The Code’s Continuing Importance

Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer came out with an impassioned defense for Brandon Phillips yesterday, claiming that the young Reds star is entitled to the sort of on-field self-congratulation that marked him as a target over the weekend.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

To be fair, Phillips should be commended for understanding the situation he created with his series of chest-thumps following a home-plate collision in which he dislodged the baseball from Nationals catcher Wil Nieves to score a run.

When Washington’s Miguel Batista drilled him the following inning, Phillips took it exactly like a ballplayer should, without a peep of protest.

And with that, the matter was settled.

Not so fast, writes Daugherty. Showing another player up, he says, is “an archaic and arcane bit of baseball-think that has survived the test of years.”

From the Enquirer:

In other sports, freedom of exuberance has grown with the times. Like it or not, sports are not the same as they were when gentlemen roamed the box seats in suitcoats and fedoras. Except in baseball. One man’s exuberance is another man’s show-up.

Which is exactly the point. There’s something to be said for the creativity of end-zone dances in the NFL, but is anyone in America impressed by the back who rushes for two yards on second-and-one—with his team down by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter—only to jump up with his own grandstanding first-down signal? Did he really need to let the world know about his accomplishment?

How about the NBA guard who backpedals down the court thumping his chest after hitting a three-pointer to bring his team to within 20 points of the lead?

To use a baseball term, it’s bush league.

It’s doubtful the Nationals would have begrudged Phillips his celebratory antics had he just plated the winning run. But his play—and it was excellent—merely extended Cincinnati’s eighth-inning lead to 4-1.

The same unwritten rule that prevents Phillips from beating his chest (“Lesson learned,” he said after the game) keeps his opponents in line, as well. While slippery-slope arguments are frequently specious, if the NFL’s standards of self-congratulation were transposed onto Major League Baseball, we might be seeing celebratory arm waving from pitchers in response to a missed swing on the first pitch of a given at-bat.

Baseball’s unwritten rules are what sets it apart from other sports in this country. It’s a thoughtful game, and demands thoughtful actions.

The Code takes a sport based on head-to-head, pitcher-vs.-hitter competition, and keeps the focus on the game and away from the players. For everyone who has ever decried the look-at-me revolution in modern athletics, this can not be oversold.  The same gentility that Daugherty decries is actually one of baseball’s greatest assets.

One man’s stuffiness, after all, is another man’s purity. For many of those who love baseball, that means everything.

– Jason


This Week in the Unwritten Rules

Welcome to our new feature: a weekly roundup of Code violations across the major leagues. Since it’s just kicking off, we’ll stretch back two weeks, which takes us back to opening day.

(If you come across any rules violations you think should be covered, please send a tip to baseballcodes@gmail.com.)

April 6
Atlanta’s Nate McLouth illustrates the art of the outfield trap. Is it cheating to act as if you’ve caught a ball you didn’t come close to catching? In the big leagues, no.

April 7
We all know that players don’t acknowledge a no-hitter as it’s being thrown. In the digital era, the same holds true for members of the blogosphere.

April 8
Kevin Youkilis gets drilled in the helmet. Derek Jeter wears one in response. This is retaliation at its easiest, as both men were able to laugh about it, even as it was happening.

April 11
Yankees manager Joe Girardi raises eyebrows when he fesses up that he would have pulled C.C. Sabathia from the game for the ninth inning, even had his no-hitter still been intact.

April 13
Francisco Rodriguez illustrated the power of intimidation, while offering a message to National League hitters: the guy doesn’t like lip.

April 14
A.J. Pierzynski shows little respect for Ricky Romero’s no-hitter, acting as if he’s been painfully hit by a ball that missed him entirely.

April 16
Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez refrained from mentioning either no-hitter taken into the late innings this season by Toronto pitchers.

– Jason


Newspaper Comes Up with the Next 10 Codes on the List

It took four years to come up with enough unwritten rules (and examples to illustrate them) to fill a book.

Writing about The Baseball Codes, Robert Rubino of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat just wrote Vol. 2 for us before the paper went to press yesterday, with a column featuring “the top 10 unwritten rules that didn’t make it into the book.”

In inverse order, they include:

10. Spit like a man.

9. The rebellious third-base coach (who habitually and exclusively stands outside the coach’s box).

8. Arguing with umpires. Rubino only devotes a paragraph to the topic, but he’s actually on to something here. The initial draft of the book contained a section about proper methods for effectively arguing with arbiters (for example, attack the call, not the umpire), but it was cut for space considerations.

7. Closers’ fashion and histrionics. “Facial hair, earrings and necklaces are pretty much trademarks of ninth-inning relief pitchers,” he writes. Again, he’s on to something . . .  sort of. The initial draft contained an entire chapter on facial hair, which may yet see the light of publication one day.

