Yesterday, the Atlantic’s website came out with a think piece slamming baseball’s unwritten rules and going so far as to call for a ban on hit batsmen. All hit batsmen. At any time.
Author Adam Felder suggests that baseball eject any pitcher who hits a batter, an idea that is on its face ludicrous and would change the game for the worse by massive amounts, all but eliminating the inside corner. Felder realizes this, of course, and seems to be throwing it out there more as a conversation starter than anything. At least he gets credit for creative thinking.
More worthy of nitpicking are the rest of his hypotheses. The piece is riddled with errors of assumption that are easy to believe. Felder asserts that the dearth of player fatalities since Ray Chapman was struck down in 1920 have “less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck,” when in fact it has everything to do with safety improvements. (Is he really claiming that helmets haven’t made an enormous difference?) Counter to another of his contentions, pitchers are not routinely ordered to drill opponents. (Those orders, while somewhat prevalent prior to the 1980s, are nearly extinct today.) The story led with Chapman (who Felder mistakenly transposed with the man who threw the fatal pitch, Carl Mays), a guy who died in a singular accident that had nothing to do with the unwritten rules, and which would have been prevented had helmets been in use at the time.
And that’s just in the opening paragraph.
What Felder is missing is that the Code serves a grander purpose than being a simple manifestation of aggression. Baseball is a sport of relative leisure, its pace allowing for meaning to be imbued into a given action. A stolen base doesn’t have to mean something, but when a player wants it to, it does. (He can take off late in a blowout game. He can go in too hard, or too late, or spikes high. The possibilities are multiple.) At that point, it is up to the opposing pitcher to respond.
Contrary to popular perception, retaliatory strikes act as a release valve, allowing a team both to acknowledge an act and respond to it. Rather than having bad blood fester between teams—a real possibility considering that division rivals face each other 19 times each season—the cycle ends there. Everybody moves on, all according to the Code.
Internally, it is vital that a player know his teammates have his best interests at heart. When the second baseman on the wrong end of that message-laden stolen base—the guy who was barreled into late—is protected by a retaliatory strike, it helps build a unified front. Should he not be protected it can quickly do the opposite. Just as importantly, the retaliatory pitch lets the other team know that future indiscretions will not be tolerated.
Ultimately—and this is the point that most people miss—the Code is about respect and safety. Pitchers who hit a batter for lightweight infractions like showboating or the above-mentioned ill-timed stolen base can be justifiably criticized. But when players go about intentionally risky business (the runner who flies recklessly into an infielder; the infielder who throws down an intentionally late tag—or, even worse, a deke—to force a baserunner into an awkward slide; any player who plays with excess aggression when aggression is uncalled for), handling things in this manner is a proven, effective way to put a stop to it.
The Code covers that part, too. A pitcher who places a ball above an opponent’s shoulders—intentionally or otherwise—is the closest thing to a pariah that the game knows. The batter who is hit justifiably and properly, in the hip or the thigh, will quietly take his base. Every time.
Sometimes things don’t play out according to the script, Kansas City’s ongoing drama with Oakland serving as a recent example. Those, however, are exceptions, noteworthy for that very detail. Had the participants acted according to proscribed tenets, the bad blood would have barely been noteworthy at all.
There’s a reason for the Code. Feel free to quibble with how it frequently plays out (hell, players themselves do that much), but at least understand why it’s there, and why it endures.