Swagg Warz, or Why Baseball Players Fight

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From an "unwritten rules" standpoint, it pained me to not be able to side with the Brewers during Sunday's bench-clearing brawl in Pittsburgh. With Ryan Braun back in his douche-chilly zone after his PED suspension, Milwaukee was already on the bad side of stuffy baseball purists and thus okay in my book, and probably the books of many others who like baseball more than they like its various unwritten rules. More to the point, when someone has So Much Swagg they gotta fight about it, I generally side with the swag.

Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez is funny and may or may not have a shag, AKA the Kanye West 808's and Heartbreaks Haircut. He is the good guy. When he flipped his bat for the billionth time this week on a fly ball that didn't leave the park, it's unfortunate for me that it was my Pirates who meted out the payback.

Sunday's brawl started yet another conversation about baseball's "unwritten rules," a tired (and boring) argument about whether grown-ass men playing a game for millions of dollars are allowed to have their own tacit code of conduct. The only unwritten rule in baseball is the same unwritten rule in every other sport, and in life in general: it goes 1) don't be a dick and 1a) if you're going to be a dick, don't be surprised when there's retaliation.

That said, it's up to you -- in baseball and everywhere else -- to be aware of when you're being a dick, and to know what you can get away with. Gomez's bat-flipping was getting excessive and Geritt Cole knew he wasn't the only one who felt some type of way about it; what came next was coming some time or other. That doesn't make Cole into some citizen's-arresting bro-vigilante like Brian McCann. It did make him angry.

Football's borderline-fascist culture makes its rules very important, and too important to allow anything to stay unwritten for very long. Basketball, on the other hand, relies on a very fluid system of hierarchical respect. Knowing what you can get away with is part of the game -- Exhibit A, for everything, is Swaggy P. But baseball culture is uniquely weird and opaque, with numerous implied caveats to every actual rule on the books. Its mechanisms for self-regulation are one of the sport's quirky charms; Michael Pineda gets to keep pitching with his hand coated in pine tar because it's understood that he's not the only one doctoring the ball and nobody wants to rock the boat. Yasiel Puig tries to hero-ball a throw to the plate and a long line of grumpy men forms to kick him around for it.

The wildly and inherently inexact science of reciprocal beanings is even more subjective. It's up to everyone to decide for themselves whether a pitcher is out for blood. Sometimes this sort of street justice beanballing is retaliation for something that happened weeks ago. Often it's a different pitcher who ends up finishing something a teammate started. Sometimes, too, pitchers have to do dirt to appease the ego of their star hitters; virtually no one winds up fighting their own battles in any meaningful way. It's all as arbitrary as rap beef and almost as entertaining. It's mostly dumb as hell, but it is in the culture of the sport, and will evolve -- to the extent it does -- in that context.

(Also, baseball fights are an underrated form of entertainment. They are like every encounter between drunken bros at a shitty college bar except with actual fighting instead of the "hold me back" theatrics. Nolan Ryan v. Robin Ventura and Pedro Martinez v. Don Zimmer are two of the historic ass-kickings of our time. Sunday's Gomez-incited brawl had some moments worthy of any WorldStarHipHop compilation, both for cheap-shotting and general background jankiness.)

Either way, Sunday's bench-clearer was the best thing to happen for the Pirates yet in 2014, and quite possibly for the Brewers, too. Milwaukee is by most accounts playing way over it's collective head, while this has been a disappointing season so far for Pittsburgh. Nobody is hitting, the bullpen looks shaky, ace pitching prospect Jamieson Taillon is done for the year with Tommy John surgery and the situation at first base is super ugly (even though I irrationally love me some Ike Davis). The Brewers, on the other hand, have claimed some early Cinderella status. With their hot start, they unseated the Pirates as baseball's best feel-good story, making them natural enemies. There's a weird rivalry here, if both sides want it.

I doubt Travis Snider was thinking about that when he clocked Carlos Gomez, but beef begets narrative and narrative makes everything more fun to watch. The next night Snider stepped to the plate with the ill black eye. The unwritten rules might be dumb, but they make an already strange sport even more entertaining.

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