So how much money would you be willing to give up for the pleasure of hitting somebody?

Would you stretch to half a million dollars?

That’s what the famed New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia had to calculate when he walked out to pitch the sixth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in the last week of baseball’s regular season.

The match was a relatively important one: the Yankees were already through to the play-offs and the Tampa Bay Rays were too far down the leagues to qualify.

More than that, by the time Sabathia walked onto the mound, the game was as good as over — the Yankees were 11-0 up and that’s not the type of lead you lose.

All Sabathia had to do was grind out two more innings. This would bring him to 155 for the year, and a guaranteed $500,000 (€435,000) bonus.

In baseball terms, this was a relatively straightforward proposition for a man of Sabathia’s talent — there were few who doubted he would do it.

And there was nothing to fear from the first hitter he faced: Jesús Sucre occupies the final slot in the Tampa batting order for a reason.

But Sabathia then made a decision that revealed an awful lot about himself.

He wound up his bear-like frame and launched a 92mph fastball straight at Sucre.

And he hit him very hard on the left leg.

The reaction was immediate and inevitable: Sabathia was immediately ejected from the game. On his way off, he made a point of stopping to make it crystal clear to the Tampa dugout that he had just deliberately dropped half a million dollars to prove a point.

Now, as it happens, the lost bonus is almost the least interesting part of this story.

“I don’t really make decisions based on money,” Sabathia told reporters after the game.

This is a relatively easy statement to believe when it comes from a man who earned $10 million dollars this year and is already a multimillionaire.

What happened next is that outraged Yankees fans immediately demanded that Sabathia be given the cash anyway by the club.

This could easily be put down to Sabathia’s key role in the World Series victory of 2009, or his successful return to the starting team following treatment for alcoholism in 2015.

But that’s not a proper explanation. Instead, the campaign underway to ensure the 38-year-old multi-millionaire got his bonus was driven by one thing only: the fans’ unshakable belief that in hitting Sucre, Sabathia had ‘done the right thing’.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter: the unwritten, but universally understood, rules of ‘plunking’ – also known as deliberately hitting your opponent with a pitch.

Context matters here: Plunking is all about context.

Tempers were frayed even before the start of Thursday’s contest. A number of Tampa players had been hit, and several others grazed, in the preceding three games of the series between the two teams.

This was mostly just bad pitching, but the Rays also saw some of it as ‘chin music’.

This is where balls are thrown under the chin of hitters as a warning to them if they are deemed to be ‘crowding the plate’ – that is to say, if they are trying to dominate the pitcher by virtue of where they stand.

‘Chin music’ and its causes are a routine part of life in the major leagues.

But that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

Throwing a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball an inch to the left of a moving batter from 60 feet away is not an exact science; mistakes will be made.

This was why the situation took such a sharp turn for the worse in the fifth inning.

Already leading 5-0, and with two batters out, Sabathia threw a hard fastball towards Rays’ first-baseman, Jake Bauers. It was immediately clear the pitch would be a problem.

Bauers wasn’t crowding the plate, but the ball came to find him anyway, striking him on the hand despite an athletic attempt to get out of the way.

On another afternoon, that ball might been given the benefit of the doubt, but Sabathia’s pitching had been all but perfect to that point, and the home side clearly did not believe this was just another one that got away.

Finding line between a little ‘chin music’ and cannonball to the skull

For the Rays, at least, a line had been crossed.

In the next inning, Andrew Kittredge of the Rays threw directly at Yankees catcher, Austin Romine; the ball fizzing through the space where his head had been milliseconds before.

It was a shocking, dangerous pitch and home-plate umpire, Vic Carapazza was moved to issue a formal warning to both teams.

Enough was enough.

The next offending pitcher would be ejected from the game, with his manager thrown out for good measure.

And it was at that point that Sabathia drilled Sucre in the leg with his very next pitch.

In many cases, that pitch might have led to a brawl: the batter charging the pitcher while both teams surged from their dugouts to shove each other back and forth with varying levels of commitment.

That didn’t happen in Tampa.

And it’s possible, counterintuitively, that this was because Sabathia’s plunk actually took some of the heat out of the game, which eventually ended with a comfortable 12-1 victory for New York.

To understand this, you have to look at the three key pillars of the plunking code.

First, targeting. The rules here are those used in tit-for-tat mob wars, with the choice of target being crucial to the message being sent. In this case, Tampa had thrown at the Yankee catcher. Sucre catches for the Rays. So Sabathia had simply returned the favour.

Second, location. The pitch was certainly dangerous — a fastball always is — but Sabathia had at least aimed low. That hadn’t been true of the earlier pitch that buzzed Romine. The ideal location for a plunk is often said to be the upper legs or lower torso; suitably painful but unlikely to result in serious injury. Sabathia hit that mark.

Third, motivation. 

Sabathia was clearly furious, and throwing at a hitter solely out of anger is generally frowned upon. Here, however, Sabathia’s ire was displayed in defence of a teammate, a distinction immediately understood by the Yankees fan-base.

Finding line between a little ‘chin music’ and cannonball to the skull

Basically, it confirmed him once again as a hero. The sacrifice of the bonus, and subsequent five-game suspension, were merely the icing on that cake.

All of that’s fine, but — of course — it is fine only if you ignore the potential for it all having had brutal consequences for the man hit with the ball. While most baseball people will tell you he did the right thing (right victim, right location, right reason), it’s hard not to think the story would be different if Sucre had ended up with a shattered femur.

The question of limits also matters here. At what limit is plunking considered plain wrong?

Some say it’s okay to plunk if the opposition is showboating or celebrating; some say it’s fair punishment for running up the score in a blow-out or to break up opposition momentum; some argue it’s okay to wait months to get revenge on a player or rival team.

And then there is the issue of plunking just because your opponent is too good for you. In August, Miami’s José Urena pinged a 97mph fastball off the elbow of Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna. The hit caused an uproar, mostly because Acuna is one of the game’s young stars and his crime appeared to have been hitting successfully for several games in a row.

Critics rushed to condemn Urena for transgressing the plunking code via flawed motivation, but Acuna himself was basically unhurt. The question is: is it better to be lightly grazed by a man with bad intentions or seriously injured by a hero? It’s one of the great challenges of most old sports: how to keep the unwritten codes of behaviour alive, while preventing them from becoming malignant.

The nature of contact sport is that there will inevitably be a little darkness at the edges. So how do you police that boundary, that line between a little chin music and a cannonball to the skull; between the tug of a jersey and a knee to the head?

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