Why all the Hate?: On the Nature of the Unwritten Rules

Rule policeYesterday over at Deadspin, former big league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst took aim at a recent ESPN feature, written by Tim Kurkjian, about the unwritten rules. Hayhurst savages both article and topic, calling it “piles of oblivious, hypocritical, contradictory bullshit.”

The man is clearly is not a fan of the unwritten rules. I am. Thing is, I agree with almost everything he says.

Kurkjian’s piece is well-reported and informative. It hits on many of the points laid out in The Baseball Codes, identifying actions forbidden on a baseball diamond for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual rulebook. Its points are supported through interviews and anecdotes. So far, so good.

What Kurkjian does not do, by and large, is account for the changing nature of the Code. This vital facet is referenced throughout The Baseball Codes, but even more so has been documented on this website over the four years since the book was published. As society changes, baseball changes. And as baseball changes, the attitudes within it change. And make no mistake—the sport’s unwritten rules are propped up by attitude.

I’ll take it a step farther: The fact that baseball’s unwritten rules are so malleable—flexible not just over time, but from league to league, team to team and even player to player—is what has kept them vital. The discussion never stops, not just about how they’re executed, but why. What motivates players to take offense to something somebody else does on a baseball diamond? When that discussion results in a critical mass agreeing that a rule is outdated or in some way wrong, that rule inevitably changes.

Step away from the ballpark for a moment and you’ll find little difference between the guy who gets upset at being inadvertently bumped in the supermarket and the pitcher who gets upset when an opponent digs in against him in the batter’s box. They’re both assholes; it’s just that one of them has a professional outlet with which to deliver his assholery.

But that guy is an outlier—a reason not to love the Code. He seizes on an institutional framework to further his own emotionally fragile goals, and becomes an easy target for critics.  Some players enforce things the wrong way, and some players get upset over things that should not realistically upset them, but that’s not so different than the rest of the world. The mainstream of players who abide by the Code do it properly, and with reservation. We are, after all, a society of reasonable people.

There are plenty of reasons to appreciate the unwritten rules—reasons that have to do with respect, and putting a check on players who are out of line (including the asshole above). Arguments are bound to ensue over the correct definition of “out of line,” but in the meantime, baseball is the last major sport to devolve into the chest-beating mentality that has all but consumed the NFL and NBA.

Among the points of his rant, Hayhurst bemoans the arbitrary nature of the sport’s unwritten rules:

It would be one thing if there were consistency across baseball—if everybody followed the same rules, then there’d be some de facto weight behind them. Instead it’s 30 different teams with 30 different unwritten rulebooks.

He’s correct. It’s the why of it with which I quibble. This is a moral code we’re dealing with, standards of behavior that govern the micro-society of the major leagues. As with any societal structure, the further one gets from the mainstream, the more arbitrary morals become. And many of the unwritten rules are not arbitrary: Anybody who throws at an opponents’ head will be roundly shunned, even by those who believe in similar forms of retaliation below the shoulders. Low-bridging a baserunner—wherein a middle infielder intentionally aims his double-play relay at the forehead of an incoming baserunner to force a premature slide—is similarly taboo. A couple generations ago, both these things were common practice.

Again: things change.

Those examples, of course, have to do directly with player safety. Annoyances—things like flipping a bat or crossing the pitcher’s mound—are viewed somewhat differently. (At which point I must point out Kurkjian’s error in stating that this latter rule was established only when Dallas Braden took offense at Alex Rodriguez doing that very thing; as has been discussed at some length within these pages, the rule is far older than that.)

As acceptance of these lesser violations has softened over time (anybody who does not yet believe that Yasiel Puig is at the heart of a hang-loose revolution has their eyes completely closed), they have also become fertile ground on which the cranks among us can plant their flags. The unwritten rules offer the cranks a platform, too, which is sort of the point. Those voices screaming about Puig’s bat flips have been thoroughly drowned out by applause for the guy. Soon, the cranks will be quiet on this topic, too, and the Code will have shifted again.

The fringe that wants to hurt their opponents is low-hanging fruit for critics, but it is also an endangered species. A focus on those who want to make the game a better, more respectful place may draw fewer headlines, but to avoid the latter in favor of the former is to do the topic a disservice. We may disagree about methodology, but in that, at least, we can hopefully concur.



3 thoughts on “Why all the Hate?: On the Nature of the Unwritten Rules

  1. I read Tim Kurkjian’s piece the other day, then yesterday, Dirk Hayhurst’s. And, all I could think was, “Well what does Jason Turbow say?” Really, I did. Part of what makes baseball beautiful is how it moves and evolves (and, occasionally, devolves) like a mirror of society and the times … and, as you noted, the unwritten will be the first to morph with the times. As in many unwritten code-y things, your balanced observations help me understand the realities far better than anyone else. Thanks!

  2. Great post. This is basic anthropology – Communities have rules of behavior and baseball is no different. They have evolved over more than a century and they will continue to do so. Football and basketball have their own rules (as do acting and dancing). To minimize the importance of such rules or rail against their existence is to miss one of the fundamental lessons of any society – behave or suffer the consequences.

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