The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules

Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Bluster: The Unwritten Rules Debate Rages On

Talk

Man, those Bryce Harper comments have stirred things up something fierce. Over the last week, Baseball’s unwritten rules have become downright Trumpian—people are either for or against them, always with passion and frequently for reasons they don’t seem to fully understand.

Take a pair of newspaper accounts, both out of Texas, as a representative sample.

In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel argued that minority representation has fueled baseball’s recent surge in emotional displays, and that instead of trying to corral the new wave, the sport needs to better embrace it. To further his point, he wrote, “The code needs to be less white.”

In the San Antonio Express-News, Roy Bragg countered that celebrations should be left to other sports, and pitchers controlling behavior via “a fastball in the ear” is a tenable solution for countering excessive displays.

The arguments run directly counter to each other, but they have something important in common: They’re both ludicrous.

Culturally speaking, Engel is correct. An all-time high percentage of players from Latin America, 29.3, were on opening day rosters last year, and their presence—fueled by the less-strict atmosphere in which they learned the game—has substantially impacted MLB mores.

Less conclusive to his point is that the runner-up season for Latin representation was 2005 (29.2 percent), during which time there was comparatively little uproar over a player’s right to flip his bat.

The argument would work better had Engel claimed that baseball needs to be less North American, but to demarcate it along racial lines is to dilute the point. Back in the Code’s heyday, its most prominent practitioner was Bob Gibson. Two decades later, Pedro Martinez was as close to Gibson’s attitudinal heir as baseball had. Neither, of course, was white. (Meanwhile, one of Engel’s own examples of a guy who deserves emulation in this regard is Rangers pitcher Derek Holland, perhaps the whitest man in the league.)

On the other side of the ledger, Bragg’s point that celebrations should be limited to games of merit—say, playoff victories versus midweek contests in April—is worthy of discussion, but entirely lost amid bluster like this: “Let the young players act out. That next fastball will say everything that needs to be said.”

Neither writer seems to fully accepting the fact that baseball grows organically, and that values shift over time. Accrediting on-field celebrations as non-white activity shortchanges a shift in perception among a mainstream that is primarily white. On Bragg’s part, to threaten physical harm against those who resist is about the most backward argument one can make in the modern game. Both are polarizing statements, for utterly different reason.

Times are changing, fellas, just like they always have. Engel’s arguement that we should let the games be more fun would be a lot easier to carry out if people didn’t try to rationalize things so damn hard.

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Bryce Harper, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Sergio Romo: Secretly Simpatico?

Keep calm

For a while, it seemed like yesterday would belong to Bryce Harper’s views about baseball’s unwritten rules.

Then Goose Gossage opened his mouth. In what appears to be coincidental timing, the Hall of Fame reliever unloaded to ESPN about noted bat-flipper Jose Bautista being “a fucking disgrace to the game,” among other choice sentiments that ran directly counter to Harper. Gossage, of course, is his generation’s It-Was-Better-When-I-Played standard-bearer, the guy to turn to for strident opinions.

His comments came in response to a benign question about new Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, and quickly veered not only to slamming Bautista, but to complaints about how “fucking nerds” who “don’t know shit” are ruining the game from front-office positions, that “fucking steroid user” Ryan Braun gets ovations in Milwaukee, and that modern relievers are too focused on pitch counts and not enough on the game itself.

Gossage, a world-class griper, was simply doing what he does best.

He would have been easier to dismiss had not Giants reliever Sergio Romo—one of the game’s free spirits, a guy loose enough to rock this t-shirt at the Giants’ 2012 victory parade—himself dismissed Harper later in the day.

“Don’t put your foot in your mouth when you’re the face of the game and you just won the MVP,” Romo said about Harper in a San Jose Mercury News report. “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”

In response to Harper’s comment that baseball “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the reliever offered a succinct takedown.

“I’m pretty sure if someone has enough money,” he responded, “he can find another job if this is really tired.”

Thing is, Romo and Harper actually seem to agree about most of what they said. Romo is himself demonstrative on the mound, showing more emotion while pitching than perhaps anybody in Giants history. He took care to note, however, the difference between excitement and impudence.

