The Holy Huddle: Hamels's Plunk and the Root of Sports Violence

Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

Bryce Harper is a punky 19-year-old baseball phenom. And Sunday night, Cole Hamels put Harper in his place . . . sort of. With a flick of the wrist, Hamels sent a 93-mile-an-hour fastball into Harper’s upper back, and with it a message: “Welcome to the big leagues, kid.” With that pitch, Hamels’s actions revealed something universal about the human condition as it plays out in the world of sports — the intent to harm one’s opponent is a universal spiritual disease.

Now, sports writers are divided on Mr. Hamels’s actions, mostly because his post-game comments were refreshingly honest and transparent:

“I was trying to hit him . . . 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 . . . That’s something I grew up watching, that’s kind of what happened. So I’m just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it.”

I wasn’t trying to injure him? BUT I was trying to hit him? I was just protecting the history of the league?

Mr. Hamels may be aware of the code of baseball’s history, but he proved to be unaware of the well-documented history of baseball-related injuries that sideline players. Once the ball leaves your hands, injuries occur.

Strangely enough, Hamels’s plunking of Harper was not the last time “intent to injure” took place at Washington D.C.’s Nationals’ Park that night. In the third inning, Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (no relation to George) returned the insult by plunking Hamels’s left leg during his next at bat.

An eye for an eye, anyone?

The Year of Professional Sports Violence

2012 has been a horrendous year for sports fans who practice pacifism. In April, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended a quarter of the Saints franchise for their part in a bounty system. That same month, the NBA’s Ron Artest was suspended for a vicious elbow to Oklahoma City’s James Harden. In March, the NHL’s New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils started three fights in the midst of a their final regular season game. And now  we can add baseball to the list of professional sports violence.

What’s next, Tiger Woods wrapping his putter around Phil Mickelson’s neck after a missed putt during a skins match? Two NASCAR drivers fighting each other on the course? (Oh, wait, that happened in August of 2011.) A figure skater bashing an opponent’s knee prior to a competition? (Oh, wait, that happened too, in 1994.)

Violence, it appears, is everywhere in all kinds of sports. That includes boxing, soccer, tennis, and MMA. Is there a common factor? Absolutely — humans are participants in all kinds of sports. And as the Christian tradition teaches (whether Augustinian, Puritan, or Baptist), all humans have a bent toward a selfish and evil will. And one outworking of protecting self involves harming others. It is a basic disease of human nature that presents itself as early as childhood biting.

That is precisely why Jesus taught us to deny the basic impulse of “eye for eye” and to, instead, turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to focus our energy on loving one another, to deny ourselves and follow his example.

And it is why figures such as Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, Albert Puljos, and Bubba Watson stand out in their respective sports. It is also why Christians collectively raised an eyebrow when Christian athletes like Tebow receive penalties for on field performance. The intent to harm one’s opponent, whether physically, psychologically, or otherwise, is part of the fallen natural condition, not the redeemed human condition.

In a 1964 work titled Aspects of Christin Social Ethics, Carl Henry argued that a society will not change with the coming of revolution, reformation, or revaluation because those measures will only affect the outside. A society will only change with the coming of regeneration, with the change of the heart. While I applaud the suspension policies of the NBA, NFL, and now the MLB, I believe these reform efforts to be avoiding the real issue in sports. The real issue is that humans are by nature children of wrath — a wrath that has been on display lately across all major sports.

About Doug Hankins
  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Yeah, there is a difference between trying to bean someone to injure and just to say, “Get off the plate” or “Stop stealing signs from second” or “Next time you hit a homerun, act like you’ve done it before.” Hitting a dude in the back, normally with an off-speed pitch, rarely leads to injury. I’m very surprised that this was a 93mph plunking. That’s unusual.

    Are you arguing that every time a batter gets beaned it is wicked? It seems to me that it is a kind of long distance corporal punishment reminder that there are rules of conduct in the game, and I get that. Was this an instance of that? No, Hamels was being an idiot. And guess what? He got beaned for it.

  • http://www.doughankins.com Doug Hankins

    Brad, I think I am trying to argue that Hamels’ actions reveal the wicked nature of humanity. We are all selfish and given to selfish ends. Hamels justified his actions based on a blind appeal to “baseball tradition.” But that tradition boils down to “An eye for an eye” and is, in reality, older than baseball.


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