Brian Costa and Geoff Foster of the Wall Street Journal write about the fairly recent decline in actual fighting in baseball brawls. There’s an economic explanation, and it’s found in their story.
Nothing signals the possibility of violence in Major League Baseball quite like the sight of benches clearing. One player gets angry with another. Teammates spill out of the dugouts. Relievers run in from the bullpens. Headlines are made.
But the modern-day baseball melee has become devoid of one seemingly essential element: actual fighting.
The adjacent chart reveals their statistic.
One cultural explanation is offered. Player mobility is so much greater today that charging onto the field to brawl is likely to put a player toe-to-toe with players on the other team with which he has an established, friendly relationship:
“I’ve been out on the field during a heated exchange between two other guys and I’m out there talking to my buddy who I played with the year before,” [Orioles reliever Darren] O’Day said. “Like, ‘Hey man, let’s just hug it out, me and you, if this thing goes south.’”
That reticence to fight may be characteristic of relievers, but they are always late to the scrum. And there is also an economic explanation why most players don’t fight:
“Back when I played, when the benches cleared, somebody was getting hit,” said former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, who was involved in an ugly brawl with the Yankees in 1998. “There were some angry people.”
Bordick said the pervasiveness of steroids at that time may have made players more prone to rage. By contrast, he said players today simply don’t want to hurt themselves in a fight. “I think the game has—I don’t want to say softened—but there’s just so much money involved and the risk of injury is so substantial,” he said.
Whether steroid use explains anything is hard to say, and it sounds speculative. What isn’t speculative is the potential loss of permanent income from injury — a powerful incentive for today’s ballplayers to scream and yell at each other but not fight.