Unwritten Rules

The Code’s Continuing Importance

Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer came out with an impassioned defense for Brandon Phillips yesterday, claiming that the young Reds star is entitled to the sort of on-field self-congratulation that marked him as a target over the weekend.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

To be fair, Phillips should be commended for understanding the situation he created with his series of chest-thumps following a home-plate collision in which he dislodged the baseball from Nationals catcher Wil Nieves to score a run.

When Washington’s Miguel Batista drilled him the following inning, Phillips took it exactly like a ballplayer should, without a peep of protest.

And with that, the matter was settled.

Not so fast, writes Daugherty. Showing another player up, he says, is “an archaic and arcane bit of baseball-think that has survived the test of years.”

From the Enquirer:

In other sports, freedom of exuberance has grown with the times. Like it or not, sports are not the same as they were when gentlemen roamed the box seats in suitcoats and fedoras. Except in baseball. One man’s exuberance is another man’s show-up.

Which is exactly the point. There’s something to be said for the creativity of end-zone dances in the NFL, but is anyone in America impressed by the back who rushes for two yards on second-and-one—with his team down by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter—only to jump up with his own grandstanding first-down signal? Did he really need to let the world know about his accomplishment?

How about the NBA guard who backpedals down the court thumping his chest after hitting a three-pointer to bring his team to within 20 points of the lead?

To use a baseball term, it’s bush league.

It’s doubtful the Nationals would have begrudged Phillips his celebratory antics had he just plated the winning run. But his play—and it was excellent—merely extended Cincinnati’s eighth-inning lead to 4-1.

The same unwritten rule that prevents Phillips from beating his chest (“Lesson learned,” he said after the game) keeps his opponents in line, as well. While slippery-slope arguments are frequently specious, if the NFL’s standards of self-congratulation were transposed onto Major League Baseball, we might be seeing celebratory arm waving from pitchers in response to a missed swing on the first pitch of a given at-bat.

Baseball’s unwritten rules are what sets it apart from other sports in this country. It’s a thoughtful game, and demands thoughtful actions.

The Code takes a sport based on head-to-head, pitcher-vs.-hitter competition, and keeps the focus on the game and away from the players. For everyone who has ever decried the look-at-me revolution in modern athletics, this can not be oversold.  The same gentility that Daugherty decries is actually one of baseball’s greatest assets.

One man’s stuffiness, after all, is another man’s purity. For many of those who love baseball, that means everything.

– Jason

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9 thoughts on “The Code’s Continuing Importance

  1. Right On!! Can you imagine a QB throwing a zinger at a celebratory DB…Or throwing an errant pass out of bounds at a player who celebrated too much? If only the Code could carry over to basketball and football-there’s WAY too much celebration!!

    On a side note, I live in the DC area. When I saw the celebration from the Nats game, I wondered if that would have Code ramifications. your book and blog has changed the way I watch baseball. Kudos!!

  2. “But his play—and it was excellent—merely extended Cincinnati’s eighth-inning lead to 4-1.”

    The fact that it was “merely” extended to 4-1 is lost on those who do not have to watch the Reds’ bullpen night in and night out. It was a huge insurance run at that point of the game. Also, did Phillips beat his chest in the direction of the National’s dugout? Did he point at or scream anything at any National player? No he didn’t. It wasn’t anything intended to taunt the other team but maybe was an attempt to fire up a team that had lost 4 of their previous 5 games. If Phillips was a National, every National on the bench would have been cheering him. Phillips didn’t violate any code, real or imagined.

    1. Maybe it was an attempt to fire up his team. The issue isn’t whether Reds players approved (as you claim the Nationals would have, had Phillips been on their team) — the issue is whether Phillips’ actions surpassed baseball’s boundaries of acceptable play.

      You can deny it all you’d like, but they did. Miguel Batista proved it.

      Heck, look no farther than Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker, who said that had a player done something like that back in the day, he’d have “gotten drilled” as well.

      Feel free to disagree with the usefulness of the Code or its propriety, but to say that it doesn’t exist — Phillips didn’t violate any code, real or imagined? — is asinine.

      -jt-

      1. You can deny it all you’d like, but they did. Miguel Batista proved it.

        Wait, because one guy/team took exception to something, that “proves” the code was violated?
        If that’s the standard – if whatever pisses off one guy can be punished – then by definition, there is no code. (See Braden, Dallas)

        What Phillips did was borderline, but 90% of the time results in a moderate beaning. You’re right, and Daugherty’s wrong. But the mere fact that there was retaliation doesn’t “prove” that point. (No more than Alan being pissed “proves” that you violated the code of civility.)

      2. Fair enough. I should amend my statement to “Miguel Batista approved it, with tacit approval from his team.”

        This was clearly not any sort of individual vendetta. Phillips offended the Nationals as an organization, and Batista responded on behalf of that organization.

        I do, however, agree that one pitcher getting pissed off doesn’t necessarily mean that a code has been violated. (Bob Gibson got pissed off about plenty of things that wouldn’t bother others. In his case, they violated his personal code — of which he was both particular and consistent in its enforcement — but that didn’t necessarily reflect baseball at large.

        -jt-

    2. Jason:

      I thought this would be a good a forum as any to say how much my girlfriend and I enjoy your book. We are both diehard Brewers fans and, since reading your book, have loved watching the intricate way the unwritten rules are played out on the field.

      A recent example, and a recent topic of yours, was the Carlos Gomez home run celebration against the Twins. As soon as the “jazz hands” went up after it appeared Mauer was saying something we both knew he was going to get drilled.

      All in all, excellent book and excellent blog.

  3. Asinine? Now I see why you have so many people commenting on your article. It is possible to have a civil discussion without denegrating others.

    “the issue is whether Phillips’ actions surpassed baseball’s boundaries of acceptable play”

    Since you admitted that Phillips “could” have been attempting to fire up his team, then you can not with any certainty say whether he crossed those boundries or not. You are reading something into it (and demanding that you alone are right) which can just as easily be interpreted in other ways.

    Besides, who made you the Tsar and Grand Poobah when it comes to Baseball’s Code of Conduct? Don’t bother answering with another undignified response. I won’t be around ever again to read it.

    1. I didn’t denigrate you, Alan — I denigrated your notion that Phillips broke no unwritten rule, “real or imagined.”

      Agree or not, what he did was contentious. To deny that is ignoring the facts.

      I appreciate a spirited debate as much as the next guy. Tell me why these rules don’t matter. Back up your points. I’ll offer rejoinders.

      But when you intone that the Code doesn’t exist, well, that’s something that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

      – jt-

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