Every day we see new evidence of the degradation of baseball’s unwritten rules, how past forms of moral governance have been swept away in favor of the far simpler ideal of simply letting boys be boys. The game’s few remaining old-school souls periodically remind us of this development, primarily through bursts of outrage at acts that, while once roundly condemnable, are barely even blip-worthy on the modern game’s radar.
Put another way: Baseball has its share of crotchety old men, sitting on the proverbial front porch and grousing about the way things used to be—and they will not be ignored.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you David Ross.
Sunday at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, Rays shortstop Yunel Ecobar stole third while his team held an 8-3 lead in the seventh inning. Five runs at that moderately late point in the game was once considered punishable with fines up to and including fastballs aimed at the noggin of the next hitter, or Escobar himself, or both.
The game, however, has changed considerably, as has its moral code. There is still gray area when it comes to running up the score, of course—questions about how much of a lead is enough, and when—but the last time anybody so much as blinked at something along the lines of Escobar’s steal, the Rays had “Devil” in front of their name … unless they hadn’t even come into existence yet.
That said, we’ll always have crotchety old men hanging desperately to outmoded morals as places upon which to park their high horses. As Escobar led off third, Ross started barking. Escobar responded in kind, at first with stunned confusion, then anger and finger pointing toward the Red Sox bench. A moment later Jonny Gomes raced in from right field, swings were swung and the scrum became official. (Watch it here.)
It is easy for one side of the confrontation to decry the other: Ross for being too high strung, or, if it’s crotchety old men doing the decrying, Escobar for rubbing Boston’s noses in a sizeable lead. The argument that put it all to rest, however, was delivered by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon after the game:
“They took umbrage with the fact that Escobar had stolen third base with a five-run lead in the seventh. So that’s not nearly as egregious as last year in the playoffs, correct? Last year in the playoffs, when they had an 8-2 lead in the eighth inning, when Ellsbury led off with a single and stole second base and they ended up winning 12-2. I think that was a little more egregious than their interpretation of tonight. … I didn’t take any exception when they stole on us last year in the eighth inning in the division series. … Our goal is to prevent them from scoring runs, their goal is to score runs—the whole game. That’s always been the goal within the game of baseball. Apparently some of the guys on their bench did not like that. I really wish they would roll back the tape and look at that more specifically. You have to keep your personal vendettas, your personal prejudices, your personal judgmental components in your back pocket. So before you start screaming regarding any of that, understand what happened just last year, and also understand that in this ballpark five-run leads can evaporate very quickly.
Indeed, in Game 1 of last year’s ALDS, then-Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury led off the seventh inning with a single, and stole second while his team held a six-run lead. David Ross was a member of that team. If he ever came out publicly against his teammate’s actions, those comments have not been widely circulated.
Then again, last year the Red Sox were on their way to hoisting the World Series trophy. On Sunday they were nothing more than a club with championship aspirations in last place and on its way to losing its 10th straight. Things that slide when one is winning tend not to in the darker hours.
Nothing feeds hypocrisy, it seems, like a healthy dose of frustration.
Of course, Escobar broke an unwritten rule himself by doing the one thing that could trip him up most: He responded. Had he kept to himself and put up with the bench jockeying for just a few moments, all would likely have ended well. Instead he was tossed, Boston is even angrier than it was before, and bad blood between two teams with a considerable history of the stuff is built anew.
Boston manager John Farrell did what he was had to in protecting his player, saying afterward in an MLB.com report: “We’re down five in the seventh so it’s somewhat of a gray area when you shut down the running game.”
Which is completely accurate, except for the part about the gray area. Ross had no business getting involved with Escobar over that particular action; he’s a 13-year big leaguer and should know better.
Take away the punches and the insults and the misplaced claims of moral outrage, however, and we’re left with one thing: a stark example of the degree to which baseball’s Code has changed. Argue all you want whether that’s for better or for worse—just don’t deny that it exists.