“As emotional and as fiery as I am, I do my best not to look to the other dugout,” he said. “I look to the ground, I look to my dugout, to the sky, to the stands. It’s warranted to be excited. But there is a way to go about it to not show disrespect, not only to the other team but the game itself.”

With those four sentences, Romo cut to the heart of the issue. Contrary to those trying to position this as a cross-coast battle of wills, Harper did not say much to contradict that sentiment.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have changed markedly over the last decade. There is more acceptance of showmanship now than at any point in the sport’s history, and scattershot blasts from the likes of Goose Gossage will not slow that momentum. Because the Code has changed, however, does not mean that it is failing.

The real power of the unwritten rules lies in the maintenance of respect—between teams, within clubhouses and, as Romo went out of his way to note, for the game itself. This core value has not eroded at all.

What has changed over time is ballplayers’ ability to distinguish displays of emotion from displays of disrespect. When the mainstream decides  that bat flips are an acceptable form of self-expression, they no longer have the power to offend.

The reason this hasn’t already gained universal acceptance is that not all bat flips (used here as a proxy for any number of emotional displays) are equal. Bautista’s display during last season’s playoffs was magnificent. Some bats are flipped, however, not with celebration in mind, but in an effort to denigrate the opposition. It might, as Romo noted, include a staredown of the pitcher (as Harper himself has been known to do). It might be some extra lingering around the box, or a glacial trot around the bases. At that point, the method of the opposition’s response—which includes the option of not responding at all—becomes a valid concern.

Romo talked about this distinction, and its importance to the game. Surprisingly, so did Harper.

The MVP noted that Jose Fernandez “will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.” Because Harper doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect, Harper doesn’t care. And if Fernandez does not intend it as such, nobody else should, either. (Worth noting is that Fernandez learned an important lesson in this regard early in his career.)

The main fault with Romo’s diatribe was that he inadvertently piggybacked it atop Gossage’s inane old-man ramblings. Still, he lent some nuance to a discourse which sorely needs it, and perhaps inadvertently pointed out that he and Harper have more in common than either of them might otherwise believe.

Ultimately, the question seems to be less “Can’t we all just get along?” than “Why haven’t we figured out that we’re getting along already?”

Unwritten-Rules

To Bunt or Not to Bunt, That is the Question

Hosmer

Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star just came out with the best, most reasoned piece on baseball’s unwritten rules in some time. It’s not because he staunchly defends them—to the contrary, he concludes that players should be allowed to aggressively chase stats any way they can, even during the course of a blowout, a position with which I disagree—but because he presents a comprehensive look into expectations during lopsided games.

In so doing, Judge refers to an Aug. 24 game between Kansas City and Baltimore, in which the Royals scored seven runs in the sixth inning to take a five-run lead. The key moment was Eric Hosmer coming to the plate for the second time in the inning, after all seven runs had scored … and trying to bunt for a hit. The Orioles were not happy about it, and expressed as much from their dugout.

The answer to whether Hosmer was right or wrong is what makes baseball’s Code so variable, and so difficult to understand by those not paying close attention. To wit:

  • While most agree that aggressive tactics like stolen bases and hit-and-runs should be abandoned during the late innings of blowouts, the definitions of how much and when have shifted over time. Only a few years ago, amid the steroid-fueled chaos unleashed upon box scores nightly, a five-run lead in the sixth would have barely registered. Now, however, with offense down, it now appears to be back in play.
  • Another thing that’s changed over the last few years is the prevalence of the defensive shift. Does the fact that Baltimore was playing the majority of its infield on the right side of the diamond—giving itself a clear defensive edge—negate Hosmer’s mandate to play non-aggressive baseball, which includes bunting for hits? The Orioles were playing like run prevention still mattered, and if their lack of willingness to give up aggressive defensive tactics has to carry some weight.
  • It’s not unlike the defense giving itself an advantage by failing to hold a runner at first during a blowout, knowing that, based on the Code, he won’t take off for second. The inequity of being able to play the first baseman in the hole rather than having him tethered to the bag, even while insisting that the opposing team not take advantage of it, is wildly lopsided. (The compromise position, as Judge points out, is to play the first baseman back, but not all the way back.)
  • Numerous factors are involved in the designation of what lead is too big and what point in the game is too late, including geography and bullpen availability. A big lead in San Francisco is far more sound than a big lead in a bandbox like Philadelphia. Similarly, if a team does not have its full complement of relievers available to protect a lead, it may try to pile on more than it otherwise would. As is usual in these types of situations, communication is paramount; letting the opposition know that one’s decision to eschew the Code is reasoned and not personal can go a long way toward avoiding bad blood.

