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Opening Day 2012: Why We Love Beanballs

Today marks the official start to baseball season! Well, that’s not quite true. The Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners played a pair of untelevised games in Japan last week, the results of which remain unclear. And last night, the St. Louis Cardinals faced off against an unrecognizable team dressed in orange uniforms that has apparently been in the NL East for 20 years. In any event, many first pitches will be thrown today, and if we’re lucky, a few first retaliatory beanballs. As fans become more sensitive to the consequences of violence in organized sports, it’s worth asking: Why do we tolerate it when pitchers take revenge on opposing teams by throwing at their batters?

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” according to a new study by psychologists from Brown, Hofstra, and Boston University. In the experiment, fans outside of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park were asked if they approved of this situation: a Chicago Cubs pitcher hits a St. Louis Cardinals batter with a pitch. An inning later, a Cardinals pitcher beans an innocent Cubs player—not the offending pitcher—in retaliation. 44% of respondents thought the punishment was fair. Why? Fans didn’t hold the poor Cubs batter responsible for the beaning, nor did they necessarily blame the Cubs. Rather, they felt the Cardinals had the right to protect themselves. In this particular case, trading an eye for an eye seemed the most appropriate way to do so. Such "vicarious" justice resembles legal systems that "emerged in Iceland around the 10th century A.D. or in Montenegro more than a century ago," according to the study's lead author. “The person we’re targeting isn’t morally responsible," he explained, "but the practical demands of the situation are such that we’ve got to do something."