Category Archives: Unwritten Rules

The Commissioner Weighs in on the Unwritten Rules

rob-manfredPosition yourself for a moment as an old-school curmudgeon when it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, a defender of decorum, issuing proclamations about how it was better back before the current generation took over and started flipping bats all over the field and celebrating June victories like they’d just won the World Series.

Now imagine your head exploding when you hear that commissioner Rob Manfred, the man at the head of the food chain, tasked with shepherding baseball into its next golden era, said this in response to a question about on-field celebration:

I actually think players being more demonstrative on the field is a good thing for the game. I think it’s exciting.

It came during a media conference on Saturday and was easy to miss, being sandwiched between questions about minority representation in the sport and replay implementation. It seems, however, noteworthy. Is baseball’s head honcho actually advocating for more showboating within the sport?

Before we answer that question, take off the old-school cap I asked you to put on back in the first paragraph, and instead position yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum, as somebody who decries baseball’s unwritten rules as outdated and without function, serving mainly to suppress individuality and fun within the sport. You’re pretty happy with Manfred about now, aren’t you? So how do you feel about the very next thing that came out of his mouth?:

Overall, baseball has always had unwritten rules that kind of govern what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The way I think about the changes we’ve seen in the last couple of years, is that we have a really exciting new, young generation in the game. And just like the players 20 years ago, they are going to develop a set of unwritten rules as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Yep, it’s possible to walk both sides of the line without being in the least bit hypocritical. Manfred is absolutely correct in leaving it up to the players to determine what is appropriate and what is not. That’s been the rule since forever, and things have seemed to work out pretty well. Once, an act like digging into the batter’s box was considered retaliation-worthy. Then times changed. Now, bat flips are all but ignored, and occasionally encouraged. Because that’s the way the players (certain among their ranks—*cough, Bumgarner, cough*—excepted) want it.

It’s the very position I’ve advocated in this space from my very first blog post. My own feelings have little sway in whatever position I happen to be examining. The issue at question is about how a player’s actions mesh with the mores established by his peer group at large. If he’s in the mainstream, there should be little problem with whatever it is he’s done. Otherwise, let’s discuss it and, if need be, discuss it again.

Manfred closed his answer thusly: “I have great faith in our players; that they will use good judgment; that they will develop a set of rules that are respectful of the game, but also are reflective of the differences between these young players and the people that may be played a generation ago. I think we should all embrace that. I think it’s a good thing for the game.”

Honestly, no answer he could give to any question would convince me of his competence more than that one. At their core, the unwritten rules are about respect, and however the current crop of players ends up getting there is far less important than their getting there at all.

Ultimately, that’s all any defender of the sport’s code should care about. Manfred is about two years into his tenure; looks like we’re in good hands, baseball fans.

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Jose Fernandez, RIP

jose-fernandezIn a note only tangentially related to baseball’s Code, it seems fitting to recall Jose Fernandez, as so many have done over the last day or so, as a man whose passions ran deep. His joyful embrace of the game accentuated the drama of his arrival in this country, and his enthusiastic approach had the baseball world remembering him as one of the sport’s most exciting players.

In addition to all that’s been said since news of his passing broke, I have only to add that for all the kid’s bravado, he offered up the single best response to his own breach of baseball etiquette that I have seen since I began covering this beat.

In 2013, when Fernandez was a 21-year-old rookie, he behaved so egregiously in a game against Atlanta that he nearly came to blows with Braves catcher Brian McCann. I went into detail about it at the time, but the important point is what came afterward: Before players had so much as settled into the postgame clubhouse, Fernandez owned up to his mistakes, apologized and vowed to do better.

It was a refreshing dose of self-awareness and humility, the likes of which are seen all too infrequently in professional sports. For it to come from a kid who’d barely reached drinking age made it all the more impressive.

They say, with good reason, that athletes frequently serve as poor role models. On that day in 2013, however, Jose Fernandez set as good an example as possible about how to own your mistakes, and what can be done to try and make things better. He will be missed, for his baseball skills and so much more.

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What the Hell is Wrong With Craig Counsell?

Segura

 

At one end of baseball’s unwritten-rules spectrum, angry pitchers try to justify their desire to throw baseballs at hitters. At the other end, celebration-minded batters ignore the Code entirely while seeing how high they can flip their bats.

On Friday, Brewers manager Craig Counsell broke new ground among their ranks, and not in a good way.

Start with the details. In a game against Arizona, Milwaukee second baseman Orlando Arcia, making only his third major league appearance, collected his first hit as a big leaguer—an RBI single to right field. So far, so good.

When the ball was returned to the infield, however, Arcia’s counterpart, D’Backs second baseman Jean Segura—the man who Milwaukee traded in January, in part to clear space for Arcia—took note of the moment and tossed the ball into the Brewers dugout for safekeeping. It was a nice, anticipatory gesture on behalf of a young player, and prevented the Brewers from having to waste time by halting play and requesting the ball themselves.

