The best-known and probably most widely debated of baseball’s unwritten rules has to do with when one can safely steal a base—or, more precisely, when one can’t steal a base.
The idea is similar to the one that prevents football teams not coached by Steve Spurrier from running up the score; once a game is in hand, respect for the other team informs a manager to back off. With a sizeable lead late in a game, a team is expected to top stealing bases, taking extra bases, hitting sacrifice flies, enacting sacrifice bunts and etc.
This rule is followed without exception, by most everyone in the major leagues.
Where things go sideways is the varying interpretations of “big lead” and “late in the game.”
On April 9, for example, the Brewers held a 5-0 lead over the Cubs in the eighth inning. With one out, Carlos Gomez—running for Mark Kotsay, who had just been walked by Jeff Samardzija—stole second.
It turned out to be irrelevant; Samardzija walked the bases loaded, then walked Gomez home.
Gomez’s manager, Ron Roenicke, had no problem with seeing his player running. Then again, inserting the speedster into the game was no less aggressive a move on Roenicke’s part.
“Up 5-0 in the eighth or ninth inning, I don’t worry about it one bit,” Roenicke said in an MLB.com report. “Today’s game is not 20 years ago. You can get five runs in one inning. … People used to say you’re not supposed to run in the seventh, eighth or ninth when you’re up by more than a grand slam. That is completely out of this game today. It’s not even close. So, for me, it’s not even an issue. If that’s brought up, it’s from people that really don’t understand today’s game.”
Also, this: “If somebody has that mentality, then they shouldn’t be in the game, and I just can’t imagine a manager having that mentality.”
It’s a line of thought that is no less aggressive than the tactic itself. Agree or disagree with Roenicke, to reduce the argument to “smart baseball people” vs. “not smart baseball people” is essentially empty bluster.
After all, Cubs manager Mike Quade understands the game a little. He is also a manager, it should be pointed out, and he took some exception to Roenicke’s approach.
“Everybody has to make their own decision on that,” he said. “There are unwritten rules, so I’d disgree with him on that.”
Quade’s words were diplomatic, but he was clearly a bit ticked off. Quade is in his first full season as a major league manager, and clearly doesn’t want to stir things up too vigorously. Then again, Roenicke has managed all of 16 games himself at this level, and stirring things up doesn’t seem to bother him a bit.
For all his bombast, of course, he made a number of valid points. From MLB.com:
“If my concern with my team is I need more runs to make sure we win this ballgame, or, more importantly, to make sure I don’t have to use certain people in my bullpen, that’s what it comes down to.”
“The other side, they don’t know what’s going on with us. Today we’re playing [the Cubs], and [if] all of a sudden it’s 7-0 in the eighth inning and he’s running, my thoughts aren’t, ‘He’s trying to show us up.’ He may have two relievers down in his bullpen I know nothing about. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’ve got arm stiffness, and he can’t afford in a 7-0 game to use his setup man or his closer. So if he’s running, I think there’s a good reason why he’s running.”
These thoughts are entirely consistent with the interview he gave us in 2006 for the Baseball Codes, concerning this very topic. The guy clearly believes what he speaks, at least in general terms. In specific terms, while the Brewers’ bullpen is dealing with Takashi Saito’s sore hamstring, they hadn’t exactly been burning through relievers. In the previous four games, dating back to Yovani Gallardo’s complete-game victory over Atlanta on April 5, no reliever had been used more than twice, and never for more than an inning at a time.
Sure, Roenicke didn’t want the game to get close enough to go deep into his bullpen, but that didn’t seem to be the real issue. Despite the fact that he’s clearly spent significant time considering the topic (or maybe because of it) Roenicke’s real issue appears to be with the Code itself.
At least that’s what can be surmised from his answer to a question about whether there’s any cutoff point at which stealing bases becomes unacceptable.
“No,” Roenicke said, “there isn’t.”