Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

MLB’s Unwritten Rules Commercial Doesn’t Say What You Might Think It Says

Puig tongue

As you’ve no doubt seen repeatedly by now, MLB has put out a let-the-kids-play commercial hyping the celebratory aspect of baseball. It seems like a decent opportunity for discourse on the nature of the unwritten rules.

The nearly universal takeaway of the spot is that it trashes baseball’s Code, dispensing with traditional decorum in favor of personality-driven enthusiasm—a direct effort to address the sport’s image problem. That’s because baseball tends to subsume its characters beneath the nature of the game, which has costs in terms of outreach and the marketability of its stars. The NFL—already at a wild disadvantage given that its athletes wear helmets and masks on the field—addressed a similar issue by reinstituting end zone celebrations, which in their wild creativity have brought new levels of attention to the sport. The NBA has no shortage of distinct and camera-friendly personalities. Mike Trout, meanwhile, can walk down Main Street in Anytown, USA, with a reasonable chance that he will go unrecognized.

None of this is in dispute. What the above theory misses, however, is that the commercial in question isn’t decrying the unwritten rules so much as marking their evolution. The Code is a fluid affair, as it’s been since the beginning, adapting to the times in whatever ways players see fit. Once, digging in against a pitcher would insure a knockdown pitch in response. Now, players dig in willfully and intentional knockdowns are nearly extinct. Once, barrel rolls into infielders and blowing up catchers were standard methods of operation. Now, spurred by changes to the actual rulebook, they’re seen in big league dugouts as acts beyond the pale. The Code is fluid.

The modern game obviously does not need to legislate on-field celebration. It’s a process that’s been building organically for years. Postgame midfield scrums surrounding walk-off heroes were once the strict purview of postseason play; now they happen during interleague games in May. Flipping a bat once assured a player retribution down the road, then along came Puig and everything changed. Pitchers bellow to the heavens and hitters, upon reaching base, make all kinds of hand signals—antlers, antennae, claws—to teammates in the dugout. Apart from the rare red-ass in MLB ranks, these acts go uncontested. This isn’t a challenge to the Code—this is the Code. The unwritten rules are whatever the majority of baseball players say they are.

So when MLB releases a commercial celebrating celebration long after such things have entered the mainstream, it’s merely acknowledging what already exists. The needle has moved, and that’s just fine.

 

 

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Cheating, Gamesmanship

Baez’s Attempt To Hug It Out Almost Saved Chicago’s Season

Javy hugs

As the game wore through extra innings last night in Chicago, the Cubs grew increasingly desperate to score. They’d left the winning run stranded at third in the eighth, and had another runner in the ninth they could not advance.

Then, with one out in the 11th, with Javy Baez at second and Daniel Murphy at first, Wilson Contreras topped a grounder to Nolan Arenado at third base. It was a great chance for the rocket-armed fielder to double up the gimpy-legged Contreras—who only moments earlier had precipitated a minutes-long delay when his left calf muscle cramped—and end the inning.

Instead, Baez, baseball’s most creative player, wrapped up Arenado in a bear hug as the tag was applied. It was, on the surface, a friendly gesture, Arenado responding with a smile and a hug of his own. The idea of doubling up Contreras was lost, especially to an umpiring crew who detected no hint of malfeasance from the victim.

It made no difference in the end, as the next batter, Victor Caratini, grounded out to end the inning, and the Rockies went on to win in 13. Had Murphy ended up scoring from second, however, Baez’s hug would have gone down as an indelible moment in what would have been a Chicago victory.

I have a book about the 1981 Dodgers, called They Bled Blue, coming out next March. What jumped out to me in relation to Baez’s hug was a moment from the 1978 World Series that I describe in the introduction. The Dodgers led the series two games to one, and were ahead in Game 4, 3-1, in the sixth inning. Then the Yankees put two men on base—Thurman Munson at second and Reggie Jackson at first—against Dodgers starter Tommy John. That brought up Lou Piniella. From They Bled Blue:

Piniella tapped a humpbacked liner up the middle, which Bill Russell, moving to his left, reached in plenty of time for the putout. The shortstop, however—whose nervous glove had long belied his supreme athleticism—was coming off a season in which he’d finished third in the National League in errors. He nearly made another one here, the ball clanking off his mitt, a miscue that looked inconsequential when it rolled directly toward second base, allowing Russell to snatch it up three steps from the bag and race over to force Jackson for the inning’s second out . . . which is where things got interesting.

