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.