With all the recent talk about bat flipping and fist pumping and making baseball fun again for a generation of players more concerned with self-expression than how that expression might be interpreted, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the more nuanced facets of the Code.
Once upon a time, players were expected to feel empathy for a struggling opponent. It’s a direct relative of the don’t-pile-on ethos that leads football and basketball teams to pull their starters late in blowout games. Take your foot off the pedal when extra gas is no longer useful to your cause. Make things easy. Show some respect.
Pertinent to this story is the concept of not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back home runs. The idea is to give a struggling pitcher a small window of opportunity—a freebie pitch with which to regain his bearings.
“Someone would always pull you to the side and say, ‘Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit—the third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch,’ ” said Hal McRae in an interview for The Baseball Codes, talking about his time coming up with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the early 1970s. “Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, that you respect him and you respect the job that he’s trying to do.”
Which brings us to yesterday. The Giants led Milwaukee, 7-3, at the start of the eighth inning. Then Denard Span hit a three-run homer. The next hitter, Joe Panik, followed with a solo shot. With an 11-3 lead and the two guys ahead of him having just homered, Buster Posey got a first-pitch fastball from pitcher Ariel Pena, 92 mph and over the plate. He mashed it over the fence in center field, ending Pena’s night. (Watch it here.)
Was Posey wrong? Of course not.
The reality is that the aforementioned piece of Code, while among the noblest of baseball’s unwritten rules, had its detractors even during McRae’s day. Batters are paid to hit the ball, a status that does not change late in blowout games, and many did not want to be deprived of that opportunity. In the modern game, of course, with the Code so thoroughly diminished, the rule seems downright quaint … if it seems like anything at all.
The reality is that Posey didn’t break the rule because Posey probably didn’t know the rule. Nor should he have, necessarily. He intended no disrespect with his swing, and by all accounts none was taken in the Milwaukee dugout. (Hell, the next hitter, Hunter Pence, also swung at the first pitch he saw, although that was against a new pitcher.)
So what’s the point of a rule that few people know about, nobody follows, and which wasn’t universally popular even in its heyday?
Maybe it’s the simple act of knowing it. Knowing that it exists, and that once a time there were players who abided by it. It offers a window not only into baseball’s past, but into its soul, a reminder that even if the ideals that drove a different generation are no longer worth of imitation, they’re still worthy of veneration.
The game has moved on, and that’s okay. It sure is nice to remember where it came from, though.
[Thanks to @ for the heads-up.]