6. The etiquette of post-game interviews.

5. Outfielders should slide whenever possible while making catches, the better to make highlight reels.

4. Refrain from picking your nose. Not good on TV.

3. Bullpen residents must perfect “the look of unendurable boredom with a clearly discernible sliver of mindless mischief.” For more on this topic, see one of the books we used as a primary reference, Pen Men, by Bob Cairns. It’s an excellent read.

2. Middle infielders should always use the phantom tag.

1. Appropriate cup adjustment. “Be proud,” writes Rubino. “Be bold.”

It’s a fun list that’s obviously not meant to be taken too seriously. Rubino, however—possibly despite himself—actually scratched the surface of a few interesting topics that are legitimately Code-worthy. It just goes to illustrate that there will be a lot of blogging to do this season.

– Jason

Mark McGwire

Mark McGwire Says He Wishes He’d ‘Never Played in the Steroid Age.’ It Probably Wouldn’t Have Mattered, Mark

Mark McGwire, here hitting one of nearly 700 career homers, wishes he'd not played during the steroid era.

Now that Mark McGwire has performed his highly public act of contrition in front of all of America (or at least, those discerning enough to watch the MLB Channel in early January), there’s again a public discussion, if not outcry, over the steroid era, and whether it has tainted the record book forever.

Probably not.  It’s certainly not the first time baseball players have been proponents of “better living through chemistry.”

Two anecdotes we weren’t able to get into the book serve to illustrate how pervasive the use of amphetamines–a.k.a “uppers,” “greenies” and “beans”–were in the “Era Just Before The Steroid Era, Except it Leaked Into the Steroid Era” :

We talked to a successful pitcher, who not only used greenies on a fairly regular basis, but it was their use that helped him decide when to quit the game.  “I realized one day that I was actually afraid, fearful of taking the field without at least two greenies under my belt,” he told us. “That’s when I knew it was time to get out–while I still had some sanity.”

But even getting out didn’t solve the problem for everyone.  At the 2007 All Star Game festivities in San Francisco, one easily-recognized former MVP came into the locker room, walked into the training room and erupted, yelling,  “Where the hell is the bowl of beans?”

The player was adamant that he was not going to “go out on that field in front of people” without “beaning up,” and he was clearly serious about the matter.

It’s noteworthy that he was talking about taking the field for the Celebrity Softball Game, and that he’d already been retired from the game for a number of years.

As the players say, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

– Michael

Late, Tim Raines, Unwritten-Rules

Raines in Hall? At Least he Understood the Code

Tim Raines deserves a spot in Cooperstown, wrote Rob Neyer today on ESPN.com. One of Neyer’s arguments had to do with the fact that Raines was an elite base stealer, yet his success rate was much higher than that of Lou Brock (and Rickey Henderson, for that matter).

Part of that differential had to do with the fact that Raines rarely ran to pad his stats, as did several of his contemporaries. A few years ago, we discussed the unwritten rule that forbids stealing bases with a big lead late in the game. Here’s what he had to say:

I remember the year that Rickey (Henderson) stole 130 bases; I remember Vince Coleman stealing over 100 bases. In those situations, guys just took off. They could be up 10 runs, down 10 runs, and they’d just take off for their own special reasons.

I’m sure some guys got hit for it, but that was the way they played that game. I just never played the game that way. I never really was one of those players who was concerned more about my numbers than the team. I didn’t play the game to stack up numbers, to be the all-time baserunning leader. I did it to win games. Every base I stole was toward winning ballgames. It wasn’t just me, it was about the team.

– Jason

Justin Duchscherer, Sign stealing, Unwritten-Rules

Duchscherer on Sign Stealing

Justin Duchscherer just re-upped with the A’s for one year at up to $5.5 million, with incentives, according to ESPN’s sources. The right-hander, an All-Star as a middle reliever in ’05 and again last year as a starter, spoke with me a couple years ago about how to deter opposing baserunners relaying the catcher’s signs:

That’s part of the game – people do it. Sometimes you’re out there and you’re giving up hits on good pitches, and you’re wondering what the heck’s going on. . . . If there’s a guy at second base, they’ll give a signal or something. (Ex-A’s catcher Jason) Kendall is always watching for stuff like that. He’ll say, “Tell that son of a bitch to stop looking in here.” Or we’ll change signs. He’ll do something to control the game and let them know that he knows they’re stealing our signs.

There was a time in Triple-A where the pitching coach thought a guy was stealing signs, and he had the catcher call for a fastball away and we threw one in. We got the message across pretty quick – he stopped stealing fricking signs. He didn’t get mad. Players know if they’re doing something wrong. If I was cheating and somebody go mad at me for it, I wouldn’t be mad at them for being mad at me for cheating.

– Jason

Chan Ho Park, Rookie Hazing, Unwritten-Rules

Park Sues Former Teammate; if Only He’d Considered the Tactic Sooner

Normally, big leaguers handle their grievances with each other on the field of play, not the courtroom. That didn’t stop Chan Ho Park, who filed suit against former teammate Chad Kreuter for allegedly failing to repay the full balance of a $460,000 loan.

