Category Archives: Unwritten Rules

Knee-gate Revisited

Rosy's knee

Last week we examined Adam Rosales’ knee plant atop second base, which was called out by Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as violating some sort of unwritten rule pertaining to middle infielders. Never having heard of it, I took an unofficial survey of as many infielders as I could find when I was at the Oakland Coliseum last weekend.

Okay, it was only two. And one of them plays third base. Still.

“If his knee’s not in the way and he’s not trying to do it, then he’s not trying to do it,” said A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie (who’s had his own dose of slide-related drama this year). “If you’re on top of the bag but there’s still room to slide, that’s okay. Everything’s fine.”

A’s coach and longtime middle infielder Mike Gallego offered a different—though not contradictory—perspective. The difference between tags today and those of previous generations, he said, is replay.

“Back in the day with the old sweep tag, if the ball beats the runner the umpire is calling him out, no question,” he said. “Now, you have to literally put the tag on the play, so you might see guys blocking the base a little bit more to make sure they get the tag on the runner. It’s changing.”

It’s true. Prior to replay, runners never complained about being called out if the ball beat them to the base, even if the tag had already come and gone. Now, the necessity to position themselves not just to make a tag, but to hold it, is paramount. It only follows that they’ll have to at least occasionally brace themselves in ways about which previous generations would have been less tolerant. Not a direct correlation to Rosales’ situation, but worth mentioning.

The early verdict: Both Lawrie and Gallego mentioned that planting a knee next to the bag is preferable than doing so on top of it, for reasons that Cabrera enumerated after jamming his fingers. They also said that things happen in a bang-bang play, and what Rosales did was hardly objectionable. (Hell, first basemen like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell were known for applying pile-driving tags on pickoff throws as a means of reminding the runner about the cost of doing business. Tag etiquette can be a complex affair.)

I’ll continue to ask around as the season progresses. Updates as events warrant.

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Knee, Meet Fingers. Fingers, Knee. Chat Amongst Yourselves

Rosy's kneeAfter having paid particular attention to baseball’s unwritten rules since I started researching The Baseball Codes in 2005, I’ve compiled what seems like a pretty comprehensive set. On Saturday, Asdrubal Cabrera may have informed me of a new one.

Diving back into second base on a pickoff attempt, Cabrera jammed his fingers into the knee of Rangers second baseman Adam Rosales, and got up shoving. (At first blush it appeared to be because Rosales inadvertently leaned on him with an off-balance elbow, but that had nothing to do with it. Watch the play here.)

After the game, Cabrera said, in an MLB.com report: “He put a knee onto second base. I’ve played both sides, second and short, and I know that’s not fair to put a knee on the base.”

At the very least, Cabrera was correct in his assessment that, had Rosales’ knee not been planted atop the base, his fingers would have remained blissfully unjammed.

Rosales’ general demeanor is among the best in all of baseball, and there’s no question that whatever he did was done unintentionally. Still, it begs the question—especially with the accusation flying from one infielder to another—was he out of line?

More to follow …

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On Defending the Code

Keep calm

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s website came out with a think piece slamming baseball’s unwritten rules and going so far as to call for a ban on hit batsmen. All hit batsmen. At any time.

Author Adam Felder suggests that baseball eject any pitcher who hits a batter, an idea that is on its face ludicrous and would change the game for the worse by massive amounts, all but eliminating the inside corner. Felder realizes this, of course, and seems to be throwing it out there more as a conversation starter than anything. At least he gets credit for creative thinking.

More worthy of nitpicking are the rest of his hypotheses. The piece is riddled with errors of assumption that are easy to believe. Felder asserts that the dearth of player fatalities since Ray Chapman was struck down in 1920 have “less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck,” when in fact it has everything to do with safety improvements. (Is he really claiming that helmets haven’t made an enormous difference?) Counter to another of his contentions, pitchers are not routinely ordered to drill opponents. (Those orders, while somewhat prevalent prior to the 1980s, are nearly extinct today.) The story led with Chapman (who Felder mistakenly transposed with the man who threw the fatal pitch, Carl Mays), a guy who died in a singular accident that had nothing to do with the unwritten rules, and which would have been prevented had helmets been in use at the time.

