Category Archives: Unwritten Rules

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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Machadope: On the Reckless Pursuit of Imaginary Justice

Machado swingsManny Machado is trying to rewrite the unwritten rulebook, virtually from cover to cover. One day the guy is inventing new things to get angry about, the next he’s figuring out new ways to retaliate for them.

In the process, he’s proved himself to be among the most reckless, hard-headed and downright dangerous players in the game, and should be harshly suspended for Sunday’s action.

Machado’s aggravation with the A’s began on Friday, when he took issue with an ordinary tag by Josh Donaldson, who was later thrown at by O’s reliever Wei-Yin Chen. On Sunday, the young shorstop took it to a new level stratosphere.

Hitters will occasionally come into contact with catchers on a backswing. It happens. That said, it is rare and inadvertent, and because it puts catchers into no small degree of peril—a bat is connecting with their head—hitters who do it are immediately apologetic.

Not reckless Manny Machado.

Machado hit A’s catcher Derek Norris with a backswing early in Sunday’s game, then connected again with significant force on an exaggerated follow-through in the sixth, his bat cracking the top of Norris’ helmet. The catcher, stunned, was immediately pulled from the game. Was it intentional? Judge it by Machado’s reaction. The guy didn’t so much as turn around. In fact, as a dazed Norris was being led into the A’s clubhouse, the Baltimore shortstop was caught on camera smirking. (Watch it here.)

“Usually most guys, it’s a, ‘You all right?’ Something,” said Norris after the game, in an report. “But, if anything, I might’ve caught him smiling one time, which is kinda bizarre. Not really much [courtesy] coming from his side today. I don’t need a guy to ask me if I feel all right to feel good about a situation, but I think it is courteous for one ballplayer to another to ask if they’re all right. But yeah, nothing.”

This action is beyond the pale. Pitchers who throw at opponents’ heads are shunned by their peers—even those peers who believe in retaliatory pitches. Every one of them cites the idea that aiming a fastball above a player’s shoulders is the quickest way to end a career. Norris is no Tony Conigliaro in terms of long-term impact (at least from the looks of things so far), but a trip to the disabled list to deal with late-manifesting concussion-related issues is not out of the question. That the blow was leveled intentionally, under the scope of game play, is shameful.

Machado backswing

A normal backswing? You be the judge.

Machado compounded matters in the eighth when A’s pitcher Fernando Abad, on to protect a 10-0 lead, threw an inside fastball toward Machado’s knees—almost certainly a response to the backswing, but a mild one. It was not a difficult pitch for the batter to avoid, and it passed unimpeded to the backstop.

Machado waited until the next pitch, then swung and let go his bat—ostensibly to fly at Abad, though it sailed harmlessly down the third base line. It was obvious enough for the Orioles own broadcast crew to proclaim, “Manny Machado thought he was thrown at, and on that swing he let that bat go, intending it to go to the mound.”

A minor pass is given for the fact that Machado is coming off of knee surgery, and is obviously protective of that part of his anatomy. Then again, the reaction fits perfectly with everything we’ve learned about him this weekend. The 21-year-old hothead with the big ego has put some personal and indecipherable code of ethics above the safety not just of his opponents (it appears he’d have been happy to have hit two Oakland players with bats), but his own teammates, should the A’s opt to retaliate at some point in the future. Machado hasn’t yet spoken publicly of some irrational need to be respected, but his actions are those of somebody who feels strongly that he is owed something, despite a decided lack of merit.

O’s manager Buck Showalter pased the buck after the game, saying in the Baltimore Sun that he preferred to let players take care of this kind of thing on their own, and adding that “I thought Manny handled it better than someone with some experience [would]. It was also a good experience for him to have. He cares. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

If it’s really a learning experience, Machado needs a voice of reason wearing orange and black telling him to knock it off. The Code dictates that one (or more) of Machado’s more senior teammates step in to corral what is looking increasingly like an out-of-control player. That said player is the most talented guy in Baltimore’s system complicates things, but not so much that the team’s veterans can’t bring their voices into the equation.

The A’s may well have a few things to say about the situation when the teams meet again in July, but if things haven’t been handled internally long before then, the Orioles will have far bigger things to worry about than Oakland.

Update (6-9-13): The talking to has happened, at least to some degree. Machado apologized via the team’s TV network.

Update (6-10-13): I can’t see any way this would actually happen, but the Orioles are presenting a serious front: Dan Duquette says that sending Machado to the minors is “an option.”

Update (6-10-13): Machado has been suspended five games, and will appeal. In a less sensible move, Abad has been fined for a pitch that did not hit a batter, after he was thrown out of a game for that same pitch, but only after throwing another, subsequent pitch.

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Why all the Hate?: On the Nature of the Unwritten Rules

Rule policeYesterday over at Deadspin, former big league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst took aim at a recent ESPN feature, written by Tim Kurkjian, about the unwritten rules. Hayhurst savages both article and topic, calling it “piles of oblivious, hypocritical, contradictory bullshit.”

The man is clearly is not a fan of the unwritten rules. I am. Thing is, I agree with almost everything he says.

Kurkjian’s piece is well-reported and informative. It hits on many of the points laid out in The Baseball Codes, identifying actions forbidden on a baseball diamond for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual rulebook. Its points are supported through interviews and anecdotes. So far, so good.