This is what the unwritten rules are for. Were Kreuter still active (he’s been out of the majors since 2003, and now coaches at USC), Park — who played last year with the Phillies — could have drilled him in the ribs and then sued him.

It’s not the first time Park has had problems with teammates. In 1996, his rookie year with Los Angeles, assorted Dodgers stole his clothes from his locker in advance of a road trip — a typical tradition when it comes to rookies. The idea is to get the youngsters to traverse airports and buses in garish getups or women’s clothing to demonstrate exactly where on the clubhouse pecking order they reside.

It wasn’t the clothes to which Park necessarily objected, but the treatment of his purloined outfit. Park’s suit was summarily shredded, its sleeves and pants legs removed. (And this after he served as the winning pitcher in a 13-inning victory over the Cubs, and drove in the winning run with a bases-loaded walk, to boot.)

Thing was, the suit had been given to him by his mother in Korea as a token of good luck. When he saw how it had been treated, Park pretty much lost his mind.

He threw a plate of food. He threw his chair. He screamed. He cursed. Then he collapsed in a heap of tears. None of this endeared him to his teammates.

The pitcher only made things worse when he got to the airport (still wearing his baseball pants), when he insisted that the airline fetch his luggage so he could put on another suit. Dodgers players went so far as to jump on the plane’s PA to announce that changing clothes onboard was against airline regulations. Park hardly cared.

If there’s a mitigating factor, it’s that the pitcher was new to the country and had little grasp of American baseball customs. (He also clearly had little grasp of American legal customs. Were he better versed, he might have filed a lawsuit for that incident, as well.) After speaking to his agent and others, he returned to the clubhouse contrite, and did his best to put the incident behind him.

“The guys who make a big fuss about it, who get mad at it, they’re usually the ones who don’t last too long,” said Doug Mientkiewicz (who himself was forced into female clothing by his Twins teammates as a rookie in 1998), about the tradition in general and not about Park in particular.

Park didn’t live down to that observation, however, spending six seasons with the Dodgers (plus another in ’08).

His ability as a banker, of course, appear to be less finely honed.

– Jason

Barry Larkin, Kangaroo Court, Ken Griffey Jr., Unwritten-Rules

Griffey Trade Didn’t Look So Good Early On

Yahoo Sports ranks Seattle’s trade of Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati as the “supertrade” of the 2000s.

What they don’t mention in their story is that Griffey struggled so mightily out of the gate — batting just .217 in April, and .198 on May 4 — that teammate Barry Larkin used his version of the nuclear option to try to bust his slump. A mop-wigged Larkin fined him in kangaroo court for “imitating an All-Century Player.”

(Griffey ended up with 40 homers, 118 RBIs and a .271 batting average.)

– Jason

Don't Showboat, Jimmy Rollins, Steve Kline, Unwritten-Rules

As a Rookie, Rollins had Lessons to Learn

The Phillies picked up Jimmy Rollins’ option for 2011 Sunday, handing him $8.5 million to stick around for an extra year. Before he was an MVP, however, Rollins learned a hard lesson about the unwritten rules.

In the eighth inning of a May game against St. Louis during Rollins’ first spring as a big leaguer, the Cardinals brought in lefty Steve Kline to face him. The Phillies led 2-0, and it was Kline’s job to keep the deficit from escalating. It took him all of three pitches, however, before Rollins clubbed a two-run homer to double his team’s lead.

As he started off toward first, however, Rollins flipped his bat high into the air.

That was all it took to send Kline into a tizzy. As Rollins rounded the bases, the pitcher shadowed him with every step, screaming all the while. “I called him every name in the book, tried to get him to fight,” Kline told me. “He hit it pretty well, and I was upset about it. That’s what I was taught — not to be shown up. I don’t strike him out and fucking do a cartwheel on the mound.”

The pitcher stopped only when he reached Philadelphia third baseman Scott Rolen, who alleviated the situation by assuring him that members of the Phillies would take care of the situation internally.

“That’s fucking Little League shit,” said Kline after the game. “If you’re going to flip the bat, I’m going to flip your helmet next time. You’re a rookie, you respect this game for a while. . . . There’s a code. He should know better than that.”

That’s one part of the story. Kline recounted the details to me in 2007, six years after it happened. When asked if it was forgotten history by that point, the pitcher said coldly, “It’s not forgotten.”

Kline faced Rollins five more times after that at-bat, always in games closer than three runs; never once did he consider prioritizing personal revenge over potential victory. The pitcher retired a few months after we spoke, having gone unrequited in his on-field payback — which probably means that it’s still not forgotten.

As baseball sage Andy Van Slyke said of batter’s box showmanship, “You’re not making money to dance, you’re making money to hit home runs.”

– Jason