Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, has been given a five-day suspension for beaning Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals on Sunday. (Hamels admitted that the hit was intentional, saying he did it to welcome the 19-year-old Harper to the MLB.) Beanballs are against the rules, so some kind of punishment was certainly in order. But what kind of punishment is applicable in these situations?
According to a 2011 law review article, Hamels is lucky to be in the big leagues—and not just for the salary. It turns out that while misbehavior in the MLB might earn you a fine and a suspension, misbehavior in the minors can lead to criminal penalties. The most infamous incident in modern major league history, which occurred in 1965 when Juan Marichal attacked another player with his bat, resulted in a suspension and fines. But fights in the minor leagues—including a similar incident in 2007 when a bat was used as a weapon—have resulted in felony assault charges. Of course, the use of bats as weapons may represent a special case. And although the line separating league rules from the law isn’t perfectly clear, the judicial branch has provided some guidance: In 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled that in college baseball, beanballs may not be prosecuted under tort law. “For better or worse, being intentionally thrown at is a fundamental part and inherent risk of the sport of baseball,” the Court declared. “It is not the function of tort law to police such conduct.”