ORLANDO, FL (AUG. 24, 2020) – I must confess, I don’t understand completely baseball’s “unwritten rules.” But then, does anybody?
I am mystified by this subculture of convoluted, and in some cases century-old, edicts that govern an entire array of action and on-field behavior in Major League Baseball. For instance, it’s OK for a batter to swing at a 2-0 pitch when his team has a big lead, but offering at a 3-0 pitch violates “the code”? Or, it’s all right for a base runner to steal a base early in a game, yet it’s considered a faux pas to do so later when his team has a big lead? Or, it’s acceptable for a player to try to bunt for a hit in the third or fourth inning, but not in the ninth if his team hasn’t gotten a hit yet?
And, why is it a violation of baseball’s “unwritten code” when a hitter flips his bat, takes too long rounding the bases, or stands at home too long admiring the home run he just hit? Yet, it’s acceptable for a pitcher to scream, and gesture, and gyrate wildly on his way back to the dugout after striking out a hitter to end an inning?
If it’s considered wrong for a batter to swing at a 3-0 pitch when his team has a large lead, conversely shouldn’t a pitcher whose team has a similar advantage be required to throw a ball when he has a 0-2 count on a hitter? Yet, the latter apparently is not part of baseball’s “code.”
I wish someone would explain these “unwritten rules” to me. Because, after more than a half-century of watching baseball as a fan and a journalist, they still don’t make sense to me. For example, it’s OK to try to steal signs (at least, not electronically; ask the Houston Astros about that), but under no circumstance is a batter to attempt to peek back at the catcher’s signals or where the catcher is setting up for a pitch.
One of my favorite stories about the absurdity of baseball’s “unwritten rules” occurred during the late 1970s, and actually played out over a four-year period. As the story goes, in 1979, Chicago White Sox’s pitcher Ed Farmer allowed a home run to Oakland A’s Wayne Gross. Four years later, Farmer and Gross were teammates with the A’s. Farmer was pitching batting practice when he hit Gross with a pitch, in retaliation for what he felt was Gross’ too deliberate pace rounding the bases after that home run.
What’s Right, What’s Wrong?
Baseball’s “unwritten rules” are arbitrary, nebulous, confusing, silly, and some might even say archaic. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what constitutes a violation. It’s like when you are shopping for a gift and the salesperson asks what you’re looking for. You reply, “I’m not sure. But, I’ll know it when I see it.”
The problem -- well, one problem, anyway -- is that these rules are not written down. You will not find any of them in the official Major League Baseball rulebook. Instead, they are mandates passed from one player to the next, similar to an oral family history or an old family recipe that’s handed down from one generation to the next.
Major League Baseball’s perplexing “unwritten code” reared its head recently when San Diego Padres’ budding young superstar slugger, Fernando Tatis, Jr., had the apparent unmitigated gall to swing at a grooved, batting-practice fastball from Texas Rangers’ pitcher Juan Nicasio on a 3-0 count, with the bases loaded and the Padres already ahead, 10-3, in the eighth inning.
That Tatis hit the pitch for a grand slam ticked off the Rangers even further. Texas’ reliever Ian Gibaut took over for Nicasio and threw his first pitch behind the head of Tatis’ teammate, Manny Machado. (For which Gibaut later would receive a three-game suspension.)
Texas manager Chris Woodward thought Tatis crossed the line. “I think there are a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” Woodward told writers after the game. “I didn’t like it personally. You’re up seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”
Yet, Tatis, who is the son of a former major leaguer, seemed confused by the rule. “I was kind of lost on that one,” he said after the game.
A number of players, including pitchers, came to Tatis’ defense on social media. “Swinging at a pitch in a 3-0 count should not be against any rules,” tweeted Houston Astros’ pitcher Collin McHugh. Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Trevor Bauer tweeted, “Keep swinging 3-0 if you want to, no matter what the game situation is.”
‘A Learning Experience’
Padres’ manager Jayce Tingler afterward described the incident as a “learning experience” for Tatis. “He’s young, a free spirit…He’ll grow from it.”
In fact, Tatis – who as of this writing leads the majors in homers, RBI, runs scored, and total bases --- did nothing wrong, other than miss the “take” sign given by his manager before that pitch. Tatis simply did what the Padres pay him to do: hit, preferably home runs. His sin, at least from the Rangers’ perspective, was swinging at a 3-0 pitch when the Padres had a big lead. And, that, in the eyes of those who abide by baseball’s “unwritten code” amounted to trying to run up the score and embarrass the Rangers.
But, a “big lead” is very subjective. What in baseball’s “unwritten code” determines a comfortable lead: six runs ahead, seven runs, eight runs? And, exactly what inning is it that determines when trying to score becomes running up the score on an opponent: the fifth, the sixth, or the seventh?
