standard posture for baseball brawls—the forward leaning squat. If it was a yoga position it would be called, "Removing a Window Unit Air Conditioner During a Crowded Cocktail Party."

GM: How common are brawls on baseball's lower levels?

SV: The regimentation that comes with early scouting has also reduced the number of fights in the minor leagues, which used to get quite colorful on a more-frequent basis. Now it is one big job interview for these guys who have "files" following them from the time they get off their Big Wheels as toddlers in suburban Southern California to every trip to Applebee's when the team bus stops on road trips.

GM: Do most players have some practice with the art of the brawl?

SV: Certainly not in baseball. Enforcers don't really exist like in the other team sports. Most are trying not to get injured or use the brawl time to discuss luxury autos, agents, and other important issues usually seen on the HBO show Entourage.

"The Nanny Society we live in now is all about penalty, so we see ridiculous suspensions for basic competitive skirmishes that would have been unheard of back when there was a fight per week and fans were allowed to smoke, drink, and express themselves."
GM: Did you get into any brawls as a player?

SV: No, but I had a few near-death experiences when I was unsuccessfully trying out for the hockey team at Ohio University. Thank God I was cut. Cracked a Pro-Tec helmet almost in half. Instead of plexiglass, OU had a chain-link fence on the top half of the boards. I think I had an assist during a scrimmage. What was I thinking?

GM: Do baseball's oddballs and hotheads appeal to you more than the game's good guys?

SV: The good guys are really fewer in number. The Sean Caseys and the Luis Gonzalezes are rarities. Oddballs, yes, they appeal to me, but they are also a dying breed as we are force-fed David Wright Captain America stories about how he made millions by investing in Vitamin Water or some shit and you need the Salt Flats to contain his ego. Like he was broke before the Vitamin Water deal? The players who don't have their eyebrows done appeal to me. Like the pitcher who could have been a pro bowler. See? His name escapes me right now because my brain is cluttered with crap like Sports Illustrated pushing the Tampa Bay (Satan) Rays prospect as the next Lou Gehrig (again) and how the Red Sox own and control the media and how the league stays obsessed with "marketing" the sport overseas.

GM: Are there no good guys?

SV: No, there are some good guys. There has to be via the law of averages or some other exotic Bill James/SABR-invented stat. Luis Gonzales is Bishop Sheen without the religion. He's too polite. He didn't get the Randy Johnson memo, apparently.

Pedro v. Zimmer

Pedro Martinez 1, beauty in baseball brawls 0.

GM: How much of the motivation for the typical brawl is team rivalry?

SV: I'd say about 33.3 percent. Roster turnover and free agency has killed the art of the grudge, but there are still some expectant fisticuffs when certain teams play. Realignment has also killed some regional rivalries (Pirates vs. Phillies comes to mind). There are still sparks when Cleveland plays Detroit, or Milwaukee plays Chicago, and of course Boston-New York and anybody who plays the Texas Rangers or Chicago White Sox.

GM: Do fans want that to be the primary motivation, so that they can believe that players care as much as they do about these rivalries between laundry?

SV: Many of the fans are, of course, over-invested emotionally in all of this. Most know the players don't care as much as they do. Then again, many fans don't give a hoot one way or another. Fights are so few and far between nowadays. The Nanny Society we live in now is all about penalty, so we see ridiculous suspensions for basic competitive skirmishes that would have been unheard of back when there was a fight per week and fans were allowed to smoke, drink, and express themselves.

GM: Has being a Pirates fan made you cynical about the sport?

SV: No. It has pinned me on the perpetual "hope" mode and the eventual, orgasmic sheer enjoyment that must come from a worst-to-first turnaround during which you get to burn the bandwagons to the ground and finally open that bottle of champagne that you had at the ready back in October 1992. Instead of being cynical I have honed my hate for the monied class and the smug franchises and the economic bullshit of the game that outright told Pirates fans that 1992 was our last chance because all those good players were leaving for bigger paychecks and there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it. Where was Mark Cuban then?

"Instead of being cynical about baseball I have honed my hate for the monied class and the smug franchises and the economic bullshit of the game."
GM: How well did ESPN's series on the 1977 Yankees capture Billy Martin?

SV: They certainly tried their best by putting a great actor in the role. Unfortunately, I still have not seen the series in its entirety, though one of my taxi regulars has kindly lent me the DVD of the whole deal. Martin needs his own biopic like Cobb. So does Leo Durocher. The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City net seemed to be cast way too wide for ESPN to condense it into a quality show. Some of the scenes I saw were quite cartoonish.

GM: Has 'roid rage played a role in some fights?

SV: I'm sure it has on a collective level of team atmosphere and clubhouse culture. But there were so many other drugs floating around the locker rooms that some type of counterbalance was probably achieved. There are obvious candidates for the 'roid rage card—John Rocker, Albert Belle, Chad Curtis. I still think it was awfully nice of them to name the Mitchell Report after Kevin Mitchell. A nice tribute.

"At the New York Sports Express, we were victims of small-mindedness, absentee ownership and horrible bookkeeping."
GM: What projects are you working on now?

SV: Trying to come up with a second book. I'm driving a taxi upstate, waiting for Sonny Rollins to get in the cab, waiting for some research breakthroughs regarding a certain Italian-American New Jersey baseball family to happen. They might, but probably not until I free up some more time. I do an occasional "parenting" column and various arts and entertainment articles for a daily newspaper in the Deep South [the Mobile Press-Register].

GM: Do you think New York Sports Express would eventually have become a success, had it been given more of a chance?

SV: In my mind, the New York Sports Express was already a success and we were gaining momentum every week. The writers were dedicated, the designer was great, and the tone was falling into place. But we were victims of small-mindedness, absentee ownership and horrible bookkeeping. Having that paper pulled out from under me so suddenly, without a chance to fight for its survival, taught me again that there are things worth fighting for and you have to know when to take action. The problem was, there was no "door down the hall" to go knock on and demand justice. They were unseen and somewhere else and had assured me just two weeks earlier that everything was peachy and carry on and all that. You just can't trust a publishing company named after a Roxy Music album, that's all.

GM: If you could restart the Express with an unlimited budget, who would you hire as writers?

SV: I would send Jimmy Breslin to cover the X Games, Don DeLillo to write about new stadium designs, Jim Knipfel to write a weekly column about umpires, Diablo Cody and Queen Itchie to exclusively cover the Twins, Selwyn Harris to manhandle Chicago, Matt Taibbi to write about Bard College athletics, Sam Sifton on ballpark food, Carl Hancock Rux to write about sports bars, Daniel Johnson covering chess, Exene Cervenka as my secretary, William Monahan on the polo beat, Mike Shropshire on Mexican wrestling, Seth Lipsky on the nostalgia beat, Harry Crews on NASCAR, Jarboe checking in every time the Braves lose, C.J. Sullivan on the shoe-leather brigade, Peter Landau on sports movies, J.R. Taylor on arena rock, Jessica Willis with a Title IX column, T.J. English covering hurling, John Strausbaugh doing human-interest features, Joe Franklin coordinating NYSX web and podcasts, Eleftheria Parpis on sports marketing, and Woody Allen writing about fantasy sports.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.

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