Ultimately, I agree with Hosmer and Judge: Regardless of circumstance, if a team is willing to put on a defensive shift, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of that shift. Run at will, boys.

Retaliation, Unwritten-Rules

Q: When is Headhunting Okay? A: Never

This seems like a good time for a quick dissertation on the meaning of—and the general spirit about—baseball’s unwritten rules. The last several years has seen what seems like a tidal shift of voices decrying their very existence, bemoaning what is deemed to be a culture of institutionalized violence in the name of some outdated code of moral conduct.

Let’s use an event from a minor league game on Friday to dispel some of that.

The scene: Moosic, Pennsylvania, at PNC Field. Pitcher Lester Oliveros of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings opens the game by surrendering back-to-back singles, then a three-run homer, then another homer. Down 4-0 before he’s recorded an out, Oliveros drills the next hitter, Austin Romine of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders directly in the helmet.

It’d be easy enough to decry this as macho posturing within an institutional framework that props up such behavior. When one is getting one’s teeth kicked in, after all, it behooves one to mix things up, to make the opposition less comfortable.

It is macho posturing—that much is beyond debate—but it has no more place among the game’s unwritten rules than it does among the written ones. It goes against nearly every facet of the Code: A pitch above the shoulders; retaliation for teammates’ success; loose-cannon ethics that possess no space for the wellbeing of the opposition. The underlying tenet of the unwritten rules is the exhibition of respect, and this act decries it almost entirely, as it regards opponent and sport alike.

If the unwritten rules are to come into play here at all, it will be in the RailRiders’ response. Perhaps the imminent suspension will suffice, but there will likely be an on-field retort the next time Oliveros takes the field against against them. Red Wings manager Mike Quade is well acquainted with the Code; he can opt to let Oliveros take whatever may be coming in an effort to put the incident behind him, or he could simply refuse to play him against Scranton, hoping the pitcher will make the jump to the big club soon enough.

The Code also matters to the rest of Oliveros’ teammates, who should understand that his recklessness has put each of them in harm’s way should Scranton opt to retaliate in anything less than direct fashion. (Such a response would carry its own baggage, but there’s no mistaking that sharing a bus with guys who are pissed off at your actions can serve as a powerful deterrent in the future.)

Ultimately, Oliveros was an independent contractor, working outside the scope of any prescribed response to his situation. By ignoring the Code he set himself up to face every a host of corrective actions that have been developed specifically to keep guys like him in check. It can be a powerful tool … if one lets it.

[Via Hardball Talk]

Unwritten-Rules

Shout it From the Rooftops, Shout it From the Mountain, Just Don’t Shout it Near MadBum

Gomez confused

There was a lot of shouting at Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Some of it was from Madison Bumgarner. Most was from Gomez himself.

It started when Gomez fouled off a pitch he felt he should have drilled. He whirled outside the batter’s box and screamed at himself loudly enough to be picked up on the TV broadcast. (Watch it here.)

Bumgarner did not approve. The pitcher glared at Gomez, then fed him an inside pitch—it didn’t come close to hitting him, but conveyed an unmistakable message. Gomez popped out on the lefty’s next offering, also inside. Bumgarner had some words for him as he headed back to the dugout.

Really, though, this story is about Gomez’s postgame comments. Had he not said this, on MLB.com

Who does that guy think he is, Bumgarner? I never scream at anybody when they miss a pitch and he screams at himself, or they make a pitch and be happy. I never say anything. So you put a good swing and they’re looking at you like you’re a piece of (garbage). Tell that (guy) to throw the ball and don’t worry about my thing. That (guy) was looking at me like I’m an idiot. So you worry about pitching. I worry about hitting. I don’t care what you do. You can strike me out and do whatever you want. That doesn’t bother me. But a professional, like the guy thinks he (is), you throw the pitch and the hitter can do whatever he wants. I missed a pitch. . . . I was (upset) because I waited for that pitch and I’m supposed to hit it and I missed it. I was (mad) at myself, so he can’t be looking at me. He’s not my dad.

