The Baseball Codes

It’s Opening Day, So Let’s Talk Some Unwritten Rules


It’s opening day, so we’re bound to encounter a new round of gratuitous “unwritten rules are stupid” stories, swinging at low-hanging fruit while failing to make any sort of actual point.

I mean, the unwritten rules are stupid, some of them anyway, but even the dumb ones have reasons behind them that make for worthy discussion. You can tell a hack column in this category by the fact that it lists off items without thought for how they came to be, or why they may have endured over the years, or even why they might be outdated beyond an “I don’t like this therefore it sucks” mentality. These pieces are hackery to the highest degree.

Like, say what Pete Blackburn wrote for CBS yesterday, titled “Ranking the Dumbest Unwritten Rules in Baseball.”

Does he check all the boxes for questionable content in the category?

* List? Check. Seven items

* Nearly complete lack of context? Check.

* Strange inclusions that aren’t actually part of the unwritten rules? Check. (No crying in baseball? Last I checked, baseball doesn’t base its code off of Tom Hanks movies.)

* Removal of all nuance? Check. Items like “Don’t steal bases with a big lead” and “Don’t show up the opposition” are universally respected axioms. It’s the point in the game at which people begin observing them that draws differences of opinion, and is the primary reason either category holds interest.

Let’s dig in, shall we? Blackburn offers his list in inverse order, so in that order we shall examine it.

“7. Don’t yell while a defensive player is trying to make a catch”

Probably not a great strategy to come out of the box defending Alex Rodriguez in one of his shadiest moments as a ballplayer. Rodriguez, of course, shouted as he ran the bases behind Blue Jays infielder Howie Clark during a two-out popup back in 2007, leading Clark to drop the ball. Should Clark have caught it anyway? Of course. Is it a douchebag move that came to define a career of douchebaggery for Rodriguez? Yup. Blackburn calls it hilarious trolling. Others might call it outright cheating. I’ll use my own litmus on this one: If it’s something that, as a Little League coach, would inspire a talk about sportsmanship with one of my players, I sure as hell don’t want to see it in a big league game.

“6. Don’t walk in front of the catcher”

Man, Blackburn ain’t much for respect. The idea is that the space between the mound and the catcher’s box is a de facto office for the battery, the space between them dedicated to the singular task of getting the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. Walking between them on the way to hit, rather than around the back of the box, is a minor affair, but does display a degree of inattention that needn’t exist. Forget baseball for a moment. Across life, why not do the courteous thing for your fellow citizen when the effort required is virtually the same as the alternative? This is low-grade fuck-your-feelings culture that has undeniably left us worse off than we were before.

“5. No crying in baseball”

Doesn’t exist. That Blackburn strikes me as somebody who would gladly write a column excoriating a big leaguer for crying on the diamond shall go without further examination at this moment.

“4. Don’t rub it”

Okay, this rule is pretty dumb, but at least the rationale behind it makes sense. By refusing to acknowledge temporary pain after being drilled by a pitch, the hitter sends a subtle message to the pitcher that he can’t be hurt. Does such action ever help his cause? Who knows? Then again, a tough-guy image is certainly more appealing to most pro athletes than the alternative.

“3. Don’t steal bases with a big lead”

This is where we get into the good stuff. Virtually everybody in the sport agrees that one should not run up the score after a certain point. The disagreement arises over what that point is. The most interesting thing about the unwritten rules in general, and this rule in particular, is how they’ve evolved over the years. Once, a four-run lead in the seventh inning was considered sufficient to shut down the running game. That eventually became five, and as ballplayers got bigger and ballparks got smaller and baseballs got juicier, the number grew and grew. Is it defensible to manufacture offense with a 10-run lead late in a modern-day game? Maybe. It’s in said defense that the intrigue lies.

“2. Don’t bunt during a no-hitter/blowout”

Again, the nuance makes this rule. Having spoken to dozens of big leaguers about this topic, I can say with relative authority that it is not a prohibition against bunting per se, but that players for whom bunting is not part of their offensive repertoire should refrain from attempting it in this particular situation. If a pitcher is dealing no-hitter worthy stuff, the idea holds that he should be beaten with the best the opposition has to offer. If the best includes bunting—if Ichiro Suzuki drags one to reach base—that’s very different than if a backup catcher—say, Ben Davis—who has never bunted for a hit in his career does something similar. If the score of the game is beyond the necessity for a single baserunner, this becomes even more pronounced.

“1. Don’t show up your opponent”

Oh man, Pete, did you miss the big picture on this one. This is what you gave us:

“The most common examples of ‘showing up an opponent’ include bat flipping, admiring a home run or taunting a batter/pitcher.”

This is what you should have given us:

“That baseball has come to accept on-field celebrations is a remarkable embrace of foreign customs, the likes of which would have been unimaginable a generation ago. MLB’s decision to base an entire marketing campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the concept speaks to the undeniable influence of players from Latin America and elsewhere. The history of how this came to be is fascinating. Let’s start with the World Baseball Classic …”

Ultimately, Blackburn said that he ranked his list based on stupidity. So then, shall I conclude with a list of my own. It contains but a single point:

No. 1: Pete Blackburn’s column about the unwritten rules.

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