Is Throwing a Wild Pitch Criminal Behavior?

In baseball, the term "criminal" is usually only applied to bad decisions made by managers or poor hitting from a team’s highly paid superstar. The term is rarely used in its true legal sense.

Yet in the far-off baseball outpost of the Czech Republic, the concept of criminal assault is being applied to a wild pitch. Earlier this month, the Czech Baseball Association (CBA) filed a criminal complaint against an Australian pitcher throwing in the country’s top league.

The facts of the case have been explained as follows: In a playoff semifinals contest between Technika Brno and the Ostrava Arrows, a disagreement between the teams broke out. No violence occurred, but two members of the Technika club were tossed by the umpire. A half-inning later, a wild pitch during warm-ups by the Tecknika pitcher, Australian Blake Cunningham, hit the ground and then struck the umpire in the head, sending him to the hospital. (While the umpire needed surgery as a result, reports say that he will make a full recovery.)

Fearing that Cunningham would return to Australia before they had a chance to resolve the issue, the CBA requested criminal charges be filed. For his part, Cunningham has publicly professed his regret and innocence. (See here.)

I wasn’t at this contest, so I can’t speak to the nature of the wild pitch, but the idea that actions in the course of play should be criminalized in baseball seems criminal in and off itself -- short of proof of pre-meditated malicious intent. As the great jurist Benjamin Cardozo once wrote: “One who takes part in ... sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary.” Surely an umpire on a field of play should always be weary of errant pitches. Simply put, a wild pitch should have been foreseeable for the umpire.

This idea of “implied consent” -- in other words, on-field athletes and personnel understand the risks of participation -- is one that is generally followed in the United States. Even in Canada, where National Hockey League players have been prosecuted for violent acts on the ice, the general rule is unless a violent act is intended and totally unexpected, it isn’t criminal. (On rare occasions, the law does step in as was the case with Todd Bertuzzi in 2004 when he grabbed opposing player Steve Moore from behind and began punching him in the head.)

Baseball has had its share of tragedy on the diamond. In 1920, New York Yankees hurler Carl Mays killed Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman with an errant pitch, and in 2007, minor league first base coach Mike Coolbaugh died after a foul ball hit him in the neck. Both are horrible events, but in neither case were charges pressed.

The Czech towns of Brno and Ostrava are a long way from Yankee Stadium, and one would expect that any criminal legal decisions pertaining to baseball in Europe will have little or no echo outside the continent. But the line between regrettable actions on sports fields and criminal intent should be drawn bright. Surely, governments have better ways to focus their energies.