… then we wouldn’t be talking about the incident today.

The reality is that Gomez is no stranger to controversy. Like his brawl with Gerrit Cole in 2014. And his showdown with Brian McCann in 2013. And his confrontation with Joe Mauer in 2010. The guy has his moments.

So then does Bumgarner, who lit into Yasiel Puig last season for flipping his bat, and into Juan Guzman in 2013 for much the same reason. It wasn’t even the first time he dug into an opponent for self-flagellation; Alex Guerrero did a disgusted pirouette after flying out to right field against the Giants earlier this season, and MadBum had a few things to say.

The takeaway: Bumgarner is one of baseball’s noted red-asses, and whether or not you like it, at least he’s consistent. He’s not settling any stupid, made-up scores by drilling guys, so in that capacity he’s fine. And baseball needs a few curmudgeons to keep things spicy.

Gomez, for all his fire, has the right to be annoyed, but he should also come to expect it. Bumgarner’s not his dad, but he does make his own rules when he’s on the mound. Gomez doesn’t have to like them, but he’d be well served to understand that things are probably not going to go any other way.

Unwritten-Rules

Knee-gate Revisited

Rosy's knee

Last week we examined Adam Rosales’ knee plant atop second base, which was called out by Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as violating some sort of unwritten rule pertaining to middle infielders. Never having heard of it, I took an unofficial survey of as many infielders as I could find when I was at the Oakland Coliseum last weekend.

Okay, it was only two. And one of them plays third base. Still.

“If his knee’s not in the way and he’s not trying to do it, then he’s not trying to do it,” said A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie (who’s had his own dose of slide-related drama this year). “If you’re on top of the bag but there’s still room to slide, that’s okay. Everything’s fine.”

A’s coach and longtime middle infielder Mike Gallego offered a different—though not contradictory—perspective. The difference between tags today and those of previous generations, he said, is replay.

“Back in the day with the old sweep tag, if the ball beats the runner the umpire is calling him out, no question,” he said. “Now, you have to literally put the tag on the play, so you might see guys blocking the base a little bit more to make sure they get the tag on the runner. It’s changing.”

It’s true. Prior to replay, runners never complained about being called out if the ball beat them to the base, even if the tag had already come and gone. Now, the necessity to position themselves not just to make a tag, but to hold it, is paramount. It only follows that they’ll have to at least occasionally brace themselves in ways about which previous generations would have been less tolerant. Not a direct correlation to Rosales’ situation, but worth mentioning.

The early verdict: Both Lawrie and Gallego mentioned that planting a knee next to the bag is preferable than doing so on top of it, for reasons that Cabrera enumerated after jamming his fingers. They also said that things happen in a bang-bang play, and what Rosales did was hardly objectionable. (Hell, first basemen like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell were known for applying pile-driving tags on pickoff throws as a means of reminding the runner about the cost of doing business. Tag etiquette can be a complex affair.)

I’ll continue to ask around as the season progresses. Updates as events warrant.

Unwritten-Rules

Knee, Meet Fingers. Fingers, Knee. Chat Amongst Yourselves

Rosy's kneeAfter having paid particular attention to baseball’s unwritten rules since I started researching The Baseball Codes in 2005, I’ve compiled what seems like a pretty comprehensive set. On Saturday, Asdrubal Cabrera may have informed me of a new one.

Diving back into second base on a pickoff attempt, Cabrera jammed his fingers into the knee of Rangers second baseman Adam Rosales, and got up shoving. (At first blush it appeared to be because Rosales inadvertently leaned on him with an off-balance elbow, but that had nothing to do with it. Watch the play here.)

After the game, Cabrera said, in an MLB.com report: “He put a knee onto second base. I’ve played both sides, second and short, and I know that’s not fair to put a knee on the base.”

At the very least, Cabrera was correct in his assessment that, had Rosales’ knee not been planted atop the base, his fingers would have remained blissfully unjammed.

Rosales’ general demeanor is among the best in all of baseball, and there’s no question that whatever he did was done unintentionally. Still, it begs the question—especially with the accusation flying from one infielder to another—was he out of line?

More to follow …