With Russell having been in position to catch the ball on the fly, both runners had retreated to their bases of origin. Munson, in fact, made such a belated start toward third that had the shortstop thought to reach to his right upon gathering in the loose baseball, he might well have been able to tag him then and there. Russell didn’t, of course, because there was no need: an accurate relay to first base—which the shortstop provided, firing a bullet to Steve Garvey in plenty of time to retire Piniella—would complete an inning-ending double-play. There was, however, an impediment: Jackson, having backtracked, was rooted in the baseline only steps away from first. As the throw rocketed toward its intended target, Reggie did the only thing he could to extend the inning—he leaned ever so slightly toward right field, his hip jutting out just far enough to deflect the throw, which bounced off him and toward the grandstand alongside the Yankees dugout, allowing Munson to score.

The Dodgers screamed interference. Tommy Lasorda speed-waddled onto the field, tobacco juice dribbling onto his chin as he argued at top volume with umpires Frank Pulli and Joe Brinkman. Pulli, stationed at first, later admitted that his view of the base runner had been obstructed and that he had little idea whether Jackson might have intentionally interfered with the ball. Brinkman said that he’d been looking at second base to call the force-out when the ball hit Reggie . . . or, depending on your rooting interests, when Reggie hit the ball.

The play might have been dirty, but there’s no denying that it was smart. Had Jackson done nothing, the inning would have been over. The frame would similarly have ended had Reggie been called for interference, as he should have been. As it was, though, he got away with it, allowing Munson to close New York’s deficit to 3–2, The Sporting News later calling it “one of the shrewdest and most significant plays” in World Series history. Had Jackson not done what he did, Tommy John—whose previous two starts were a four-hit shutout over Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series and LA’s victory over the Yankees in the first game of the World Series—would have been in the middle of another four-hitter, trying to protect a two-run lead in the late innings. Instead, with the Dodgers clinging to a one-run advantage, Lasorda pulled the left-hander after Paul Blair’s leadoff single in the eighth. Two batters later, reliever Terry Forster allowed a game-tying double to Munson, and the game went to extra innings. New York won it in the 10th, and the Dodgers, instead of being one win from a Series victory, found things knotted at two games apiece. It wrecked them.

The Yankees, of course, went on to win that World Series. Things didn’t work out so well for Baez, but it is likely that his hug was specifically intended to curtail the possibility of Aranado ending the inning with a double-play. If that’s the case, one could—as with Reggie, 40 years earlier— fault his sense of fair play. Just like Reggie, of course, Baez’s was a winning proposition with no attendant downside, and the possible upside of being a game-winner.

There’s a reason he’s one of the savviest players in baseball.

 

Retaliation

What Price Respect?: CC Sabathia’s Half-Million-Dollar Pitch Speaks Volumes

CC drills 'em

In the world of pro sports, money frequently equates to respect. In major league baseball, a team coming up with big contract dollars for a player shows—in the eyes of an abundance of those players—that he is respected. Alternatively, if a team presents budget constraints during negotiations, it shows that they do not. Look no further than escalating salary clauses that guarantee a player will sit at a given rank among the highest-paid in his sport; they are less concerned with how much a player makes than that he rates highly among his peers. It’s an easy way to insure more money, of course, but it also insures respect.

Which is what makes CC Sabathia’s decision yesterday all the more remarkable. For a moment, anyway, money didn’t equal respect in baseball. Quite the opposite.

In the sixth inning, two frames from triggering a half-million-dollar contract bonus in his final start of the season, Sabathia opted to stand up for his teammates by drilling a member of the opposition. With warnings already in place from an earlier incident, the pitcher knew he’d be tossed for it. He didn’t care.

In question was a fastball thrown a half-inning earlier by Rays right-hander Andrew Kittredge, at Yankees catcher Austin Romine—as obvious as a retaliatory pitch can be. It was ostensibly in response to the compounding numbers of Tampa Bay players being drilled by New York pitchers. On Tuesday, Luis Severino hit Tommy Pham. On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka hit Kevin Kiermeir, fracturing his foot. Yesterday, one inning prior to Kittredge’s response, Sabathia hit Jake Bauers. None of those drillings appear to have been intentional—Sabathia’s pitch was an 87-mph two-seamer that broke in on the hitter’s hands—but at some point it’s tough to criticize a team for wanting to respond.

