In this week’s Sports Illustrated, a profile of Angels first baseman Kendry Morales describes the player’s reaction after hitting a long home run in A-ball, on his first professional swing after defecting from Cuba.
The ball cleared the scoreboard before Morales made a move toward first base. “He threw the bat down on top of home plate and watched it go, did a real circus trip around the bases,” says (Angels Scouting Director Eddie) Bane. “I remember Bruce Hines, our minor league coordinator at the time, said, ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble here.’ ”
In Cuba, Morales explains, fans expect a slugger to put on a show. But in the U.S. such displays tend to get someone beaned. “Well, not me, but the guy behind me,” Morales says with a chuckle. “I was adjusting. I didn’t know how the system here works.”
Looking at the Code through an international lens can be fascinating. In Latin America, ballplayers are allowed far more leeway when it comes to on-field self-expression than they are in the U.S. In Japan, the Code is so firm — and so stacked against foreigners — that many Americans who play there experience a significant degree of culture shock. (For the ultimate look at the subject, check out “You Gotta Have Wa,” by Robert Whiting.)
During the process of researching The Baseball Codes, we pursued the question of whether the recent influx of Asian players to the major leagues, on top of the already established population of players from Latin America, could serve to alter the unwritten rules.
Aside from the occasional flashy Dominican who points to his heritage as explanation for his unbridled on-field enthusiasm (Carlos Perez, anybody?), the answer is resounding: It hasn’t changed a thing. We interviewed any number of players who made the jump from foreign leagues to America (as well as several Americans who made the reverse trip), and to a man they said it was a struggle to adapt to Code-based expectations.
(Most interesting for me in this regard was Mac Suzuki, who was born and raised in Japan but who learned baseball in the U.S. He returned to Japan after his six-year big league career, and struggled with their rigid set of expectations. Despite knowing as little about Japanese clubhouse customs as any of his American counterparts, he was granted none of the leeway they received, because he looked and talked just like his teammates. It was trying, and he eventually returned to the U.S. for a comeback attempt.)
Kendry Morales learned. They all learn, if they’re here long enough. Bud Selig and Co. might want to make baseball more of an international game, but the unwritten rules of the major leagues are purely American.