Counsell’s reaction was pure bush league. He protested to the umpiring crew that Segura removed the ball from play without first calling for a time stoppage. The umps agreed, Arcia was awarded two extra bases, and Segura was tagged with a thoroughly unearned error. (Watch it here.)

“I get it,” said Counsell after the game in an MLB.com report, “but you have to wait.”

In soccer, players’ code dictates that the ball be intentionally kicked out of bounds when an opponent goes down with a legitimate injury, nullifying an unearned extra-man advantage. In cycling, a race leader who has suffered a mechanical breakdown or other stroke of bad fortune will frequently be granted some slack by his pursuers. Yes, these things aid the opposition, but they also maintain honor.

Where the hell does honor fit into Counsell’s game plan? His move was less gamesmanship—taking advantage of a chink in the system—than sheer, calorie-free bravura, emotional junk food that, while giving his team a slight advantage, diminished himself and the game at large. As a player, Counsell made something of a habit of stealing bases while his team held big leads late in games, so maybe this is just business as usual for him.

Leaving the play alone—letting his ex-player, Segura, do something nice for his current one, Arcia—wouldn’t have drawn notice, because it would have been expected. By calling out a letter-of-the-law violation, however, Counsell painted himself as petty and self-involved.

Ultimately, Arcia was stranded at third base, and Arizona won, 3-2, on a bases-loaded walk, in 11 innings.

Could have been the baseball gods sending Counsell a message.

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Gossage Gloms on to Long-Gone Glory, Participates in Passing Out of Pap Publication

goosegossageSo Goose Gossage, mustached  ball of old-man rage, will be passing out a book containing his version of baseball’s unwritten rules. Because, you know, people need to stay relevant.

Upon hearing the news, one detail sprang immediately to mind: It’s already been written, man. It’s already been written.

 

 

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No Need to Upset MadBum – He Covers That Quite Nicely Himself, Thank You

MadBum-Myers

What does it mean when a notorious red-ass acts down to his reputation? By inventing slights at which to react angrily, is he upholding the unwritten roles, or violating them?

Madison Bumgarner might know, but he’s not telling.

Bumgarner, of course, is the guy who got into it with Jason Heyward in March, who got into it with Delino DeShields last July, who got into it with Carlos Gomez last May, who got into it with Yasiel Puig in 2014—twice—and who got into it with Jesus Guzman in 2013.

Agree with them or not, at least the above instances involved clear-cut impetus for his red-assery. On Tuesday the lefthander was at it again, for reasons that nobody could quite fathom.

Bumgarner struck out Padres first baseman Wil Myers to end the third inning, then, as he was walking back to the Giants dugout, decided to about-face and shout Myers down. Myers, incredulous, told him to knock it off, and benches briefly emptied. (Watch it here.)

Why?

“It was hard to tell whether Myers offended him by calling timeout, or taking too long to get in the box, or even taking too healthy a cut, by the pitcher’s reckoning, while striking out,” wrote Andrew Baggarly in the San Jose Mercury News.

Bumgarner himself did little to explain the situation, saying only that “I just wanted to be mad for a minute.”

To be fair to Bumgarner, self-motivation is an important tactic in sports. If irrational anger is what he needs to compete at peak levels—and he threw a complete-game five-hitter, so maybe it is—more power to him, so long as nobody gets hurt. (MadBum even went so far as to make up with Myers when he reached first base after a ninth-inning walk.)

That said, the Code is built around respect for one’s opponent. Bumgarner, in inventing reasons to get upset at Myers, seems to be in short supply of it. Whether this is “playing the game the right way” any more than Puig’s bat flip which set off the pitcher back in 2014 is up for interpretation, but with every outburst it appears to be less and less so.

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Swing, Battah Battah, and Don’t Be Deterred By Back-To-Back Bombs

Buster's blast

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 @BaseballRuben for the heads-up.]

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Manfred Weighs in on the Vital Issues Confronting Us All

Manfred

MLB Commish Rob Manfred sat down with Adweek for a short Q&A which, given the most contentious topic of spring training, led off with questions about Bryce Harper and bat flipping.

Adweek: What do you make of Bryce Harper’s comments about how the sport is “tired” and should embrace players showing more emotion in an effort to appeal to a younger audience?
Rob Manfred: There’s a couple of word choices there I would have preferred that Bryce not have made. Having said that, the general sentiment is that this great young generation of stars that is emerging in the game is going to play the game their way—not a bad thing. Every institution evolves over time, and the fact that the players who played in the 1960s played the game one way doesn’t necessarily mean that players who are playing in 2016 are going to play it exactly the same way. I think younger stars taking control of the game is good in terms of marketing it to younger people.

Do you think baseball should embrace this and have more moments like Jose Bautista’s bat flip during last year’s playoffs? 
I don’t see that as a baseball commissioner’s office-driven issue. The players play the game on the field the way they play the game. That’s the point I was trying to make about Bryce’s comments. There’s these great young players coming along; they’re going to decide what’s acceptable on the field.

In summation: Young’uns will be young’uns, baseball’s changing (just like it always has), the players on the field dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not, and Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt are cranky old men.

Okay, then.

 

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