The primary problem with Kittredge’s pitch lay in its execution—it was a first-pitch fastball fired directly at the ear hole of the Romine’s helmet, which the hitter barely managed to avoid. Most ballplayers are willing to tolerate retaliatory tactics within certain parameters, none of which include pitches thrown above the shoulders; there is no more universally loathed tactic in all the sport. The offering was so blatant that plate ump Vic Carapazza immediately warned both benches.

This is what Sabathia had to consider as he stewed in the dugout while the Yankees batted.

It’s extremely rare that an athlete has such clear and diametrically opposed options available during the course of play. Sabathia could have ignored Kittredge’s pitch, or even just brushed a Rays hitter back in response, and still have been able to cash in. Instead, he followed what he considered to be the correct path. With the score 11-0, timing didn’t matter at all. This is why, with his first pitch of the following inning, Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in the backside. He was immediately tossed, as he knew he would be, his bonus money all but forfeited on the spot.

CC Sabathia is 38 years old and an 18-year veteran. He came back to the Yankees this season on a one-year contract offered as much to secure his leadership as his pitching. With first-year manager Aaron Boone at the helm, the left-hander was expected to be a stabilizing force in the clubhouse.

This, then, is what leaders do.

Some people decry the idea of drilling a batter intentionally under any circumstance. In many instances—in response to some sort of celebration, for example, or whatever else can be considered as showing up an opponent—this is a majority opinion even within big league clubhouses. But when a pitcher deliberately puts one of your own in peril—and without question, that’s what Kittredge did to Romine—players demand response. There’s an element of macho posturing to it, but it’s more that. It is a tangible consequence of a team taking liberties with an opponent, a tactic that forces the offending squad to confront their conduct and, ideally, to act differently in the future. Hell, it’s the same thing that inspired Kittredge in the first place, except that unlike Sabathia his response was outside the boundaries of accepted behavior.

That Sabathia has earned more than $250 million over the course of his career in no way means that he sees $500,000 as anything less than a significant amount of money. It was a sacrifice on his part, made willingly and without complaint in the name of respect and clubhouse standing.

If the Yankees want to do the right thing, they’ll pay him anyway.

Retaliation

Bumgarner Dots Braun, Gives Up Grand Slam, Makes Fans Wonder What The Hell’s Going On. Again.

MadBum-Braun

As if we didn’t already know it, Madison Bumgarner reminded us over the weekend that it’s probably best just to let him mutter like an insane person on the mound when he pitches. That’s because if you dare question his mutter-and-fussing, he will quickly transition from old-man-yelling-at-neighborhood-kids-from-his-porch to old-man-throwing-baseballs-at-neighborhood-kids-from-his-porch.

Just ask Ryan Braun.

In the sixth inning of Sunday’s game against the Brewers, MadBum threw a couple up and in to the former MVP. Given that Braun had already hit an RBI double against the lefty and sent another one to the wall in center, Bumgarner was in no mood for a response. When Braun suggested that the pitcher “just throw the ball,” it was more than enough motivation for Bumgarner to do just that.

His next pitch nicked Braun on the elbow. Message sent, I guess.

Then again, that message loaded the bases for the next hitter, Jonathan Schoop, who unloaded them with a grand slam. Given that the Giants led 2-1 before Braun’s at-bat, this was not an ideal outcome for Bumgarner. As the Brewers spilled from the dugout to greet Schoop, many of them took the opportunity to yell at the pitcher and had to be shooed off the field by ump Dan Bellino.

It was, of course, classic Bumgarner. (For previous examples of his exquisite red-assery, look here, here, here, here, here, here or here.)

The pitcher’s irascible farmer act is likeable, I guess, if you’re a Giants fan … except that I am a Giants fan, and this kind of thing rips me up. Stand your ground. Take no guff. Defend teammates. But when a pitcher has to invent conflict in order to motivate himself, and that conflict comes back to bite him and his team, it’s awfully hard to swallow.

Bumgarner’s act can play when he’s an ace. But when the velocity of his four-seamer has dropped nearly two miles per hour, and the pitch has gone from one he uses more than 40 percent of the time to one he uses .1 percent (that’s point one percent) of the time, and the spin rate has plummeted across his repertoire, and he’s given up 11 earned runs over his last two starts … well, when all that happens, these kinds of meltdowns don’t inspire much love from the base.

Pitch to Braun, not at Braun. Win baseball games, not arguments. Be a badass, not a bully. There is success to be found there, if only Bumgarner chooses to look.

