On the Importance of Baseball’s Unwritten Rules, or: Why So Much Fuss Over a Li’l Old Code?

rocking chairThe Code has taken a drubbing over recent days, thanks to Gerrit Cole and his sense of propriety. All because he called out Carlos Gomez for overacting on the field.

Primary among the critics is Fox Sports’ John Paul Morosi, who, after labeling Cole a “Special Baseball Ethics Instructor” yesterday, wrote:

Gomez needs to be celebrated — not discouraged — for what he brings to major league baseball. At a time when the sport’s message on instant replay and home-plate collisions has become muddled, Gomez illuminates an even greater concern: Why do major league players take exception to peers who have the audacity to enjoy themselves on a baseball field?

He then went cultural, wondering why Gomez—or Yasiel Puig or Jose Fernandez—shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate success the way they learned growing up in their various countries of origin.

Over at Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra, in agreement with Morosi, says to “ask yourself—honestly—why it’s so important to retain some century-old code of on-field stoicism and stifling of exuberance, style and—dare I say it—swag.”

At Deadspin, under the headline “Down With Baseball’s Fun Police,” a galled Barry Petchesky wrote that “Carlos Gomez [took his] time to admire what he thought was a home run. Words were exchanged, punches thrown, all over a little showmanship.”

Well, no. Punches were thrown because Gomez started throwing them. Cole did nothing more than verbally indicate that he did not appreciate Gomez’s act.

And I have asked myself—honestly—why baseball’s unwritten rules are important. I’ve also come up with some answers.

They’re important because playing sports the right way—with the understanding that my definition of “the right way” is not the only acceptable interpretation of the term—is important. I coach my daughter’s softball team and my son’s T-ball team, and I expect every player under my watch to be respectful of the opposition. I love celebrating great plays and victories, but it rubs me wrong when professional players treat commonplace success as if they’ve accomplished something remarkable. I am drawn to those who embrace the concept of team—an idea that is, by its very nature, subsumed by the look-at-me mentality of showboating.

I get that the game is changing, and support much of that change. (Hell, I all but cried uncle last year in the face of Puigmania.) After all, as standards change and celebrations become commonplace, they grow increasingly less about showing up the opposition and more about the simple act of beating one’s own chest. Fine.

No matter where one draws the line, however, there is still a line, and it behooves everybody to not just understand where it is, but why it exists. (To address Morosi’s point, this is especially true for players who are singled out for having come up in a Latin American system that has far looser controls on its expressions of exuberance than the professional game in the U.S.)

Gerrit Cole is not exactly a crusty veteran—he’s 23 years old and in his third year of pro ball—but he does have a sense of how the game should be played. Even if he doesn’t take personal offense to Gomez’s antics, he has every right to view them negatively in a larger context, and to comment in response.

I won’t try to explain Cole’s thinking, but I can tell you my own motivation had I been in his shoes:

I don’t want baseball to end up like football, where mediocre first-down runs are celebrated as if they were touchdowns.

I don’t want to see baseball players popping their jerseys or pointing backward with their thumbs to the name between their shoulderblades.

I don’t want to see professional players dogging it, even if they’re on the opposing team, because they drag the entire sport down with them.

Baseball is individual enough as it is. I have come to accept increasing levels of showmanship every year. I largely agree with those who decry intentionally hitting batters as a form of outdated brutality. I do believe there are those who take the unwritten rules—and themselves—far too seriously.

But to call Code proponents “the fun police” is to miss the point. I believe that sport and team—any sport and any team—hold far more importance than the individual players on the rosters. I appreciate humility in a highlight-driven world. I want to know players for doing their jobs, not for how they respond to doing their jobs.

So bring on new methods of celebration. But be neither surprised nor offended when some people recoil in response.


5 thoughts on “On the Importance of Baseball’s Unwritten Rules, or: Why So Much Fuss Over a Li’l Old Code?

  1. I thought Cole was calling Gomez out more because the ball landed in play? I get the impression he would have accepted the reaction had the ball left the ballpark, but the fact that it didn’t just makes Gomez look like an idiot. If you’re going to watch the ball, it should be a no-doubter.

    Not to mention, had Gomez run hard out of the box, he probably would have ended up with an inside-the-park home run. He cost himself a base, and his team a run, by standing there watching it.

    So I think all the complaining about the code is misplaced and based on a complete misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the events anyway.

  2. It’s all part of the same stew. Based on Cole’s comments, I’d guess that you’re right: Even if he was irked by Gomez’s bat flip, he’d have likely let it go had the ball left the park. But by dogging it out of the box because he was busy celebrating himself, Gomez was showing disrespect — not to Cole, necessarily, but to the game itself. That’s one interpretation, anyway..

  3. I find the most tedious aspect of the saga to be the reality that the vast majority of fan opinions view the incident only through the lens that most conveniently supports their team. If only we could slap a Pirate cap on Gomez and put Cole in a Brewer uniform and watch the sheep bleat.

    Of course, signs of a systemic team bias are healthier than signs of a racial bias, I suppose.

    1. That’s a great point. Any excuse is excuse enough, on far too frequent a basis. (Your sheep-bleating comment would have been better served before Mike Lamb retired.)

  4. The Pirates are my NL team so I watch them a lot. Let’s go Bucs!

    Getting that out of the way, I saw a game Sunday and a game Monday. We all saw what happened Sunday. Here’s what happened Monday: The Pirates walked the Reds off in the bottom of the ninth. The Bucs celebrated at home plate like they’d won the World Series. Streaming off the bench with everybody else was… Gerrit Cole.

    Maybe some people think that’s now OK because it’s a team thing? Turbow writes above “I don’t want to see baseball players … pointing backward with their thumbs to the name between their shoulder blades.” I’m with Turbow here, but at the same time I’m also with him when he writes “I get that the game is changing, and support much of that change.” Still, when I was a kid, I don’t remember seeing such frenzied walkoffs. Not in April anyway. And for my man Cole-45 to participate, well, it took a bit of the shine off it.

    Last, when Turbow writes: “No matter where one draws the line, however, there is still a line, and it behooves everybody to not just understand where it is, but why it exists.” I think the whole problem is that, as he concedes and then follows up, that line is evolving, especially with the influx of Latin talent. But “problem” is the wrong word here. If the code was static, and everybody knew it, we wouldn’t be favoured with Turbow’s book and blog: nobody wants to read that water is wet.

    This has gotten wordy, but here’s my last takeaway: I love these articles and discussions. The stuff on TV about the Transfer Rule on catches, now that just grinds my gears. (If we don’t know what a catch is, c’mon, what are we doing?)

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