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Joe Kelly is Proof that this was Never About Integrity

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The idea that Joe Kelly’s actions were “honorable” is a product of manufactured narrative, not righteous justice

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This past Tuesday an incident occurred at Minute Maid Park that I will endeavor to relay objectively.

During game 1 of a two-game series, in the bottom of the sixth inning, Joe Kelly took the mound for the Dodgers to preserve a 3-run lead against the Astros. Kelly looked sporadic in his delivery and, after falling behind 3-0 to Alex Bregman, threw a 96 mph fastball behind his head. Bregman took his base without incident.

Later, while covering first on a potential double play, Michael Brantley stepped on Kelly’s foot while hustling to the bag. This was due to the fact that Kelly had awkwardly placed his foot in front of the first base bag and not to the side as is customary, but he still lingered for a moment or so and looked at Brantley before heading back to the mound. At this point the Astros dugout is clearly getting tired of Kelly, especially after throwing a ball at Bregman’s head, and an undisclosed voice (probably Dusty Baker) yells out, “Get on the mound, mother (little?) f***er.”

The next batter is Yuli Gurriel and suddenly Kelly again seems to have trouble finding the strike zone, walking him on four straight pitches, one of which was a 97 mph fastball up and tight near the head and then a breaking ball that nearly hit his elbow.

Finally, Correa comes to bat and the first pitch out of Kelly’s hand is another breaking ball that almost hits Correa in the head. Correa looks at Kelly and the Dodgers’ dugout, but doesn’t say anything, just takes his place in the batters box. Eventually, Correa struck out on a slider down and away to end the inning.

So that’s now 3 Astros players across 4 plate appearances that have almost been hit by Kelly. No one has complained to the umpires and there have been no warnings issued even though it sure looked like there was some head hunting going on. Kelly is in the clear and has delivered “the message,” giving the baseball media and everyone who’s been waiting 6 months all the meat they could handle.

And yet, at this point Kelly decides to mock the Astros and Correa in particular. His response to striking him out is to say “Nice swing, b**ch,” and then make pouty faces at Correa as he walks back to the dugout. This is when Correa says something to him for the first time after being calm during the whole debacle, even after having his head thrown at.

Benches clear and players mill about before the whole thing fades and we go back to baseball. This is the only time in the entire two-game series that either team is unprofessional on camera.

But that half-inning was enough to turn the narrative loose on social media platforms that have been waiting like starving hordes to see something like this. “Joe Kelly is a Dodgers hero and legend!” “2017 avenged!” “The Astros finally felt real payback!” Joe Kelly was raised to some sort of mystical pouting angel who used his boo-boo lip to heal the pain of 2017 for all of baseball.

The next day the fallout from Joe Kelly’s escapades came as he was suspended for 8 games and Dave Roberts for 1. Kelly is currently appealing, which I suspect will have a game or two knocked off before it’s finally served. The suspension, while harsh, was partially due to the fact that Kelly has been suspended for this type of thing before and was coupled with warnings not to try and incite brawls during a season being played under threat of COVID-19.

But, of course, that suspension has led to a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth online. Social media had just spent a full day glorifying Kelly as an avenging hero and the idea that maybe what he did was bad was met with stunned incredulity. It was as if people thought there would be no punishment for intentionally throwing at someone and then attempting to incite a brawl.

The thing that sticks out to me most from this whole sorry episode though, is the deification of something that was, ultimately, extremely childish and unprofessional. The perpetrator isn’t surprising either as Kelly is someone who has a reputation for acting childish and unprofessional, having already instigated a brawl when he was a member of the Red Sox.

Kelly is not a white knight trying to salvage the honor of the sport. He’s just a guy who, in the moment, decided to act like an ass and escalate a situation that didn’t need to be escalated because that’s what he does. He’s a repeat offender. On top of that, he did it after putting three player’s careers and health on the line. That should not be acceptable and, usually, is not.

All summer we’ve had to hear about how the Astros have destroyed the integrity of the sport because of sign stealing in 2017. That their actions had the chance to corrupt an entire generation of young players and people who looked up to them. How baseball players were role models and therefore subject to a higher standard.

And now, here is the hero to the masses who yelled that:

Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Look, I get it. The Astros cheated. The other players are big mad at them for it and feel like they weren’t punished enough. Never mind that there was no outrage over sign stealing in 2017 when it was found that the Red Sox and Yankees had engaged in it. No call to change the rules for harsher punishment after that. No one called for the lifting of protection for offenders when reporters were publishing articles that gave a sly wink to the fact that literally everyone knew that sign stealing was going on.

But now that someone has been actually caught after decades of cheating, players and members of the national media, who knew this was going on and didn’t care enough to do anything before, want a brand new punishment made special just for destroying the Astros. My suspicion is, even if they got it, they would still want someone to hit an Astros player in the head. The idea that the only reason people are still mad is because Manfred didn’t do enough is a bogus one used to cover justification for throwing at the Astros.

Players I can understand feeling that way though. Baseball has always had a hush-hush relationship with policing itself, usually surrounding whether or not the pitcher is angry because he has the most potential to injure someone. It’s the same kind of relationship the sport has had with cheating: something that is widely acknowledged as going on but never really talked about openly among current players.

The thing is, that doesn’t make what happened “ok.” It doesn’t make it the Astros’ fault that Joe Kelly, who was also on a team proven to have cheated in 2017, decided to throw at their heads. It doesn’t make it Manfred’s fault that the deal negotiated by the player’s union didn’t allow for him to completely ban a team and pauper them and their ownership for the next decade. Because this is the system that, up until now, everyone had been perfectly fine with using

But now you have members of the national media playing up the angry narrative to drive clicks and referring to the incident as “sweet revenge” while saying that Joe Kelly isn’t actually responsible for his actions because of sign stealing. You’ve got major, national sports outlets acting like Kelly should have no punishment whatsoever for throwing at three separate players and then trying to incite a brawl. Quite frankly, that’s just ridiculous and not based in reality.

You can’t absolve Kelly of that responsibility just by saying “cheating.” If he had actually hit someone in the head and seriously injured them, you can’t wipe that away with “Well, they cheated!” But the mealy-mouthed “I don’t condone throwing at players, but...” is the worst.

Let’s be perfectly clear, if you’re ok with a player throwing a baseball at another to teach them a lesson for any reason then, on some level, you’re ok with the batter being injured and maybe having their career ended. You can’t separate the two, regardless of whatever infraction you think justifies the act.

Joe Kelly’s little dog and pony show is not something to teach children as a heroic act of courage and honor. This wet-eyed narrative that he is some kind of hero after throwing at people’s heads is both poisonous and reckless. There are kids who are Dodgers fans right now that are learning that it can be justified to throw at a player’s head.

Of course this is all over something that, at the end of the day, is just a game. It’s not worth a life-altering injury just because someone got mad on the mound about another team cheating. That sort of act is violent vigilantism justified by aggrieved players who were perfectly ok with sign stealing until they weren’t. Who were fine with protections afforded by the union until it was someone else being protected.

That feeling of anger at the Astros right now is the end result of months of a media narrative that has twisted honor and justice into something that requires blood to be satisfied. But it is honorless and hollow, both cruel and reckless. What it is not is integrity, so let’s stop pretending that it is.