Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

The Unwritten Rules at the World Baseball Classic: A Lesson in Two Parts

In many ways, the World Baseball Classic gave us baseball as it ought to be (and maybe once was)—a sport in which pride outstripped other motivating factors by a fairly wide margin, where the simple act of participation was its own reward. Strip away salaries, endorsements, public relations and other outside influences on modern players, and that’s what’ll remain.

How that pride manifests, of course, differs from culture to culture, and it offered two prime lessons in the unwritten rules of the modern game.

Lesson 1: “The Right Way”

Ian Kinsler, who now plays for the Detroit Tigers but a week ago played for the United States in the WBC, made a proclamation in the New York Times that garnered some attention despite coming 19 paragraphs into a 20-paragraph story:

“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

Those on one side of the discussion openly yearned for the return to a time in which players put their heads down in response to moments of athletic triumph so as to avoid showing up those they’d bested. Those on the other propped up Kinsler as the face of an outdated code of conduct, a no-fun zone where excitement is stifled in the name of propriety.

As is frequently the case in these types of debates, they’re both right. At least to a degree.

So is Kinsler. He and many of his US-born colleagues were raised differently than players from Latin America. They were taught that solemnity on a ballfield equals respect, and that respect is paramount. The catch is that many of the Latin-born players to whom he referred agree entirely with the latter part of that equation. Respect is everything—it’s the unwritten rule upon which everyone eventually settles. The difference is that guys from the Caribbean and Central America cast a narrower net when it comes to interpretation of potentially impertinent acts. Which doesn’t make their celebrations disrespectful. After all, like Kinsler said, they were raised differently.

So when players in the Puerto Rico dugout hop around like little kids after one of their countrymen performs a feat of baseball heroism, it’s hardly a stretch to think that it has nothing to do with their opponents and everything to do with each other. This is how the game is played in their home country. While the big leaguers among them might tone it down a notch for their primary employers during the regular season, it’s difficult to fault the players for ramping it right back up when surrounded by their own. “We do a great job playing and having fun out there, said Javier Baez, he of The Tag. “That’s what it’s all about. This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it, but, you know, everybody’s got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.”

The major leagues have adapted to the increasing influx of foreign players, largely though adoption of their habits. South Korea-quality bat flips might still elicit some anger, but the garden-variety toss has long since become status quo—brought to the fore by Cuba native Yasiel Puig. Puig’s habits have gained traction because they’re fun—and because the only ones taking it personally are those too curmudgeonly to see things any other way. Hell, four of my last five posts have been on that topic alone.

Playing the game “the right way” has long been a rallying cry for baseball traditionalists. But as players across the WBC continued to show us, their game is, more and more, what “the right way” is beginning to look like.

Lesson 2: Don’t Read Too Much Into Backstory Unless You’re Confident That You Know What You’re Talking About

After beating Puerto Rico in the WBC final, multiple U.S. players spoke out about being motivated by a perceived slight from their opposition. Said Andrew McCutchen in an ESPN report: “We heard and we saw T-shirts were made and printed out for the Puerto Rican team. We even heard a flight was made for them for that parade because they said they were going to win. That ignited us, we were ready to go.”

Added Adam Jones: “That didn’t sit well with us, so we did what we had to do.”

There is a long history of this type of bulletin-board motivation. One example, from The Baseball Codes:

In the victorious vis­itors’ clubhouse after the Indians won the 2007 American League Divi­sion Series at Yankee Stadium, Cleveland’s Ryan Garko told the press that celebratory champagne tasted just as good on the road as it did at home. A week later, however, when the Indians raced out to a three-games-to-one lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS, Boston players mistakenly—or perhaps intentionally—advanced the notion that Garko’s statement was not in reference to the Indians’ previous series, but to clinching the pennant at Fenway Park. With the quote posted on the inside of Boston’s clubhouse door as inspiration before Game 6, the Red Sox went on to win en route to the world championship.

Just as Garko intended no disrespect—indeed, his comment had to be skewed significantly to locate anything improper therein—the Puerto Rico team planned their parade independent of victory in the final game. They wanted to celebrate, win or lose, a detail that they did not attempt to hide. Drawing conclusions from the story’s bare bones was a fine way to motivate the American clubhouse—frequently, one needs little more than the ability to twist details to serve one’s own purposes—but the reality was that Puerto Rico’s parade was cast in the same vein as Puerto Rico’s approach to baseball itself. It had nothing to do with superiority or braggadocio or, heaven forbid, disrespect—and everything to do with embracing the fact that the country’s best ballplayers had gotten together and had themselves a time.

And what in the world is wrong with that?

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