Opinion

Hardball

byClark Booth
3/28/2008

Mind you there will be no advocating of gratuitous violence; not in these pages. But the question arises; can more tolerance for hard-nosed play that can turn rough, now and again, actually beget less violence and, above all, fewer injuries?

That seeming contradiction is being much debated these days in two of our major games, baseball and hockey, while being completely ignored in the game that is far and away the most brutal, football.

There is more sheer violence having the potential of serious harm on a routine possession featuring seven or eight thrusts from scrimmage in any given NFL game than youll witness in your entire average NHL joust. Brutality is what sells in the NFL and no one complains. Nor do we suggest they should. But some consistency would be appreciated. Let a couple of strapping hockey heavyweights square-off at center ice on a frosty night in January and the editorial board of the Boston Globe turns blue with outrage. As for basketball, recent donnybrooks verify thats the one game that can not tolerate excessive rough stuff. The combatants are too big, the playing surface too small, the traffic too heavy, and the fans too close.

And yet intimidation has to be a factor in every game save maybe for horseshoes and tiddly winks. You have to be allowed to plant doubt, even fear in your adversary in order to have legitimate competition. Pro sport is an Old Testament world. Eye for an Eye is a reasonable standard. And if you have been fouled recklessly or ruthlessly you should be allowed to respond within a comparable degree if that competition is to remain honest let alone -- the cognoscenti vigorously argue --safe.

Such cannons have obtained, especially in baseball and hockey, for a century or so. But in recent years the people who run the games but have rarely played them -- owners, commissioners, on-field officials, agents, various administrators including some mainly concerned with public relations and promotions -- have chipped away at such hallowed rubrics. The effect is to unquestionably alter the tempo and character of baseball while damaging -- perhaps mortally -- the spirit and dynamics of hockey.

In baseball, they have virtually wiped out retaliation. The brushback pitch has been reduced to absurdity. Payback anywhere on the diamond is effectively outlawed. Feisty play has been squelched. And that further discourages the gamesmanship and psychological tactics making the games tamer and more tedious. In moderating aggressive play, a wild-card factor thats always been an equalizer for players and teams of lesser talent is greatly softened. The game is the poorer for that.

In the NHL, where the oddly contradictory yearning to emphasize art over brawn now prevails, the result is rampant confusion. What is acceptable? What is not? Youll get 26 varying explanations from as many on ice-officials and often times four different conflicting interpretations in a given game.

No one is defending the old fashioned Pier-Sixers that enlivened but too often debased the virulent tong wars of the 60s and 70s back in the good old days of the Original 12. Such rumbles, while invariably colorful (as well as almost never harmful to anyones health), did occasionally get out of hand, giving the league a rather too vulgar image more suitable to such dubious enterprises as professional wrestling. It became harmful to business as well as art, so with the goo-goos up in arms, it had to be curbed. But they went much too far.

Old time hockey men will argue -- and I totally agree -- that the third man rule, aimed at curbing multi-player free-for-alls, and the instigator rule, which much more heavily penalizes the player who allegedly starts a fight than his combatant, have had the odious effect of inspiring nastier violence with more serious casualties. In other-words, the fuddy-duddy meddlers have smartly defeated their own purpose.

A brilliant illustration of the point has to do with the calamities that have probably ruined this Bruins season. Back in October, a journeyman Flyers defenseman named Jones drilled the Bruins young, artistic, and highly promising forward, Patrice Bergeron, into the boards. It was a needlessly late and vicious hit delivered with palpable malice aforethought. On-ice officials affirmed as much by awarding Jones a major penalty, but the League Poobahs followed up with a measly two-game suspension even though it was already clear Bergeron had been seriously injured.

Jones sat out two games. Bergeron has missed the rest of the season and may yet lose an entire career, for its reasonable to suspect hell never be the player he might have been. High-grade concussions have become terminal injuries in the NHL. Isnt it interesting that there were so very few of them before they made those space age helmets mandatory. But then all the high-tech equipment introduced over the years has only made the game more dangerous. Still more irony!

Two months after the Bergeron fiasco the Bruins lost another key player thanks to a brutish act that went essentially unpunished by another thug from the long out of control Philadelphia Flyers. The victim, back in December, was Andrew Alberts, a highly regarded young defenseman out of BC. The Flyers Scott Hartnell nailed Alberts with an audacious crosscheck slamming his head into the boards. Alberts was on his knees with his head down and totally defenseless when he took the hit. Hes since played two games. Hartnells atrocity cost Alberts the season and he may never be the same. For that, Hartnell was suspended two games.

It could not have happened in the old days. Theres no way Jones or Hartnell would have dared pull such cheap stunts with elegant roughnecks like Terry OReilly, Stan Jonathan, John Wensink, Wayne Cashman, and Bobby Schmautz lurking on the Bruins bench? The Bruins willingness and ability to defend themselves was legendary 30 years ago. In todays NHL, league rules aimed at preventing rumbles at all costs would render such characters impotent.

I ask you, which is the better game? This pseudo-polite business now featured that ironically results in so many injuries caused by guttersnipes who go unpunished, or the uncompromised, stand-up, game of yesteryear that was policed by the players themselves? Let Bergeron and Alberts answer that.

Im not lobbying for a return to the good old days of Slapshot, only rebuking the NHLs weird new mentality which abhors interference infractions that disrupt the flow of play (heaven help us) while minimizing the truly serious infractions that ruin careers. In the unkindest cut of all, the Flyers seem likely to edge out the Bruins for the last playoff position. In the end, the cheap play of the guttersnipes pays rich dividends.

Baseballs problem is more subtle but the end result is similar. In the Selig era, the crackdown on rough stuff, retaliation, payback, as its always been termed is severe and largely motivated -- like everything else -- by concerns about money. With the average annual salary hovering around $3 million, teams want no part of Billy getting his leg broken on a payback, take-out slide or Bobby missing a month after