So the Hit King isn’t a fan of baseball’s unwritten rules. The first topic covered in the wide-ranging interview Pete Rose did with Grantland’s Jonah Keri last week cut right to the point:
I used to get screwed when we had a seven- or eight-run lead, because I couldn’t bunt for a single or I’m “showing up the opposition.” … Guys that are home run hitters can continuously just swing from their ass and trot around the bases. I remember one time we had a 7-1 lead in the sixth inning in Houston, and J.R. Richard was pitching. I hit a single to right-center and I went to second. He threw at the next two hitters because I was showing the team up! What am I supposed to do when I got a 10-run lead, just go up there and strike out?
Well, no. There are valid arguments to be made against expecting a player to dial back his intensity when a blowout reaches a certain point, but opting against aggressively taking an extra base while holding a six-run lead is not quite the same as going up there to strike out.
Love it or hate it, the Code is generally fair to hitters’ stat lines. Hit all you want, it says. Drive doubles and triples and home runs with impunity. Just don’t take advantage of a reeling opponent by doing things like bunting for hits, say, or stretching a single into a double while holding a 7-1 lead in the sixth against J.R. Richard.
Speaking of bunting for hits, Rose also had this to say about Ben Davis’ bunt to break up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001:
[The unwritten rules] are stupid. Who cares if you bunt for a base hit? The only guys who criticize him on that are losers. Now if it had been 10-1, maybe. But down 2-0? I’d bunt, too.
Which is precisely the point. Rose selectively bemoans the unwritten rules, knowing as well as anybody that the Code is, in virtually every circumstance, overridden by the mandate to win. Any reasonable proponent of the unwritten rules will admit as much—even Schilling, who in The Baseball Codes said about Davis’ bunt that “if it’s 9-0, yeah, I think it’s a horseshit thing to do. But it was a 2-0 game and the bottom line is, unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games.”
It is the same reason that Rose’s decision to take out Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game continues to be questioned. Were it a regular-season contest, even a meaningless one, the play wouldn’t have so much as raised an eyebrow. It was clean and it was effective. But because it was an exhibition, because the win didn’t count in the standings, Rose’s crash-and-burn mentality came up for scrutiny, especially in light of the fact that the hit affected Fosse for the remainder of his career.
What Rose’s argument fails to recognize is that baseball’s Code sets it apart from other sports. It serves as institutional recognition that, over a 162-game season, every team will have a day in which it runs roughshod over its opponent, and that equanimity is hardly too much to ask in such a situation—especially in light of the fact that the roles could easily be reversed a day later. It is a gentlemanly aspect of an intensely competitive sport, a continuous reminder that, like life, the outcome of a play is not all there is—that motivation plays a part, as well.
Rose’s drive to play hard all the time is undeniably admirable. What he seems to be missing is that there is a marked difference between his success and his opponent’s failure. The recognition of such is part of what makes baseball great.