Bryce Harper, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Sergio Romo: Secretly Simpatico?

Keep calm

For a while, it seemed like yesterday would belong to Bryce Harper’s views about baseball’s unwritten rules.

Then Goose Gossage opened his mouth. In what appears to be coincidental timing, the Hall of Fame reliever unloaded to ESPN about noted bat-flipper Jose Bautista being “a fucking disgrace to the game,” among other choice sentiments that ran directly counter to Harper. Gossage, of course, is his generation’s It-Was-Better-When-I-Played standard-bearer, the guy to turn to for strident opinions.

His comments came in response to a benign question about new Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, and quickly veered not only to slamming Bautista, but to complaints about how “fucking nerds” who “don’t know shit” are ruining the game from front-office positions, that “fucking steroid user” Ryan Braun gets ovations in Milwaukee, and that modern relievers are too focused on pitch counts and not enough on the game itself.

Gossage, a world-class griper, was simply doing what he does best.

He would have been easier to dismiss had not Giants reliever Sergio Romo—one of the game’s free spirits, a guy loose enough to rock this t-shirt at the Giants’ 2012 victory parade—himself dismissed Harper later in the day.

“Don’t put your foot in your mouth when you’re the face of the game and you just won the MVP,” Romo said about Harper in a San Jose Mercury News report. “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”

In response to Harper’s comment that baseball “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the reliever offered a succinct takedown.

“I’m pretty sure if someone has enough money,” he responded, “he can find another job if this is really tired.”

Thing is, Romo and Harper actually seem to agree about most of what they said. Romo is himself demonstrative on the mound, showing more emotion while pitching than perhaps anybody in Giants history. He took care to note, however, the difference between excitement and impudence.

“As emotional and as fiery as I am, I do my best not to look to the other dugout,” he said. “I look to the ground, I look to my dugout, to the sky, to the stands. It’s warranted to be excited. But there is a way to go about it to not show disrespect, not only to the other team but the game itself.”

With those four sentences, Romo cut to the heart of the issue. Contrary to those trying to position this as a cross-coast battle of wills, Harper did not say much to contradict that sentiment.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have changed markedly over the last decade. There is more acceptance of showmanship now than at any point in the sport’s history, and scattershot blasts from the likes of Goose Gossage will not slow that momentum. Because the Code has changed, however, does not mean that it is failing.

The real power of the unwritten rules lies in the maintenance of respect—between teams, within clubhouses and, as Romo went out of his way to note, for the game itself. This core value has not eroded at all.

What has changed over time is ballplayers’ ability to distinguish displays of emotion from displays of disrespect. When the mainstream decides  that bat flips are an acceptable form of self-expression, they no longer have the power to offend.

The reason this hasn’t already gained universal acceptance is that not all bat flips (used here as a proxy for any number of emotional displays) are equal. Bautista’s display during last season’s playoffs was magnificent. Some bats are flipped, however, not with celebration in mind, but in an effort to denigrate the opposition. It might, as Romo noted, include a staredown of the pitcher (as Harper himself has been known to do). It might be some extra lingering around the box, or a glacial trot around the bases. At that point, the method of the opposition’s response—which includes the option of not responding at all—becomes a valid concern.

Romo talked about this distinction, and its importance to the game. Surprisingly, so did Harper.

The MVP noted that Jose Fernandez “will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.” Because Harper doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect, Harper doesn’t care. And if Fernandez does not intend it as such, nobody else should, either. (Worth noting is that Fernandez learned an important lesson in this regard early in his career.)

The main fault with Romo’s diatribe was that he inadvertently piggybacked it atop Gossage’s inane old-man ramblings. Still, he lent some nuance to a discourse which sorely needs it, and perhaps inadvertently pointed out that he and Harper have more in common than either of them might otherwise believe.

Ultimately, the question seems to be less “Can’t we all just get along?” than “Why haven’t we figured out that we’re getting along already?”

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Atlanta Braves, Bobby Cox, No-Hitter Etiquette, Scott Olson, Washington Nationals

Olson’s Near-No-Hitter Invaded by Marauding Mound Tampers

Most baseball fans are aware the rule mandating that players avoid discussion of a no-hitter being thrown by a teammate.

Few, however, realize the depth of superstition in this arena. Guys in the dugout maintain whatever routine they’re in, as changing a pattern could constitute a jinx.

Bobby Cox

In the middle of Sandy Koufax’s no-hitter in 1963, for example, Dodgers rookie Dick Calmus jumped off the bench to applaud; coach Leo Durocher told him to sit down and zip it.

Bob Brenly found himself tapping the knob of Matt Kata’s bat during the middle innings of Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004, then couldn’t stop himself, despite the increasing pain, into the late innings. “I did not move off of that bat rack,” he said. “I knocked on that bat on every pitch. My knuckles were raw by the end of the game, but I just felt that you can’t change anything.”

During Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter, umpire Tim Tschida spent the early innings bypassing Rangers catcher Mike Stanley when it came to getting new baseballs to the mound, opting instead to throw them himself. In the ninth inning, however, Tschida let Stanley do the work. When he handed a baseball to the catcher, however, Stanley, handed it right back, refusing to tackle that kind of responsibility.

None of this even considers the concepts of warming up a reliever or making a defensive substitution, things that can conceivably project anti-karma in exactly the same way.

All of which is a lead-in to yesterday’s near-no hitter from Washington’s Scott Olsen, which he carried into the eighth inning against the Braves.

It’s fairly expected for the opposition to try to get inside a pitcher’s head in any way possible. During a no-hitter, this means making him aware that he’s headed toward potential immortality—a fact they hope will spook him. This type of bench jockeying is hardly unusual.

Ex-Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane, for example, had a habit of yelling things like, “Hey, let’s break up his no-hitter,” loud enough to reach the mound. (At least one of his teammates, Rex Hudler, didn’t appreciate it. “He didn’t have to go up there and face the guy,” said Hudler. “There were times when I’d tell him to shut up. Don’t let your mouth write checks my body can’t cash.”)

As prevalent as the strategy is, does it work? “No,” said Mets manager Jerry Manuel. “Heck no. You’d think it would, but it doesn’t.”

The Braves, however, took things a step further against Olsen, requesting in the bottom of the seventh inning that the National Park grounds crew tamp down the mound. Talk about changing things.

Two batters and eight pitches into the top of the eighth, Olsen gave up a hit. Two batters after that, he was out of the game.

(It must also be noted that prior to that inning, Washington manager Jim Riggleman did some changing of his own, sliding Adam Kennedy from second base to first to replace the ham-handed Adam Dunn, and inserted Alberto Gonzalez at second.)

Perhaps an unusual divot had formed that presented some sort of danger to Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, which required some mound maintenance. That would provide sufficient explanation.

The question for baseball fans is, when was the last time you actually saw something like that happen during the course of a game? In the vast majority of cases, the answer would be, never.

Braves manager Bobby Cox is a master strategist, and in the last season of a long and wildly successful tenure. Might he do something like this to avoid the additional pressure that being no-hit might contribute to an already struggling team?

Just maybe.

– Jason