Just three nights before Tatis’ homer, the San Francisco Giants took a five-run lead into the last inning, only to lose to the Oakland A’s, 8-7. In a game in 1990, the Philadelphia Phillies scored 12 unanswered runs to turn an 11-1 deficit into a 12-11 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. And, in 2016, the Padres were leading the Seattle Mariners, 12-2, after six innings. Seattle scored nine runs in the top of the seventh and wound up winning that game, 16-13.
Well, so much for insurmountable leads. Obviously, it doesn’t happen every night, but frequently enough to ask the question. And, certainly any pitcher who’s pitched at Colorado’s Coors Field knows there’s no such thing as a comfortable lead.
Tingler said that Tatis’ grand slam was a teaching moment for the young slugger. But, what lesson is he supposed to learn? When to shift his effort into cruise control during a game? There are those who would argue that not competing hard, whatever the game situation, actually is more disrespectful toward an opponent than worrying about not running up the score.
“There’s going to come a day where someone’s going to stop playing to their fullest capability and you’re going to lose a game where you’re up by six or seven or eight runs because of that,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro. “I understand completely that there are situations in baseball where people have felt disrespected on one side of the field for a particular reason. So be it.”
Respect, Respect, Respect
In the book, The Baseball Codes: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime, by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, former catcher and Arizona Diamondbacks’ manager Bob Brenley attempted to explain the rationale behind the “unwritten rules.”
“I can break it down into three things,” said Brenley, who caught for nine seasons in the big leagues and now serves as a color commentator on Diamondbacks’ telecasts. “Respect for your teammates, respect for your opponents, and respect for the game.”
Respect is a word you hear a lot in connection with baseball’s unwritten code, and not because people are singing the Aretha Franklin standard. For instance, never run across the pitcher’s mound when returning to the dugout after making an out; never step in front of the catcher on the way to the batter’s box; and never stand in the batter’s box while the pitcher is warming up. Because, advocates of the “unwritten code” say, one must “show respect for the diamond.”
Another problem – and potential source of conflict -- is that the “unwritten rules” are caught between two generations that have different ideas as to how the game should be played, and what is acceptable behavior.
On one hand, you have the “old school” camp. Veteran players, coaches and managers like the Rangers’ Woodward – a 44-year-old, former big-league infielder who has been in professional baseball for 26 years and in the majors for 21 – who’ve spent their entire careers guided by a philosophy of “playing the game the right way”, and honoring an unwritten code that, in some cases, goes back a century or more. On the other hand, you have the 20-something players, exciting talents like Tatis -- who is 21, and has been in the majors a little more than one year -- who know little about the code, play with a flair, and exhibit a “Hey, I just wanna play” attitude.
On one side, there is the “act like you’ve done it before” camp, and on the other, a ”Hey, look at me” approach.
A changing of the guard is taking place in Major League Baseball, and some of the old “rules” are being openly questioned. Actions on the field that are an affront to one side mean nothing to another. A flipped bat after a home run may be seen as celebration by one side, and taunting by the other. With the rules not in writing, it leaves plenty of room for different interpretations. When the two sides butt heads, misunderstandings, brush-back pitches and plunked batters can ensue.
Attitudes, Codes Change
As Turbow wrote in his book, “The rules are in a constant state of development and evolution…”Attitudes and codes do change. Case in point, watch a game today and you’ll notice the home-plate umpire dutifully grant a hitter time out while he does excavation work on the batter’s box trying to get a better toe hold. “Digging into the batter’s box” is considered perfectly acceptable today.
But back in the days of Nolan Ryan, or even Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson, a player who tried to make himself comfortable in the batter’s box would have been sent on his backside with some “chin music”, or received a painful fastball in the ribs, on the first pitch.
In an era when people have more entertainment choices than ever, baseball needs to market itself to appeal to a younger generation of fans. Tatis is one of the ebullient players and personalities who should be a face of that campaign.
Baseball is a different game than it was 20, 30 years ago. Now, everything is launch angles, exit velocity, home runs, and power pitching. With today’s young players, swinging at a 3-0 pitch is not showing disrespect; it’s simply how the game as they know it is played. You don’t get on highlight shows or earn lucrative contracts by taking pitches based on old edicts; you get them by hitting home runs.
Yes, it’s likely to spark some resentment. The best way for opponents to avoid ruffled feathers from plays like Tatis’ grand slam, though, is by beating the other team. Such revenge is still the best salve for bruised feelings. That’s not one of baseball’s “unwritten rules,” but maybe it should be.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.