And that’s just in the opening paragraph.

What Felder is missing is that the Code serves a grander purpose than being a simple manifestation of aggression. Baseball is a sport of relative leisure, its pace allowing for meaning to be imbued into a given action. A stolen base doesn’t have to mean something, but when a player wants it to, it does. (He can take off late in a blowout game. He can go in too hard, or too late, or spikes high. The possibilities are multiple.) At that point, it is up to the opposing pitcher to respond.

Contrary to popular perception, retaliatory strikes act as a release valve, allowing a team both to acknowledge an act and respond to it. Rather than having bad blood fester between teams—a real possibility considering that division rivals face each other 19 times each season—the cycle ends there. Everybody moves on, all according to the Code.

Internally, it is vital that a player know his teammates have his best interests at heart. When the second baseman on the wrong end of that message-laden stolen base—the guy who was barreled into late—is protected by a retaliatory strike, it helps build a unified front. Should he not be protected it can quickly do the opposite. Just as importantly, the retaliatory pitch lets the other team know that future indiscretions will not be tolerated.

Ultimately—and this is the point that most people miss—the Code is about respect and safety. Pitchers who hit a batter for lightweight infractions like showboating or the above-mentioned ill-timed stolen base can be justifiably criticized. But when players go about intentionally risky business (the runner who flies recklessly into an infielder; the infielder who throws down an intentionally late tag—or, even worse, a deke—to force a baserunner into an awkward slide; any player who plays with excess aggression when aggression is uncalled for), handling things in this manner is a proven, effective way to put a stop to it.

The Code covers that part, too. A pitcher who places a ball above an opponent’s shoulders—intentionally or otherwise—is the closest thing to a pariah that the game knows. The batter who is hit justifiably and properly, in the hip or the thigh, will quietly take his base. Every time.

Sometimes things don’t play out according to the script, Kansas City’s ongoing drama with Oakland serving as a recent example. Those, however, are exceptions, noteworthy for that very detail. Had the participants acted according to proscribed tenets, the bad blood would have barely been noteworthy at all.

There’s a reason for the Code. Feel free to quibble with how it frequently plays out (hell, players themselves do that much), but at least understand why it’s there, and why it endures.

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Kevin Towers, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Towers-La RussaIf we’re gonna remember Bo Porter when he’s canned, seems only right to do the same for Kevin Towers. The GM who brought a lot of toughness and not too many victories to the desert as of late was canned Thursday by new boss Tony La Russa.

Towers’ grit-based organizational structure came to prominence last month when the D’Backs drilled Andrew McCutchen, because Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri accidentally hit Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on the hand a day earlier, breaking a bone. It led to a protracted discussion about how, while an eye-for-an-eye mentality once played well on baseball’s landscape—and despite Towers’ own overt statements to the contrary—things have kind of changed.

That said, La Russa has never been one to shy from grit. He thrives on it, in fact, with an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August—being more or less dedicated to dissecting La Russa’s strategy of drilling other players in response to stuff they or their teammates did.

No, La Russa probably cared more about Towers’ record than his team’s treatment of Andrew McCutchen. The problem for Towers: That hasn’t been strong, either. After two straight .500 seasons, Arizona is 59-81 this year. Towers has traded away Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker and Juston Upton, among many others, without getting a whole lot in return. His handling of free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy—who struggled after being instructed against throwing his cutter—drew particular notice once McCarthy joined the Yankees, kickstarted his best pitch and began to dominate again.

(Lest anyone think that La Russa and Towers are pure opposites, check out this story from 2011, in which each man is separately accused of gamesmanship practices that fall someplace between evil-genius and good-for-a-chuckle.)

