Retaliation, Unwritten-Rules

Q: When is Headhunting Okay? A: Never

This seems like a good time for a quick dissertation on the meaning of—and the general spirit about—baseball’s unwritten rules. The last several years has seen what seems like a tidal shift of voices decrying their very existence, bemoaning what is deemed to be a culture of institutionalized violence in the name of some outdated code of moral conduct.

Let’s use an event from a minor league game on Friday to dispel some of that.

The scene: Moosic, Pennsylvania, at PNC Field. Pitcher Lester Oliveros of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings opens the game by surrendering back-to-back singles, then a three-run homer, then another homer. Down 4-0 before he’s recorded an out, Oliveros drills the next hitter, Austin Romine of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders directly in the helmet.

It’d be easy enough to decry this as macho posturing within an institutional framework that props up such behavior. When one is getting one’s teeth kicked in, after all, it behooves one to mix things up, to make the opposition less comfortable.

It is macho posturing—that much is beyond debate—but it has no more place among the game’s unwritten rules than it does among the written ones. It goes against nearly every facet of the Code: A pitch above the shoulders; retaliation for teammates’ success; loose-cannon ethics that possess no space for the wellbeing of the opposition. The underlying tenet of the unwritten rules is the exhibition of respect, and this act decries it almost entirely, as it regards opponent and sport alike.

If the unwritten rules are to come into play here at all, it will be in the RailRiders’ response. Perhaps the imminent suspension will suffice, but there will likely be an on-field retort the next time Oliveros takes the field against against them. Red Wings manager Mike Quade is well acquainted with the Code; he can opt to let Oliveros take whatever may be coming in an effort to put the incident behind him, or he could simply refuse to play him against Scranton, hoping the pitcher will make the jump to the big club soon enough.

The Code also matters to the rest of Oliveros’ teammates, who should understand that his recklessness has put each of them in harm’s way should Scranton opt to retaliate in anything less than direct fashion. (Such a response would carry its own baggage, but there’s no mistaking that sharing a bus with guys who are pissed off at your actions can serve as a powerful deterrent in the future.)

Ultimately, Oliveros was an independent contractor, working outside the scope of any prescribed response to his situation. By ignoring the Code he set himself up to face every a host of corrective actions that have been developed specifically to keep guys like him in check. It can be a powerful tool … if one lets it.

[Via Hardball Talk]

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2 thoughts on “Q: When is Headhunting Okay? A: Never

  1. Is anyone else slightly concerned that the other players seemed more interested in going after the pitcher than helping their teammate, who was clearly hurt?

    Also, wouldn’t even a below-the-shoulders intentional HBP here have been a code violation? I didn’t think getting lit up was usually enough of a reason for a pitcher to start plunking hitters. Like, if someone had a slow trot or said something maybe, and even then go for the player who did it, not just the next guy up, but just because they were getting good hits? I thought that sort of thing died out a long time ago.

    1. Absolutely. It was once status quo to drill the next guy after back-to-back homers (or some other manifestation of protracted success). Thankfully, that mentality died out a long time ago. You’re right in that even an appropriately delivered HBP (in the thigh, for example) would have been egregious, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between loose-cannon and danger-to-others. The latter category should not be allowed into the league.

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