What Kurkjian does not do, by and large, is account for the changing nature of the Code. This vital facet is referenced throughout The Baseball Codes, but even more so has been documented on this website over the four years since the book was published. As society changes, baseball changes. And as baseball changes, the attitudes within it change. And make no mistake—the sport’s unwritten rules are propped up by attitude.

I’ll take it a step farther: The fact that baseball’s unwritten rules are so malleable—flexible not just over time, but from league to league, team to team and even player to player—is what has kept them vital. The discussion never stops, not just about how they’re executed, but why. What motivates players to take offense to something somebody else does on a baseball diamond? When that discussion results in a critical mass agreeing that a rule is outdated or in some way wrong, that rule inevitably changes.

Step away from the ballpark for a moment and you’ll find little difference between the guy who gets upset at being inadvertently bumped in the supermarket and the pitcher who gets upset when an opponent digs in against him in the batter’s box. They’re both assholes; it’s just that one of them has a professional outlet with which to deliver his assholery.

But that guy is an outlier—a reason not to love the Code. He seizes on an institutional framework to further his own emotionally fragile goals, and becomes an easy target for critics.  Some players enforce things the wrong way, and some players get upset over things that should not realistically upset them, but that’s not so different than the rest of the world. The mainstream of players who abide by the Code do it properly, and with reservation. We are, after all, a society of reasonable people.

There are plenty of reasons to appreciate the unwritten rules—reasons that have to do with respect, and putting a check on players who are out of line (including the asshole above). Arguments are bound to ensue over the correct definition of “out of line,” but in the meantime, baseball is the last major sport to devolve into the chest-beating mentality that has all but consumed the NFL and NBA.

Among the points of his rant, Hayhurst bemoans the arbitrary nature of the sport’s unwritten rules:

It would be one thing if there were consistency across baseball—if everybody followed the same rules, then there’d be some de facto weight behind them. Instead it’s 30 different teams with 30 different unwritten rulebooks.

He’s correct. It’s the why of it with which I quibble. This is a moral code we’re dealing with, standards of behavior that govern the micro-society of the major leagues. As with any societal structure, the further one gets from the mainstream, the more arbitrary morals become. And many of the unwritten rules are not arbitrary: Anybody who throws at an opponents’ head will be roundly shunned, even by those who believe in similar forms of retaliation below the shoulders. Low-bridging a baserunner—wherein a middle infielder intentionally aims his double-play relay at the forehead of an incoming baserunner to force a premature slide—is similarly taboo. A couple generations ago, both these things were common practice.

Again: things change.

Those examples, of course, have to do directly with player safety. Annoyances—things like flipping a bat or crossing the pitcher’s mound—are viewed somewhat differently. (At which point I must point out Kurkjian’s error in stating that this latter rule was established only when Dallas Braden took offense at Alex Rodriguez doing that very thing; as has been discussed at some length within these pages, the rule is far older than that.)

As acceptance of these lesser violations has softened over time (anybody who does not yet believe that Yasiel Puig is at the heart of a hang-loose revolution has their eyes completely closed), they have also become fertile ground on which the cranks among us can plant their flags. The unwritten rules offer the cranks a platform, too, which is sort of the point. Those voices screaming about Puig’s bat flips have been thoroughly drowned out by applause for the guy. Soon, the cranks will be quiet on this topic, too, and the Code will have shifted again.

The fringe that wants to hurt their opponents is low-hanging fruit for critics, but it is also an endangered species. A focus on those who want to make the game a better, more respectful place may draw fewer headlines, but to avoid the latter in favor of the former is to do the topic a disservice. We may disagree about methodology, but in that, at least, we can hopefully concur.




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Take Cover Kids, Wild Thing’s in Town

BeanballSo it turns out that Mitch Williams is a horrible human being after all, if one is to believe the report out today on Deadspin.

The former closer and current MLB Network analyst reportedly spent some of his time at a baseball tournament in Aberdeen, Md., last weekend trying to get his kids to act like big leaguers … in all the worst ways.

After calling the opposing pitcher a pussy, according to witnesses, he instructed a 10-year-old on his team to drill the opposing pitcher.

There are discussions to be had about why actions like this may or may not be acceptable at the major league level, but there’s near unanimity of opinion on how baseball’s unwritten rules translate to youth and amateur leagues: they don’t. At least as far as things like retaliation and beanballs are concerned.

From The Baseball Codes:

A case in point can be taken from the angry response Giants broad­caster Mike Krukow received from a number of Bay Area parents after praising pitcher Tyler Walker on the air for launching a retaliatory strike against Mark Mulder after the A’s ace hit two Giants, including Barry Bonds. “They’re pissed off that they have Little Leaguers and I’m teach­ing them the wrong baseball,” Krukow said. “But I’m not teaching Little League baseball. Their fathers teach them Little League baseball. I’m explaining what goes on here at the major-league level.”

Mitch Williams has no such filter, apparently. He’s doing as much harm to the Code as those who decry its very existence. When one swings so a blunt mallet—pro or con, makes no difference—nuance is lost. And the sport’s unwritten rules are all about nuance.

If this is an example of the guy’s understanding of baseball, not only do I not want him within 500 yards of my kids’ ballfield, I’m not so sure I want him explaining it to me on TV, either.



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