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Unwritten Rules and Their Impact on Baseball

You’ve no doubt heard plenty of the conversation surrounding baseball’s unwritten rules this past week, and surely know what sparked the entire debacle in the first place.

The Padres are playing the Rangers in Texas, and are up big in the 8th. Bases loaded, 1 down, and up comes Fernando Tatis Jr, who has been on an absolute tear. He runs the count to 3-0, and proceeds to deposit the very next pitch into the right field seats, grand slam. The Rangers don’t take too kindly to that, and the next pitch conveniently ends up behind Manny Machado.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

“Manny didn’t do anything though?!” No, but according to baseball’s archaic “traditions” and their gatekeepers, someone has to pay. The transgressions being Tatis disrespecting his opponent by not taking a 3-0 pitch, with a healthy lead late in the game. Simply put, he hurt their feelings. Rangers manager Chris Woodward made this crystal clear in that night’s postgame interview.

The unwritten rules refer to silent agreements established throughout baseball’s history, passed on and enforced as tradition within the culture of the game. The gist of the rule “broken” by Tatis, boils down to “don’t show up your opponent.” If you were to examine a list of these rules, you’d find that a large percentage of them share a common purpose: ego protection. Baseball player egos are fragile things, especially those of players from past generations of the game. They played at a time where any perceived slight against them was a sign of disrespect and they had to fight to restore their honor.

The Rangers are not solely to blame for this entire situation being blown out of proportion–the Padres had a hand in it as well. In his postgame interview that night, Padres manager Jayce Tingler apologized on Tatis’ behalf for him having swung on that 3-0 pitch. Tingler stated that he had given the take sign, that Tatis had evidently missed or ignored. The fact that Tingler even gave the take sign in that situation because he recognized it as the “respectful” thing to do is just coddling the Rangers ego at that point. Along with Tingler, other Padres players, including Eric Hosmer, attempted to diffuse the situation brewing in the Rangers dugout. Essentially apologizing for Tatis’ actions, saying that he’d speak with him. Hosmer did just that. Cameras later caught Hosmer explaining to Tatis what specifically bothered the Rangers so much. Tatis also had a postgame interview that night, in which he apologized, and cited how he grew up surrounded by baseball, and in all his time had never heard of a rule like the one in question.

@JeffPassan/Twitter

It’s all quite ridiculous when you think about it. Don’t pile on the lead when you’re already up big, you’ll hurt the other team’s feelings. Don’t stare at your home runs, you’ll hurt the pitcher’s feelings. Don’t show emotion on the mound after a big strikeout, you’ll hurt the batter’s feelings. Don’t have fun, you’ll hurt someone’s feelings for sure. In sports, all teams are striving for a common goal: to win. And if you’re that easily offended by the opposition playing better than you on any particular day, you might be in the wrong profession. Of course there are some instances where things are blatantly personal, and chaos is in the driver’s seat from there. More times than not, actions on the field aren’t personal, and reacting to them as if they’re slights against you will merely highlight insecurities you already have within yourself (looking at you, MadBum).

Fans and other MLB personalities across social media were quick to share their objections with how the Padres handled the situation. One silver lining amongst this ongoing drama has been the over abundance of support Tatis has received from the general baseball population. Reassuringly, it seems a large percentage of fans and players have come to realize that obeying the unwritten rules in 2020 does more damage than good for baseball. The Padres have since walked back their statements from that night, now in support of their young star; but social media does not forget. Tatis had virtually no one in his corner within that stadium, no one that spoke up anyway. What does that tell him in that moment? That he was in the wrong. That his style of baseball, essentially being himself, was not welcomed in that situation. To a player not named Fernando Tatis Jr, that can be discouraging, and enough to alter their outlook on the game to the point where it’s no longer fun. Imagine if Tatis took that criticism and ceased to be the electric, charismatic player that he is and instead became highly reserved and kept his head down. There’s no fun in that version of him.

Now let’s go back and unpack some of these other unwritten rules, and take a look at who is most affected. Historically baseball has been a predominantly white sport. Even after Jackie Robinson made his debut, percentages of players of color were slow to increase. And it took an even longer time before MLB gained an influx of Latinx players. Not too long after that, new phrases were conveniently coined when talking about players. Suddenly players were praised for “playing the game the right way,” meaning they were hard-nosed, kept their head down, and weren’t too flashy. And guess which players were deemed to be too flashy. Baseball purists love to respond to the more “passionate” players in the game by scolding them, ordering them to “act like you’ve been here before!” Phrases like this dim the light being shined upon these young players and effectively demonize them to fans. Especially when they come from the mouths of revered MLB figures and analysts. Sounds like the ideal baseball player is someone who seems to be miserable while playing a game that is supposed to be fun. Sounds like the ideal baseball player was, and maybe still is, a white one.

