Opponent of baseball’s unwritten rules: The Code exists as a means of allowing overly sensitive players to exact nonsensical macho bullying on each other under institutional cover.
Counter to that argument: Friday evening at Camden yards.
A generation ago, infielders—primarily first basemen, in the process of fielding throws to first while trying to keep baserunners close to the bag—utilized hard tags as a weapon, a means of relaying to an opponent that issues were afoot. Runners, familiar with the framework, understood this and took it accordingly. Should the message skew out of line, they had their own means of response.
Today, nobody seems to know anything. This is the only explanation for a play in which a baserunner goes ballistic after having been put out by an entirely ordinary tag. In the third inning on Friday, Manny Machado, on second base following a single and fielder’s choice, tried to take third on Adam Jones’ groundball to Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson. Machado clearly did not expect the play; there were two outs and Donaldson could easily have thrown to first to end the inning. Instead, seeing Machado crossing his path, Donaldson stayed close to home.
In his surprise, Machado tried to jackknife out of the way. Donaldson thrust his glove at the evasive runner, his only intention being to make sure he did not miss.
The off-balance Oriole angrily spiked his helmet to the ground even as he was tumbling backward. Donaldson offered only a confused smile, wondering why the hell his opponent was upset in the first place. (Watch it here.)
“I was actually walking over there to pick his helmet up for him, and then he jumps up and starts yelling at me,” said Donaldson in an MLB.com report. “I have nothing against the kid. I don’t understand where it came from.”
Which brings us to the point at which we offer a rebuttal to the sentiment in the first sentence of this post. Pick apart the Code all you want, but it’s impossible to see one of Machado’s forebears so much as blinking at this kind of play. It’s easy to criticize those who take things too far in the name of some imagined construct that dictates propriety on a ballfield, but that construct also serves to give players a baseline for knowing what is and isn’t appropriate. Had Machado been aware of this in the first place, he never would have reacted like he did.
As if to double down on the lunacy, the Orioles then backed Machado’s hissy fit as a team. In the seventh inning, pitcher Wei-Yin Chen first brushed Donaldson back with a pitch near his head, then hit him on his left forearm.
This, then, is the dark side of the unwritten rules (critics, cue the echo chamber): rogue justice meted out without regard for merit. But even in this (an act—hitting a batter out of anger—that is patently ridiculous) we can see some greater purpose. Chen was doing his duty as a teammate, backing backing one of his own, even if he did not agree with him, because that’s what teammates do. There’s no quicker way for a pitcher to build respect in his clubhouse. Still, the the Orioles would have been better served had a player with some seniority pulled the 21-year-old Machado aside and, rather than taking it out on the A’s, suggested forcefully that he check himself. And it’s possible that happened.
Warnings were not issued (perhaps to give Oakland a chance to retaliate for a lunatic outburst), and Donaldson had words for the Orioles dugout as he made his way to first base. The game was too close from that point for things to progress from there, and no response of note was seen on Saturday. If the A’s are smart, they’ll leave this one alone, knowing they have nothing to gain by prolonging hostilities. If the Orioles are smart, they’ll have already dealt with Machado themselves.