In case you were busy playing with your fidget spinner and didn’t hear what went down in San Francisco, here’s the SparkNotes version: Against the Giants in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, including one where he took a nice, long look as it was sailing out of the park and then proceeded to have words with Strickland as he rounded the bases.
On Monday, in their first meeting in nearly three years, Strickland took his first name a little too seriously and drilled Harper in the hip with a 98 mph fastball on the very first pitch. Harper charged the mound, throwing his helmet and some punches. Strickland returned said punches, benches cleared, and chaos ensued.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to connect the dots, which is why MLB wasted little time in doling out suspensions to both players Tuesday afternoon. Harper got four games, which based on precedent sounds about right (Manny Machado got four games for his role in a similar incident last season). And Strickland got six games, which seems a little light, considering that amounts to about two or three innings missed for a reliever, as opposed to Harper’s 36 innings.
But let’s imagine that Harper had never charged the mound in the first place. Let’s pretend that instead of blowing a gasket, Harper simply laid down his bat and took the base that he had just earned. What then?
Would plate umpire Brian Gorman have issued a warning to Strickland and the Giants and/or the Nationals? Maybe so, given that the projectile in question was upper-90s cheese right at the hip on the first pitch of the at-bat. Then again, maybe not. After all, it had been 965 days since Harper’s homer against Strickland.
As much as umpiring crews try to prepare for this kind of stuff, keeping abreast of recent developments between certain teams and certain players (see: Red Sox and Orioles), the statute of limitations in this particular case was like a gallon of curdled milk — way past the expiration date. That being the case, you could hardly blame the men in blue if, in the absence of Harper’s hysterics, Strickland had gotten off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. And what then?
Let’s say Strickland received only a warning. In that case, there’s a better than sporting chance that a Nationals pitcher would have returned the favor and plunked a Giants hitter. Maybe it would’ve happened immediately, with Oliver Perez or Shawn Kelley, both of whom pitched for Washington in the bottom of the eighth, beaning Giants cornerstone Buster Posey, who, in fact, batted in the bottom of the eighth. Maybe it would’ve happened later on in the series.
In either case, according to baseball’s increasingly anachronistic unwritten rulebook, justice would’ve been served, all accounts would’ve been settled, and everybody involved would’ve moved on. Except for one not-so-small detail: Strickland would’ve gotten away with it.
That bears repeating.
If Harper hadn’t charged the mound, Strickland probably would have gotten away with one of the most absurd and unjustifiable instances of sports vigilantism you’ll ever see.
I’m not here to justify Harper’s behavior. As a parent of three young boys, all of whom play baseball, I wish he had just dropped the bat and taken his base. I wish I didn’t have to sit there in front of the computer with my three sons, watching the clip repeatedly and explaining to them — or trying to — why any of this happened.
At the same time, it’s hard to fault Harper for reacting the way he did. After all, it was the heat of the moment, and he’s a competitor, almost pathologically so. Not to mention, if Strickland misses a little bit in the wrong direction, Harper’s career (or more) could have been jeopardized. And, oh by the way, it has been three years.
But perhaps the best justification for Harper’s actions is that it resulted in Strickland getting the suspension he deserved. It’s a shame that it took Harper charging the mound for it to happen.