All this to say that rules like “don’t pimp home runs,” and the desire for players who aren’t “flashy,” are not so subtly discriminatory against players of color who play as if they ~remarkably~ are enjoying themselves. This sounds like a problem of the past right? There’s no thinly veiled racism in baseball in 2020, right? Then why are these rules still being enforced? I return to Madison Bumgarner as an example. In years past MadBum has not shied away from sharing his disdain towards players who pimp their home runs, Yasiel Puig in particular. On more than one occasion the two have gotten into shouting matches during Puig’s home run trots, almost always initiated by Bumgarner. Unfortunately this culture is engrained in the game, and has only begun to be broken down as more and more young stars are embracing their style of play, with little to no regard for baseball’s old guard. But there’s still work to be done.

Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News

MLB takes itself too seriously. At the root of many of its problems, it forgets that this is a game being played. In recent years, they have launched a few campaigns that are meant to embrace the youthful exuberance of the league’s brightest stars. These campaigns were accompanied by hype videos and slogans such as “Let The Kids Play” and “We Play Loud.” MLB talks a big game, but shoots itself in the foot when it still tolerates “old school” gatekeepers who enforce “broken” unwritten rules by retaliating. And what’s worse, retaliation is targeted directly at the young stars the league is publicly trying to embrace and promote. This is contradictory, to say the least. No matter the rule, no matter the perceived slight, retaliation almost always looks the same–throwing at batters.

MLB

Baseball breeds the cultural mindset that the only way to deal with problems is for a pitcher to throw at a batter. Apparently violent retaliation solves all, and it’s expected and accepted to an extent. Look back at Manny Machado’s reaction to being thrown at after Tatis’ grand slam. Following that pitch, Machado nodded in understanding, and made a face as if to say “I had it coming.” This shouldn’t be the norm. Again, these batters are the superstars of the game, and these pitchers who make their living by throwing a ball at high velocities and with pinpoint accuracy are looking at them as targets. In a pitcher’s hand, that ball becomes a weapon, and can easily end anyone’s career prematurely. Yes, batters get hit by pitches all the time, but these incidents are not intentional. Hit batters are often mistakes by the pitcher, and even these mistakes can break bones. Imagine, then, the damage a deliberate pitch at a batter can cause.

Rob Manfred and MLB allow members of the old guard to carry on these immature, irrational rules, with little to no consequence, and it can lead to the detriment of the sport if it remains unchanged. Players with these mindsets that go on to become coaches at lower levels like little league, high school or the minors will instill these twisted values in their teachings to younger generations. It’s a domino effect that has been in motion for a long time, one that will continue unless actively addressed.

Despite all my expressed disdain for the unwritten rules, not all of them need to be eliminated. There is a subsection within the unwritten rules, and these traditions are carried on based off superstition. To say that baseball players are superstitious would be an understatement. Each player carries their own unique superstitions, but there are several that are universal. One of the most upheld superstitions is that players are not to step on the foul line when entering or exiting the dugout, in order to avoid upsetting the baseball gods. Baseball gods; that’s another big one. Don’t speak to a pitcher in the dugout while they’re throwing a no-hitter, and don’t you dare even acknowledge out loud that a no-hitter is being thrown. The list goes on. All these are as ridiculous as they sound but they’re taken quite seriously. At the end of the day, they’re all in good fun and add to the character of the game. If all unwritten rules were like this, then there wouldn’t be a problem.

Baseball is meant to be fun. It’s a game after all. MLB players set the example for the young fans who watch them and aspire to one day be in their place. If the players on TV like Tatis are being scolded into apologizing for being good at baseball, then what precedent are we setting for kids with budding interest in the game? Should this continue, baseball could alienate its players and fans past the point of recovery, and “America’s Pastime” could fall to the wayside. So for the sake of the game, please swing away at a 3-0 pitch, no matter the size of the lead. Bat flip unapologetically, have fun and don’t be afraid to show it. But in the name of all that is holy, please don’t step on the line.

MLB

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