WASHINGTON – Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. And although retribution shall surely come in the fullness of time, a ballplayer can only wait so long.
Accordingly, when Boston slugger David Ortiz came to bat against Tampa Bay’s David Price at the end of May – for the first time this season – Price fired the very first pitch, a 94 mile-an-hour fastball, square into Ortiz’s back.
Ortiz was not amused. Hesitation, angry smile, umpire’s warning. Managers screaming, tempers flaring. Everyone knew this was no accident.
On Oct. 5, 2013, Ortiz had hit two home runs off Price. Unusual, but not unknown. Except that after swatting the second, Ortiz stood at home plate seeming to admire his handiwork, watching the ball’s majestic arc into the far right-field stands – and only then began his slow, very slow, trot around the bases.
This did not sit well with Price. He yelled angrily at Ortiz to stop showboating and start running.
But yelling does not quite soothe the savage breast. So, through the fall and long winter, through spring training and one-third of the new season, Price nursed the hurt. Then, as in a gentleman’s pistol duel, at first dawn he redeemed his honor.
Except that the other guy had no pistol.
Which made for complications: further payback (Tampa Bay star Evan Longoria received a close retaliatory shave and two other players were hit before the game was done); major mayhem in the form of the always pleasing, faintly ridiculous, invariably harmless bench-clearing brawl; and all-around general ill feeling. After the game, Ortiz declared himself at war with Price, advising the louse to prepare for battle at their next encounter.
Price feigned innocence. As did his Yoda-like manager, Joe Maddon, who dryly observed that a slugger like Ortiz simply has to be pitched inside, then added with a twinkle, “Of course, that was a little bit too far inside.”
Yeah, like two feet.
What is so delightful about this classic act of revenge is both the length of the fuse – eight months! – and the swiftness of the execution: one pitch, one plunk, one message delivered.
Revenge as it was meant to be: cathartic, therapeutic, clean, served cold. No talking it through. No sublimation by deep breathing, reason or anything in between. No arbitration, no mediation. “Direct action,” as the left might put it.
Think of it, compact and theatrical, as a highly abridged “Count of Monte Cristo,” still the most satisfying revenge novel of all time. There the fuse is deliciously long – the 14 years our betrayed hero suffers and broods on an island prison before escaping – and the execution is spectacularly elaborate: the decade developing a new identity with which to entrap his betrayers and bring each to a tortured demise.
I suspect what makes revenge so satisfying in both literature and sport is that, while the real thing can turn rather ugly, revenge thusly mediated can be experienced not just vicariously but schematically.
After all, there is nothing satisfying about watching a well-armed real-world thug like Vladimir Putin chew up neighboring countries to avenge the Soviet collapse of 1991. Or the Crimean giveaway of 1954. Or was it Czar Nicholas’ misadventure of 1917-18?
Even benign dreams of restoration can be a bit unsettling. Ever seen a Quebec license plate? “Je me souviens.” In English, “I remember.” What? The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, marking the fall of Quebec to Britain – in 1759.
The response became known centuries later as “la revanche des berceaux.” Revenge of the cradles. They multiplied. Quietly. Determinedly. A serious exercise in making love, not war.
But the amorous Quebecois are the exception. More common are the savage retributive habits of the more tribal elements of the human family. The Serbs, for example, waging late 20th century war suffused with fury at the Turkish conquest of Kosovo, 1389. Or Ayman al-Zawahiri calling for infidel blood with an invocation of Andalusia, lost to Islam in 1492.
We Americans, children of so young a country, can barely fathom such ineradicable grievances. We did give the world Tonya Harding and the Godfather’s horse’s head in the bed, but the best we can do outside sport and fiction is “Remember the Alamo.” Wonderful sentiment, but with Mexico now a best buddy, hardly a battle cry.
No. We’ll do our vengeance on the playing field, thank you, where unwritten rules apply and the frisson can be enjoyed with Bud in hand. So mark your calendar. Next Sox-Rays encounter: July 25. Here’s hoping Price is pitching.