In baseball, bench clearing brawls are usually started by the batter rushing the pitcher after a beanball or brush-back pitch.12 Some simple math shows that the batter is at an initial distinct disadvantage. He is supported by 0-3 runners on base and two old men coaching 1st and 3rd bases. The pitcher has the five members of the infield close by. This imbalance is what brings the batting team out of the dugout. The fielding team follows soon after, and then the brouhaha begins.
The batter charging the mound has several major obstacles. The pitcher has the opportunity to wind up and peg his glove at his assailant, then duck underneath and bring down the batter. Once the two are on the ground, the infielders will be on top of them at once and little impact will be made on the pitcher.
The first baseman (often the largest man on the field and a position played by guys who played linebacker in college like Mo Vaughn and Cecil Fielder) is the closest to the path taken by the batter on his way to the pitcher. This ogre can take the time to line up an incapacitating blindside hit on the batter if he is not quick.
The catcher is the closest to the batter to start with and is usually violently protective of his stable of pitchers. They don't run very fast, but are covered with armor. A batter who dallies will get taken from behind and look ridiculous.
Despite these disadvantages, the batter never brings his bat with him.3 4 This is an escalation that could not be tolerated. The batter would never play in the league again. However, I heard of a recent minor league instance where a batter executed a preemptive strike by turning and kicking the catcher in the stomach before rushing the pitcher.5 This innovation was not well-received. The stomping of opponents with razor sharp shoe spikes is almost never seen.
The hallmark of a quality bench clearing brawl is the involvement of the bullpens and coaches. The bullpen consists of the relief pitchers and backup catchers who warm up in the bullpen (a side area, often behind the outfield fence). Most relief pitchers work one or two nights a week and are tall, gangly oafs or guys who look like welders or plumbers, only not as fit. Watching them run the hundred yards to the mound is hilarious by itself and takes forever. The coaches are usually old guys who may have once been in phenomenal shape, but are ill-equipped to deal with young bucks who bench press 350 pounds and squat 600 pounds. The sight of two or three coaches trying to hold back someone who is their combined weight is indicative of a top shelf bench clearing brawl.
In conclusion, the bench clearing brawl is an interesting and entertaining feature of a baseball game. They are usually seen in a blowout game between division rivals who have previous history together. However, the entertainment value is diluted somewhat by the realization that someone could get badly hurt. Baseball players are incredibly strong and not trained in fighting. They look silly swinging wildly and holding each other back, but tiny injuries can be debilitating to a professional athlete. Bench clearing brawls are becoming fewer in number due to larger fines and more mercenary players. This may be just as well, but I am glad I have seen my fair share.
1. Very few fights are started by a hard slide, usually into second base breaking up a double play. This move can, however, set up a beanball the next time the baserunner is at bat and trigger a brawl.
2. Charging the mound is perhaps the only recourse batters have against American League pitchers (like Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez) who put their kids through private school throwing at people.
3. hashbrownie fills me in that Juan Marichal whacked the catcher with the bat in 1965 and was suspended for nine games. That seems pretty lenient since nowadays a pitcher can get a five game suspension just for throwing inside without hitting the batter, but I guess things really were different in the '60s.
4. Editor's note: In 2009, former Major League player Jose Offerman performed the Juan Marichal stunt in an Independent League game—first he whacked the catcher in the head with his bat, then took off toward the mound, presumably to do the same to pitcher. The infielders managed to prevent this and Offerman was restrained. A few lawsuits followed, but Offerman had fled back to his native Dominican Republic and has not returned to the United States since, to evade the lawsuits. As far as I am aware, no extradition requests have been made, although I doubt such an extreme measure would be used to charge an offender with something as relatively minor as aggravated assault. In the lawsuit filed by the catcher, who sustained a disabling concussion and had to end his baseball career, Offerman was found guilty in absentia. This doesn't mean much if he won't return to the US, however. Video footage of the incident exists.
5. (Dewb tells me the kicker was Izzy Alacantra of the Pawtucket Red Sox, thanks Dewb)