 

Fights, Intra-Team Fights

Mariners Confrontation Nothing New In Clubhouse Annals

Reggie 'n Billy

Given the clubhouse confrontation between teammates Dee Gordon and Jean Segura in Seattle earlier this week—apparently over a dropped flyball in a game the Mariners eventually won—it’s only appropriate to reference the greatest group of brawlers that baseball has ever seen, for whom I hold a particular affinity (and for which this post is in no way related to the fact that the paperback was just released on Monday).

I’ve already disseminated, via Deadspin, the passage from Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic detailing Reggie Jackson’s 1972 fight with Mike Epstein. So here’s a different fight story about the Swingin’ A’s, from the book, about the culmination of a weeks-long feud between Jackson and outfielder Billy North in 1974:

Jackson spent the afternoon of June 5 at a hotel in downtown Detroit with NBA players Archie Clark, Charlie Scott and Lucius Allen. There are at least two versions of what happened next. In one, a lady called for one of the basketball players, and when she found out that Reggie was there, asked to speak to him. She was North’s girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend), who may or may not have been an airline stewardess, and, having heard that he and Reggie weren’t getting along, took the opportunity to prod Jackson for details. In another version the girl came on to Reggie at a bar some weeks earlier when North was not around, only to be rebuffed by the ballplayer. Both versions were told by Jackson at different times.

The way North reacted, there may well have been a third option. He arrived at Tiger Stadium a bit later than the rest of the team, already afire. At that point, the clubhouse—a tiny space, with lockers consisting of mesh metal frames sticking out at right angles from the white-tiled wall every three feet or so—was sedate. The scant area in the middle of the room contained a table where the team’s regular bridge players—Holtzman, Fingers, Green and Knowles—were mid-game. Ray Fosse sat nearby, looking on. Reggie, naked save for a towel, entered the clubhouse from the adjacent trainer’s room just as North arrived. The center fielder started in on him as soon as he walked through the doorway. “Superstar, my ass!” he shouted, striding toward Jackson. “You’re a fucking jerk, you know that?” When North got close enough, he reared back and punched Reggie in the face, twice. Jackson was stunned, but absorbed the blows without falling. Then he lowered his shoulder and charged. “It was surreal, like, ‘Is this shit really happening?’ ” said Herb Washington, who, having spent the afternoon with an increasingly irritated North, had a good idea of what was about to go down.

North and Jackson scuffled up one side of the room and down the other, ultimately falling hard to the concrete floor. The men playing bridge in the center of the room looked up disinterestedly and returned to their card game. “I had a slam bid I wanted to play, and damned if people were fighting,” said Green. “I still played it.” Fingers was even more blasé, saying, “They’re just going to fight later anyway if we break it up now.”

That meant that the only peacemakers on the scene were Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue (the same Odom and Blue who nearly fought each other in the same clubhouse following a playoff game two seasons earlier). With Blue scheduled to pitch that night, collateral damage became a real concern, so Fosse jumped up to help. By that time North was on top of Jackson. Blue pulled on North, Fosse pulled on Blue, and everybody fell backward, Fosse crashing into a locker divider on his way down.

Everything stopped. Fosse shakily picked himself up. Jackson and North scrambled to their feet, took some deep breaths, and eyed each other warily. The peace lasted about three minutes, until North began shouting (according to Reggie), “You know damn well what this is about! You’re trying to steal my girl from me is what this is about!”

Reggie did his best to settle his teammate. “Hey man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said. “I talked to a girl … that’s all. I didn’t ask her for a date. I didn’t ask for anything. I don’t want anything from her. I don’t want your girl. I don’t want anything from you.”

The only reason Reggie didn’t want her, taunted North, was because his sexual proclivities did not lean toward her gender. Jackson flashed and, still naked, went after him again. Again the pair stumbled across the floor. Reggie clipped a locker with his shoulder and fell awkwardly, and North leapt atop him and began swinging.

Across the room, Bando looked at Tenace. “What are you doing?” he said.

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” asked Tenace.

“Why are we letting it go on like this?” asked Bando.

“Did you see what happened to the last guy who tried to break it up?” said Tenace, referring to the still-woozy Fosse. “I ain’t going to be a stinking statistic.”

“Get over here,” said Bando, pulling his teammate toward the players. Bando grabbed North, Tenace grabbed Reggie. Alou, Campaneris and Washington raced in for damage control.

