Lessons Learned in a Bench-Clearing Brawl
Youth baseball in Miami isn’t just a game. It’s a battle that starts when you’re six years old and doesn’t end until you hang up your spikes for good. Along the way, you pour your guts into the game or the game spits you out like a wad of gritty chaw. The game is the same, of course, wherever you're from. Three strikes and you’re out. Three outs and you go field. But in Miami there’s an underlying subtext to baseball that only exists between the chalk lines on Bermuda-grass fields scattered within earshot of Interstate 95 and US-1. If you’re nodding your head as you read this, chances are we hung our bats on a few of the same chainlink dugouts during the 1980's and 90's. If you think I’m being over-dramatic, you’re probably not from Miami.
Here’s a true Miami baseball story that will make the snowflake generation rush to sign their kids up for soccer.
It was the summer of 1992. The Palmetto Panthers American Legion squad traveled north on a sweltering Saturday to 167th street for an afternoon game against the North Miami Beach Chargers. The scene at the start of the game looked as it had for any of the 30+ games we played that summer. A few dozen parents occupied metal bleachers on the first or third base side of the field, depending on which team they supported. The home team took their warm ups. We readied ourselves to start a first inning rally. The umpire called, “Play ball!” and the game began. Wikipedia didn’t exist back then. But if it did, and you queried the phrase “intense baseball player,” you’d no doubt return a picture of Sean Yanes. (Pronounced Yah-nes, which is important because in Miami players go by their last names.) In my career, I’ve played with and against dozens of future Major Leaguers, but none had Yanes’s fire. He played baseball as though the game might someday be outlawed. Every at-bat mattered. Every ground ball was do or die. Yanes played the game the way it should be played: unbridled.
In the first inning that Saturday, he singled up the middle. He then took an aggressive lead from first in attempt to divide the pitcher’s attention between himself and the batter. The pitcher threw over, prompting Yanes to dive back to the bag. The first baseman snatched the throw and slapped a hard tag on Yanes’s helmet. Never one to back down, Yanes had a few spirited words for his opponent. The pitcher threw over to first again. Another dive back to the bag, an even harder tag on Yanes’s helmet. The sequence went for a third exchange. The cat and mouse game had taken a volatile turn. Yanes had had enough. He shoved the first baseman in the chest and the two had words. The first base umpire got between the combatants in an attempt to defuse the skirmish. That’s when one of the parents from the home team’s bleachers yelled in Spanish, “Sólo le golpeó en la cabeza cuando él venga de nuevo.” Yanes’s father, a Cuban-born firefighter camouflaged among the visiting gringo parents, heard the comment and understood its vile intention: Just hit him in the head when he comes up again. There’s more to baseball than hits and runs. Within every game that’s ever been played, there’s a psychological game within a game that often determines the outcome. In Miami, that psychology is rooted in a gang-fight mentality. You take on one of us, you take us all on. We learned that truth first-hand that day in the third inning when Yanes made his second plate appearance of the game. The first three pitches sailed wide of Yanes. The fourth hit him square in the helmet. Yanes didn’t stare the pitcher down on his way to first base. He never made it to first. He charged straight for the mound. Like any good mound-charge, the key to success lies in the ability to outrun the catcher and get to the pitcher before he gets to you. Yanes outran the catcher, then ducked the pitcher’s thrown glove and took a haymaker off the logo of his batting helmet. He tackled the pitcher and was immediately consumed in a scrum of flying fists and bodies. Parents got involved, which shouldn’t surprise anyone from Miami. Yanes’s father, who like his son was never one to back down from a fight, jumped the fence down the left field line and rushed to his boy’s aid. After taking on anyone from the opposing team willing to get within punching range, Yanes had been tackled by the home plate umpire. The ump stuck his knee in the 17-year-old’s throat in an attempt to restrain him. Yanes’s dad blindside tackled the ump and drove him to the ground, landing a barrage of kidney punches on the way down. YouTube didn’t exist back then. If it had, this article would feature an embedded video of two high school baseball teams locked in fisticuffs on a sun-soaked field. The melee would continue for ten minutes and wouldn’t end until the local police had their say. I'm not sure how fights like this one go down in the rest of the country, but in Miami they don’t end until someone gets arrested or killed. Miami’s finest knew they’d arrived at a battle that wasn’t going to end with handshakes and orange slices. The natives wanted blood. They’d settle for justice. The cops put Yanes and his dad in the back of a police cruiser. The locals shouted obscenities in English and Spanish for good measure. The Yanes boys stuck to English in their spirited responses. A few blocks from the field, the cruiser pulled over and released the Yaneses to the matriarch of the family, who’d been told by police of the plan to make it look like her husband and son had been arrested to keep the scene from escalating. “Had to make it look like they were being arrested,” the cop said to Mrs. Yanes, “otherwise they’d try to kill ‘em.” 25 years later, the story remains a prideful favorite among the Yanes family. I started playing baseball in Miami when I was six-years-old and didn’t hang up my spikes until I played college ball at the University of Florida. I’ve had hundreds of teammates over the years and played in easily as many games. The memories of teammates and games may have faded over time, but I’ve never forgotten that summer team from ’92 or that game when we suited up in Panther blue and followed our teammate into the fray. It’s been said that championships bond teammates for life. I wouldn’t know, having never taken home the top prize. Maybe they’re right. But whoever said that has probably never been in a bench-clearing brawl, and they’re definitely not from Miami.
During the 1980's and 90's Fred Smith played baseball on fields across Miami, with and against some of the greatest players in history. These days he writes books, makes movies, and occasionally drops the nasty funk on the drums. You can check out some of his handiwork on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.