Now on the hot seat: Gritty Kirk Gibson.

 

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Let me Tell you About Back in the Day …

Gibson cardInteresting stuff up today over at Hardball Talk about the idea of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale becoming a crutch for people trying to express how players of bygone eras wouldn’t put up with the shenanigans of today, even though they hit far fewer batters than their modern reputations would suggest. I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of this myself; each guy is an easy stand-in to illustrate points about player toughness and the kinds of things modern players get away with.

Still, how representative were they, really? Despite all the talk about Gibson’s intolerance, there’s little question that he and Drysdale were outliers, simply the meanest characters fronting the scariest trigger fingers of their era. Virtually nobody could match those two—less in terms of sheer body count than in putting the fear of God into batters via a steady stream of knockdown pitches. It’s why they’re still the faces of that particular franchise.

But then there’s this: During the 1968 World Series, in which Gibson played a significant part, Pee Wee Reese apparently bemoaned the lack of modern-day attention to the preponderance of showboating. It’s easy to forget that for all the “kids today are soft” conversations we may have, the previous generation had those same conversations about us, and their elders had the same conversations about them.

Change is inevitable, and, apart from seismic shifts in societal mores, rare is the person who thinks that things are better today than they used to be. Always has been, always will be.

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On Successful Homecomings and Misread Grins: The Tale of the Trying Smile, by Ian Kinsler

GrinslerAh, respect. She is a vexing mistress.

Ian Kinsler, reluctantly departed from his career-long home in Arlington after an off-season trade with Detroit, returned for the first time yesterday as a member of the visiting team. He promptly took former Rangers teammate Colby Lewis deep.

And what did he do? He gave a little wave to his pals in the Rangers dugout. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he went around the bases. There was no animosity here; this was friendly stuff—a we’re-in-different-uniforms-but-I-still-like-you-mooks moment. To everybody, it seems, but Lewis. (Watch it here.)

Give the pitcher some leeway—he had just put his team in a first-inning hole and ended up taking the loss with a mediocre outing, and now boasts a 5.94 ERA on the season after missing all of last year due to elbow and hip injuries. His team has as many wins as the Astros. He deserves to be frustrated. But to take that personally? (If anybody possibly could, it would be Rangers GM Jon Daniels. But Lewis?)

“I guess ‘disappointed’ is the best word to describe it,” the pitcher said after the game in an MLive report.

There are lots of legitimate gripes in baseball about improper displays of respect, which can be dealt with in any number of time-tested ways. Lewis obviously wants other players, particularly those he knows personally, to be sensitive to his struggles. But Kinsler himself described the trip to Arlington as “my return home” (which was more than metaphor: his house and family are still there), and talked after the game about being “lucky enough to square one up.” If he lacks any respect for Lewis, he did a pretty good job of hiding it.

There was no showboating here, nothing intended to call extra attention to Kinsler. It was just a guy soaking in a moment. Lewis should have let him have it.

 

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Desmond Slams Bat, Wins Hearts and Minds With Response to Slamming Bat

Even as I have come to accept the new world order of bat flips and assorted other stylings, I now appreciate more than ever those who recognize their own decorum, even when—especially when—they haven’t done much of anything wrong. Ladies and gents, your anti-Machado: Ian Desmond.

Desmond, a home run away from the cycle last night in San Francisco, slammed his bat down in frustration after flying out to left field of Yusmerio Petit. Because the frustration was strictly personal—the Nats led 9-2 at the time—Desmond may have thought better of it, and apologized after the game.

“For the record, I probably shouldn’t have slammed my bat,” he said in a Washington Post report. “If Petit hears about this or sees this, I apologize. That was pretty bush league. But I was kind of caught up in the moment. You don’t get that opportunity often.”

Today’s lesson: A little cognizance goes a long way. Kudos to Desmond.

[Thanks to @lawrence_s for the tip.]

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