Over the years, MLB has seen its share of bench-clearing brawls. Once the benches clear, and the bullpens empty, it is usually a time for pushing, shoving, yelling and perhaps renewing old acquaintances.
But not always.
On Tuesday, May 19, 1998, the first-place New York Yankees were entertaining the last-place Baltimore Orioles in the first game of a three-game series. Working the game were AL umpires Drew Coble, plate; Dale Ford, first; Ted Hendry, second; and Larry Young, third.
The crew was put on notice that something may be brewing. “We got a call from Steve Palermo, one of the umpire supervisors, alerting us to some bad blood between the two teams,” Young recalled. “So we were prepared.”
Baltimore led, 5-3, and the game was moving smoothly going into the bottom of the eighth. But after a couple of walks, Orioles Manager Ray Miller, taking no chances, made a pitching change, bringing in Alan Mills to replace Sidney Ponson. Mills lasted one batter before being relieved by Norm Charlton. After facing one batter, Charlton was replaced by Armando Benitez, setting the stage for one of the biggest brawls in baseball history.
Benitez, known for his quick temper, left one up for Bernie Williams, who promptly smoked a three-run homer more than 400 feet into the upper deck. That brought up Yankees’ centerfielder Tino Martinez.
On the first pitch, Martinez was drilled in the upper middle of his back with what was reported to be a 98 mile-per-hour fastball. To ask if the pitch was intentional would be like, well, asking Albert Pujols if he ever hit a home run. The pitch was a blatant effort to hit Martinez.
Coble ejected Benitez in a heartbeat. Actually, Coble got him faster than that, “I ejected Benitez almost before the pitch got there,” Coble was quoted as saying. “You’re always looking for it and hope it doesn’t happen. I felt he would throw at him. I didn’t feel he would throw up at his head like he did. If you’re going to throw at anyone, you throw at his feet.” Benitez, as expected, offered the time-honored excuse, “I’m sorry for this,” the pitcher said with a straight face, “I didn’t try to hit him. I just tried to throw inside.”
Benitez looked toward the New York dugout, dropped his glove and all but invited the team to come on out. The Yankees were only too happy to oblige. At first, both benches emptied, moving toward the center of the infield. There was the usual pushing and shoving and yelling. Then, with players from both bullpens arriving on the scene, Yankee pitchers Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson started whaling on Benitez. And it was on.
At first, the umpire crew tried to separate the combatants. That was until the fists started flying. The umpires then got out of the way and started taking names. Darryl Strawberry was an interested observer until someone apparently said the wrong thing, and he became part of the undercard, joining the fray and going after Benitez. “I told Strawberry if he crossed the foul line he was done,” Coble, the crew chief, said. “Obviously, he was in no mood to listen.” It took the best efforts of Yankees Manager Joe Torre, and others, to finally get the 6-foot-6 Strawberry under control.
The fight had a life of its own
“The fight just seemed to have a life of its own,” recalled Young. “I have never seen anything like that before.” Miller was also busy, trying to get his team settled down. With fights breaking out all over, the scrum gravitated toward the Orioles’ third-base dugout, where a number of players fell down the steps and spilled into the dugout. After a couple of minutes, it seemed order was restored, only to have another flare-up. Surprisingly, even with the number of blows delivered, nobody was seriously injured.
“There were some big-time punches, no question about that,” Hendry remembered. From his position at second base, it was like watching in CinemaScope. “I didn’t want to get in there and get hurt. It was a chain reaction, then everybody got out there and there were some good fights going on.”
When the smoke cleared, the Yankees had pushed across six runs to erase a 5-3 Orioles lead and eventually win the game, 9-5. A video of the melee can be seen on YouTube, “Yankee-Oriole Fight.”
It would be a long night for Coble, who had to write ejection reports on five players: Lloyd, Nelson and Strawberry of the Yankees, and Benitez and Mills of the Orioles. “It was one of the worst brawls I have ever been in,” said Coble, who umpired in the AL for 18 years. “At one time, it was from dugout to dugout.”
The next day, Coble joined AL umpire supervisor Marty Springstead and AL President Gene Budig at the AL office, where they spent more than two hours watching video, trying to sort out the mess.
Budig wasted little time in announcing penalties. The following day, Baltimore’s Benitez was handed an eight-game suspension, while teammate Mills was suspended two games. Strawberry and Lloyd got three-game suspensions and Nelson two games. Budig also fined all five players. An AL official said Benitez was fined $2,000, Strawberry and Lloyd $1,000 each and Nelson and Mills $500 apiece.
So, the question then became, were the two teams warned prior to the second game of the series?
“The crew thought it was pretty much over,” Young said, “And Drew decided against any kind of pregame warning. It kind of ties your hands when you issue warnings.” As it turned out, Coble was correct in his assessment. There were no further problems the rest of the series.
The Yankees won 76 of their remaining 95 games for a 114-48 season, winning the AL East by 22 games. It’s the most wins in a season in Yankee history. New York then went on to win the first of three straight World Series.
So, at Yankee Stadium that day, it really was a bench-clearing brawl, and the crowd of 31,311 did, indeed, see the real deal.
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