There is an inherent contradiction here that is more interesting, more compelling, and much more confounding than the fact that the Phillies pitcher hit the Nationals teenager in the small of the back with a pitch.
Cole Hamels could have walked away untouched, unscathed, unpunished from this incident. All he had to do was say what the vast majority of pitchers say when they have hit a batter on purpose: "I didn't throw at him. That pitch just got away."
This was the baseball law that Hamels broke. It's an unwritten law, but it's a law nonetheless. If you hit a guy on purpose, in the name of Cy Young and all that's holy, don't admit it.
That's what got Hamels a five-game suspension and an undisclosed fine from Major League Baseball. If he had just said the magic words: "I didn't throw at him. That pitch just got away," there would have been no suspension, no fine, no furor.
There was a time in baseball when throwing at a hot-shot rookie was a day at the office. Veteran pitchers, who made their living in part by attempting to instill a certain amount of fear in opposing hitters, would do this to see what kind of constitution the rookie in question had. And these pitchers wouldn't be throwing toward the rookie's lower back, either. The term was "chin music" and it was in constant usage. This was a calculated attempt at intimidation, and it was part of the game.
The game, unlike much of the rest of the world, has become more civilized with the passage of time. It is now so civilized that hitting a rookie in the small of the back with a pitch is now seen as a reason to form a posse, if not a lynch mob. It is possible that the pendulum has swung just a little bit too far toward the pacifistic in this regard.
Why did Cole Hamels throw at Bryce Harper? There may not be a good enough reason, but Hamels' reason was probably related to the fact that the Nationals had beaten the Phils in the first two games of a series. There was also the fact that at that moment, the Nationals were in first place in the NL East and the Phillies, after five straight division titles, were fifth and last. And then there was the fact that Harper has been declared to be baseball's next sure-thing superstar, practically since he was in middle school.
"I was trying to hit him," Hamels admitted. "I'm not going to deny it. I'm not trying to injure the guy. They're probably not going to like me for it, but I'm not going to say I wasn't trying to do it. I think they understood the message, and they threw it right back. That's the way, and I respect it. They can say whatever they want."
This happened in the first inning. The Phillies subsequently won, 9-3. Harper showed what he was made of, getting back at Hamels in the best way possible, through his play, in this case by stealing home.
In the third inning, Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann hit Hamels in the leg with a pitch. This is exactly what should have been expected to happen. But Zimmermann said that he did not intentionally throw at Hamels. Perhaps he didn't. But if he did, he said what the pitcher is supposed to say in that situation.
But because Hamels was honest about throwing at Harper, a controversy has ensued, not to mention the five-game suspension and the undisclosed fine. Hamels, just the other day an outstanding left-hander, has become, in some quarters, a punching bag.
"I've never seen a more classless, gutless [expletive] act in my 30 years in baseball," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told The Washington Post.
You understand the anger. Bryce Harper is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, maybe a once-in-a-century talent. But the "gutless" part needs a more fully defined context. Wouldn't the more "gutless" act have been throwing at Harper, hitting Harper, then lying about it? I hate to see a man who got into trouble for telling the truth labeled as "gutless."
"He could have been a little bit more discreet about it, or a little less honest," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of Hamels.
There we go. That's the crux of it. Thank you, Mr. Manuel.
This is where Cole Hamels really stepped outside the bounds of acceptable baseball behavior. It was not in hitting Bryce Harper in the small of the back with a pitch. It was for admitting in all honesty that this was what he had set out to do in the first place.