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Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Updated: August 7, 4:15 PM ET
Trying to find the value in a dugout brawl

By Tim Keown
Page 2

There's nothing better than a good dugout fight. Of course, no one calls it a fight, because it's either a scuffle or a confrontation or a difference of opinion.

I picture a group of special forces editors sitting in living rooms around the country, waiting for the call. When it comes, they're the ones who dictate the proper term.

Monday night it was Prince Fielder versus Manny Parra in the Brewers' dugout, and the operative word was "scuffle." The only thing that kept it from being a full-on fight was Parra's reluctance to participate.

Which brings up, tangentially, D.J. Carrasco of the White Sox. His slap-happy performance in the White Sox-Royals brawl Sunday needs to be memorialized, in some way, as one of the worst performances by a pitcher at the business end of a batter's charge.

Anyway, the best thing about dugout fights is the way everyone tries to spin it. There's always someone eager to say, "This will be good for them. I expect the Brewers to bond over this and come out of it stronger."

Oh, and the other thing they always say: "These things happen all the time during a season. You just never see them."

For some reason, no one ever says, "That was ridiculous. These guys (Bonds-Kent, Fielder-Parra, Whoever-Whoever) need to be more professional. We all know they're competitors and all that, but they're tearing their team apart by allowing its tectonic divisions to be displayed in public."

Nobody ever says that.

As if on cue, it happened again Monday night. Fielder pushed Parra after some ugly looks and possibly some ugly words, and the next thing you know, the television is filled with people telling us this is just what the Brewers need to propel themselves to the National League Central title and beyond.

This happens so often it's a temptation to consider it a reflexive, unthinking reaction. The players say it, the broadcasters say it, the fans hope for it.

Could it be true? Do teams sometimes need to air out their problems before getting down to the business of winning some games?

OK, so where's the evidence? You'd think, since people get paid to pontificate on such occurrences, there'd be a statistic somewhere in the hallowed annals of the game that would indicate -- or even imply -- that a team can actually use a scuffle/confrontation/difference of opinion to its advantage.

Here's anecdotal evidence that just so happens to contain the same team and the same manager, at nearly the exact same time a year ago.

On Aug. 2, 2007, catcher Johnny Estrada and manager Ned Yost of those same Milwaukee Brewers went at it in the dugout. This time I think the special forces editors agreed on "disagreement" as the operative term.

Regardless, this was going to be a watershed moment for the Brewers. (Not "Waterloo" -- which apparently was taking place about an hour's drive away, in Green Bay.) They were going to unite in some bizarre and barely understood chemical transformation that would culminate in a fabulous final two months of the season and a playoff appearance.

Long live Gorman Thomas. Johnny Estrada, inspiration!

So maybe Estrada v. Yost was the precedent being cited Monday night, when the predictions of a spontaneous bonding came about.

Brewers record, Aug. 2, 2007: 58-51.

Brewers record, Sept. 2, 2007: 69-67.

Brewers record, end of season: 83-79.

No playoffs.

And, apparently, no boost from the confrontation.

Maybe this time the Brewers will reel off wins in 13 of their next 16 and roll through September on their way to the World Series. They're a better team than they were last year, so the possibility exists.

And if that happens, will it have something to do with Fielder and Parra scuffling on a Monday night in early August?

No, of course not, it will have everything to do with the team having better players. But that doesn't mean the moment won't be cited as the defining moment of the Brewers' championship season.


One other thing:

The run-up to the Beijing Olympics has proven one thing: A lot of people are pining for 1968. In many ways, this is a good thing, because the reprehensible decision to give China the Games is now being force-fed to us as some kind of paternalistic pat on the head.

China didn't fulfill all the conditions set forth when the Games were awarded, but that's OK. Don't worry about it, we're told by the corporate powers. Everything will be all right. Maybe if we play nice it'll rub off on the Chinese government, and it will stop subsidizing the slaughter of poor innocent people in Darfur.

But since China has denied visas to foreigners with any history of political activism, and since it has imprisoned many of its own activists, and since it has designated three special "protest" zones that can be used only after the police have approved the protest -- in other words, a joke -- everyone is turning their eyes toward the athletes.

If there is going to be protest, it looks like it's going to have to be an inside job.

Could it happen?

Should it happen?

More importantly, is there a responsibility for someone to make it happen? You know the idea -- to whom much is given, much is expected. Does that apply to a group of people who are tied to the culture of Nike or adidas or the NBA? How about those athletes who have been conditioned to believe a gold medal can set them up for life?

Should they feel obligated to risk everything -- the six-figure endorsements, the five-figure speaking engagements -- to stand up for people half a world away?

It's probably inevitable, but it seems the weight of responsibility is heavier on the black athlete, especially the high-profile black athlete. You could argue that Dwyane Wade stands a better chance of being taken seriously than a Morgan Hamm, but, realistically, does LeBron James have anything more in common with a poor, scared young man in Sudan than Michael Phelps?

And is there anything close to the same pressure being applied to Phelps? Is anyone asking him if he plans on using his status as a potential eight-event gold medalist to push the human-rights agenda?

Whether it's out of true belief or the hope for a good story, we're still looking for this generation's John Carlos and Tommie Smith. But as we draw nearer to an Olympic Games that China seems determined to host as a reality series on a manufactured set, are those expectations even fair?

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Tim here.