Competitive fire at its ugliest was on display Tuesday night at Rogers Centre, where the only thing worse than home-plate umpire Bill Miller's ball-strike calls was Brett Lawrie's raging reaction to them. By now, you've likely seen the video of Lawrie losing his mind, firing his helmet to the dirt in the direction of Miller after two very controversial -- and very incorrect -- called strikes. The helmet bounced and struck Miller in the leg, and, while it was pretty obvious Lawrie's intent was not to strike Miller, the ricochet rightly earned Lawrie a four-game suspension, handed down Wednesday by MLB. This is the unsightly side of the aggressive instincts that have pushed Lawrie to the brink of greatness. This unfortunate incident aside, the 22-year-old Lawrie is an absolute joy to watch. He has power, he has speed, and he always turns it up to 11 when he takes the field.
"It may look full bore to you guys," he told me earlier this season, "but that's my even keel." Perhaps more than anything, Lawrie has attitude -- and it's the type of attitude that makes him a beloved teammate and a loathed opponent. His attitude is the reason he had some clashes with the Brewers, who drafted him 16th overall in 2008 and groomed him, only to cut him loose in the Shaun Marcum trade at the end of 2010. Lawrie expected a rapid rise to stardom, because that's what great athletes expect of themselves. But he became frustrated with the Brewers' timetable (the club didn't promote him in September 2010, requesting instead that he go to the Arizona Fall League), and the two sides had a falling out. This has absolutely nothing to do with what happened Tuesday night, and yet it has everything to do with what happened Tuesday night. For Lawrie is a fierce competitor -- even by fierce-competitor standards -- and, when he felt disrespected by Miller, his attitude, his instincts, his competitive fire all exploded out of the bottle. "It's just my passion for the game," he said afterward, in what seemed to be a heartfelt apology. "I wanted to help my teammates out as best I could. That's the pride I have in this game. I leave my emotions out on the field." Clearly, Lawrie took it way too far in this instance. And what of Miller's role in all this? Surely, his actions must be questioned on some level. Umpires are human, and an analysis of ball-strike counts in any big league ballgame will uncover a multitude of mistakes. That's not the issue here. But when one reviews Tuesday's incident, it's hard not to come away with at least the slightest impression that Miller was trying to teach the kid a lesson, rather than calling the pitches as-is. Remember, this was a one-run game in which the Blue Jays were trailing the Rays by one run with none on and one out in the ninth. The stakes were high. Fernando Rodney's 3-1 offering was several inches off the outside part of the plate, and Lawrie dropped his bat and sprinted toward first before Miller slowly and deliberately made the motion for strike two. If Miller simply got the ball-strike call wrong, so be it. Happens all the time. And Lawrie should have done the right thing and dutifully retreated to the batter's box. Instead, he showed Miller up by making a more exaggerated return to the box, staring Miller down and voicing his disagreement via body language (if not more vulgar language muttered under his breath). It should have ended there. But it didn't. Rodney's next pitch was way high, just as obviously ball four. Lawrie laid off it, but Miller rang him up anyway. It is entirely possible that Miller truly felt both pitches were strikes. It is also entirely possible that after a kid in his first full big league season showed him up, Miller decided to retaliate. If the former is the case, then, again, so be it. But if it's the latter, then Miller was not performing his duties. Whatever the case, Lawrie is ultimately in the wrong here for letting his temper take over. Lawrie does not seem to be a Milton Bradley-type hothead. He's just hyper-competitive, and that was a hyper-competitive situation in which to be hosed. He had a right to be upset, certainly, but his actions were not justifiable, and the suspension is. Joe Torre, MLB's final authority for discipline issues, was right to recognize the lack of obvious intent, which could have resulted in a much longer suspension. The takeaway here is that sometimes the competitive instincts that inspire us to great feats can also bring out our worst qualities. That was certainly the case with Lawrie, and it's possible that was the case with Miller, too. It was also the case with the angry fan in the front row, who threw a nearly full cup of beer at Miller's shoulder as he left the field. It was sheer ugliness all around. And now, Lawrie has some time to ruminate on it.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.