Importance of the Code

A Retort to Will Leitch

Last week, Deadspin’s Will Leitch got one wrong. Shockingly wrong.

Leitch, the founding edtor of Deadspin, is chock full of solid opinions, and is frequently right on the money. He’s recently been previewing the upcoming baseball season, one team at a time, but when he got to the Brewers, he whiffed. Badly.

The story in question starts with praise for Prince Fielder’s “bowling ball” routine after his game-ending homer against the Giants last September. This, by itself, is nothing to get worked up over. Heck, I’ll give it a pass based only on the image of the entire roster going through a clubhouse dress rehearsal of the maneuver before the game.

Leitch, however, goes on to refute baseball’s unwritten rules as “pretty dumb” and a “vague macho code.”

As the author of a book propping up the very thing that Leitch is so casually dismissing, I bear a degree of obligation to refute his claims. The thing is, “vague macho code” is actually a fairly accurate description, at least in part. What Leitch doesn’t seem to get is that aside from being vauge and macho, the Code is also a highly effective technique by which players avoid escalating trouble, not something they utilize to find it. It’s a release valve for animosity that builds up over the course of a game, series or season—a method by which both teams can act, react and move on.

From Deadspin:

The whole idea of some sort of secret code that the players and managers use to police themselves seems based on the fundamental problem that baseball is not a contact sport.

If this is Leitch’s fundamental problem, he clearly has little clue about the unwritten rules. It isn’t contact within a sport that mandates an appropriate level of respect across the playing field (although the catcher or middle infielder at the business end of a barreling baserunner might pose a differing opinion); it’s the sport itself.

Baseball’s pace and deliberation make it unique among major American sports in that much of its action is planned: the aforementioned takeout slide against a middle infielder; a substantial hack at a 3-0 pitch while one’s team holds a huge lead late in a game; dalliances outside the batter’s box between pitches. Sometimes these acts are innocent. Frequently, they’re not.

This idea of players being thrown at by the opposing pitcher as the ultimate retribution for disrespecting the game is ridiculous. It’s all part of this vague macho code that those who play baseball have invented so that it might seem they are playing a man’s game, rather than a boy’s.

Come on, Will. Is there a professional sport in America that doesn’t have “macho” at its core? These are type-A athletes competing against other type-A athletes to establish superiority on a ballfield. Baseball is largely one-on-one, pitcher against batter. Do you really think that over the course of 40-odd such showdows per side, per game, feelings of athletic supremacy fail to rise in one side or the other? Of course it’s macho.

The point of the Code is to keep these levels of macho in check, to prevent the biggest kid on the block from acting like it. (While Barry Bonds and a handful of others have been afforded superstar leeway for things like preening after a homer, similar tenets are generally embraced throughout the sports landscape, and Bonds was the exception, not the norm.)

There’s no need to take it off the field and into the parking lot, as you suggest might be more effective, but which in reality would serve only to turn sportsmen into mere ruffians. You call it “pretend retribution” and “ascot justice,” but the goal is to enforce respect within the boundaries of the sport. No amount of parking lot muggings will further that endeavor on the field.

The Code must be carried out within the game to affect the game. Without it, intentional plunkings such as the one you cite against Roger Clemens (which, by the way, is closely examined in the book) would be nothing more than the result of angry pitchers acting like bullies. Instead, these pitches convey a variety of messages, all of which boil down to one prevailing notion: play the game right.

If you have a problem with that, we really have something to discuss.

– Jason

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