Greg Mercer, Record staff
KITCHENER — Ontario’s Intercounty Baseball League will begin imposing automatic suspensions on players and managers who fight during games, as part of a crackdown on bench-clearing brawls.
The eight-team league, which includes the Kitchener Panthers, had 14 bench-clearing brawls last season. Compare that to Minor League Baseball, where each league averages around three such dust-ups a season — despite far more teams playing four times as many games.
“We had an inordinate number of bench-clearing brawls compared to Minor League Baseball. That’s just ridiculous,” said John Kastner, commissioner of the IBL. “We knew we had to do something. We didn’t really have any bench-clearing rules before.”
Under the new rules, which take effect when the 2017 season begins in May, the first player to leave the dugout or bullpen during a brawl will be suspended five games — no small penalty in a 36-game regular season schedule. It will be up to the umpires to determine which player left first.
“A guy can now make a conscious decision to say ‘Is this important enough for me to miss one-seventh of the season? Because if I leave the bench now, it better be good,’” Kastner said.
The manager of the team that’s first to leave the dugout or the bullpen will also be automatically suspended three games. Any player who leaves his position to fight will be suspended one game.
“If you leave any defensive position, or the batter’s box, to engage in an altercation, you’re ejected,” Kastner said.
The brawling penalties were unanimously approved by the league’s teams this winter, after consulting with Minor League Baseball and Hockey Canada and their efforts to curb fighting.
In Minor League Baseball, where players are paid, officials hit players where it counts - in the wallet - if they brawl. But in the IBL, where players don't collect a paycheque, their only tool is suspensions.
Brawls are bad for the league because they delay the game and risk injuring players, the commissioner said. And they’re often sparked by minor conflicts that spiral out of control, Kastner said.
“We had little things happen that in and of themselves were very minor. All of a sudden the benches empty and you’ve got 40 guys milling around. Then you’ve got big problems,” he said.
The commissioner said he decided to do something about brawls after a playoff game last year in Toronto was delayed by over an hour after an alleged racial slur was reportedly tossed at a London Majors player.
The league struck a four-person committee to investigate the incident, and it ruled in December that each team’s manager should be suspended one game, and ordered a $1,000 fine for London. No players were penalized since the committee had too many conflicting reports about who did what and what was said to spark the brawl.
In the 2015 playoffs, the Panthers and London Majors were in a brawl that sent London’s third base coach Casey Pulham to a doctor with a bleeding ear and a sore neck. Kitchener’s manager Dave teBoekhorst, along with coach Denis Bailey and Majors outfielder Julio Guzman, were suspended as a result.
It’s not the only rule changes for the Intercounty Baseball League this season. The circuit has also dropped its pace of play initiatives brought in two years ago, which were designed to speed up games.
Now it will be up to umpires’ discretion to police delays like visits to the mound and extended downtime between innings.
The Panthers’ season begins May 7 in Toronto. Their home opener is May 14 against three-time champs Barrie Baycats, who swept the Panthers in the semifinals last year.