Once the fisticuffs ended, Jackson decamped to find ice for his aching shoulder and North stomped off to change into his uniform. Bando looked around and clapped his hands in mock satisfaction. “Well, that’s it,” he said. “We’re definitely going to win big tonight.”

The A’s did win that night, 9-1 over the Tigers, but Jackson hurt his shoulder in the scuffle, precipitating a protracted slump. Hurt even worse was catcher Ray Fosse, who in an effort to break things up injured two vertebrae and ended up missing most of the rest of the season.

By all accounts, things weren’t that bad between Gordon and Segura in Seattle (or between broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen in Detroit).

Then again, the A’s went on to win the World Series that year, something that seems decidedly unlikely for the Mariners or Tigers.

Cheating

Todd Frazier, Master Magician, Makes Baseballs Appear Out Of Thin Air

Frazer dives

On Monday in Los Angeles, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier barreled into the stands along the third base line to make a spectacular catch of a foul ball. He returned to the field, held it aloft, absorbed the “out” call from umpire Mark Wegner, and tossed the ball into the stands.

It was, of course, a sham. Frazier muffed the catch as he hit the seats, out of view of both Wegner and the TV cameras, but had the wherewithal to grab another ball nearby, made of white rubber, which he subsequently displayed as proof of his catch. Upon returning it to the crowd, Frazier effectively erased all evidence of his malfeasance. Only through the crack reporting of SportsNet New York were we even able to discern that something untoward had taken place.

So: Was Frazier cheating? In baseball, where this kind of ploy has longstanding history, the answer is an unqualified no. George Bamberger summed it up neatly when he said, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

There is plenty a competitor can do to fool an umpire. Outfielders hold aloft balls they know they’ve trapped. Batters who haven’t been hit by inside pitches jump back in feigned pain. Even Frazier’s tactic of switching baseballs isn’t original.

During the second inning of a spring training game in 1966, San Francisco’s Jim Ray Hart smashed a drive to the wall at Phoenix Municipal Stadium; in trying to chase it down, Cubs center fielder Byron Browne crashed into the wall. Despite the ball having bounced far away from the collapsed fielder, Browne somehow—without moving from his spot—picked it up and threw it to shortstop Don Kessinger, who relayed it to third base ahead of the hard-charging Hart. Umpire Mel Steiner called the runner out.

Players in the Giants dugout found the play to be curious. Willie Mays, paying close attention, quickly identified the problem. “He threw the wrong ball!” he yelled. “The wrong ball!”

In fact, Browne had gathered up a ball that had somehow gone uncollected from the outfield after batting practice, which happened to lie within arm’s reach of where he’d landed. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps he wouldn’t have attempted this. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps his teammates wouldn’t have tried quite so hard to cover it up. As it was, left fielder George Altman, while running over to check on Browne, pocketed the real ball.

At the behest of Giants manager Herman Franks, the umpires began a search of Cubs players. Behind his back, Altman passed the ball to second baseman Glenn Beckert, who in turn shoved it into the pocket of trainer Joe Proski.

When plate ump Stan Landes compared the grass-stained practice ball with which the putout was made with the spotless white one that was eventually confiscated from Proski, he sent Hart back to second with a ground-rule double.

“All I know is that I hit the fence and bounced away and there was a ball right there, so I threw it,” Browne said after the game in an AP report. Altman similarly admitted to his coverup with the real baseball, telling reporters that “I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it in my pocket.”

As for the current imbroglio, Frazier admitted on Wednesday to his indiscretion, calling it “unbelievable.”

“I was flabbergasted that I even got away with it,” he told reporters. “It was one of those things where any third baseman—or any player—trying to win, if there’s a ball in front of you, you try to play it out. You do it as a little kid with your dad and mom, or your buddy down the street.”

Or in front of a stadium full of people and TV cameras. Either way, that’s baseball.

 

 

 

No-Hitter Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

Softball Coach Cares Little For The Code

softball
                                                                                                                                                           Ms. Phoenix

Maybe it’s a softball thing.

Check that, given the abundance of baseball players who have done similar things, it’s more universal than that.

In Jefferson City, MO, a softball coach threw decorum out the window, and freely discussed the no-hitter his pitcher was throwing with the pitcher herself, while she was throwing it. Luckily, the pitcher in question, Lauren Howell, doesn’t appear to be much for superstition, shutting down the opposing Battle Spartans—the Battle Spartans!—the rest of the way in a 6-0 victory.

Maybe the softball gods are no more concerned about this kind of thing than the baseball gods.