I was feet-up in my basement playing PlayStation when I heard about Tim Kurkjian's piece over at ESPN on "The Unwritten Canon, Revealed," claiming to be an all-access pass to baseball's exhaustive list of unwritten rules. Finally, I think to myself, someone figured it all out. And who better than Kurkjian, one of the good eggs of baseball journalism. He's smart, he's insightful, he fits in most overhead bins. By golly, I can't wait to read this!
Instead what I got was what more of the same: piles of oblivious, hypocritical, contradictory bullshit.
I've heard all this stuff before, all throughout my playing days. Don't run over the pitcher's mound because it's sacred ground. Don't pimp home runs because it's disrespectful to the game. Don't throw inside unless you want one of your own players getting buzzed. Don't do this or that unless you have enough service time under your belt, in which case do whatever you want.
None of the players passing along their wisdom seemed to realize that it was all completely arbitrary. No one came close to acknowledging, "You know, it's stupid and none of us know where it came from, and before we go fracturing some poor rookie's wrist because he looked too happy about going yard on a vet, we should really sit down and ask ourselves if the punishment fits the crime."
Oh, I enjoyed the quips from the all-star cast Timmy rounded up to weigh in on what the unwritten rules of baseball are, why they exist, and what will happen should you break them. It was entertaining, to be sure. But by the time I came to the article's end, I was hard-pressed to recall anything substantial on the origin of baseball's honor code, or concrete rules on when they should be applied.
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It would be one thing if there were consistency across baseball—if everybody followed the same rules, then there'd be some de facto weight behind them. Instead it's 30 different teams with 30 different unwritten rulebooks. I was once told that when you get to the big leagues, a veteran player will take you out and buy you your first suit. That never happened to me or any player I knew in the Padres organization. Instead, Heath Bell bought me a hash brown and a large orange juice at McDonald's once. I was told, "That suit stuff is the kind of thing the Yankees do, not the Padres."
Trevor Hoffman, the Padres' closer during my time there, didn't like it when an opposing team pimped a home run off one of his starters, but he didn't have any bloodlust about it unless said starter was really upset and the team agreed there should be payback. B.J. Ryan, the Blue Jays' closer, seemed to froth at the mouth when someone on the opposing team went deep and looked happy about it, and he'd cuss to himself about how there would be retaliation, whether anyone else was on board or not.
When I was with the Jays, everyone was quiet in the presence of Roy Halladay. You got out of his way, didn't talk to him during his routine, and kept any conversations with him short. He was one star that set the tone for the whole locker room. When he was around, the organization talked about how everyone should emulate his work ethic and how it made the clubhouse a place of business. When he left, everyone talked about how his personality made the clubhouse a dark and moody place, and players need to know balance to succeed.
If teams existed as local baseball troupes putting on a six shows a week, that would be fine. But that's now how it works, and when those conflicting gravities meet and begin to pull in opposite directions, you get a great big bang of stupid.
Let's say a young player shows up on a club. He's a cocky, talented, overly expressive player. He's on a team where the management doesn't want to rein in its players' exuberance, and he's surrounded by older players that don't care about how much showboating you do, as long as you do your job, all of them saying things like, "You can act however you want as long as you do your job. All that matters is winning."
Now let's say that team goes up against a team where, when young players make it to the bigs, they're surrounded by veterans who think rookies should be seen and not heard, and if they step out of line, the older players are going to smack them back into it. Their chief tenet is, "You respect the game, you play it the right way, and until you've got three years in the show, you haven't done anything yet." What happens when that first team's young player admires his home run? Is it his fault if his opponents get pissed?
Does this sound like the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers? The Red Sox and the Rays? Maybe the Astros versus … never mind, the Astros don't have enough veterans to run the clubhouse.
It's not hard to see why the system endures. Young players, most of whom are just worried about keeping their jobs and fitting in, will pick an older player to emulate. They pretty much have to since if they don't fall in line with a veteran's whims, they will get labeled selfish. Those young players will eventually come into their own, and turn into older players themselves with rookies looking up to them. They'll perpetuate their received wisdom about what "playing the game the right way" entails, and on it will go, cycle after cycle, players learning to play the game correctly as first laid down by God knows who, with the nonbelievers being summarily shunned.
Some of those players will get traded to other teams where other leaders with different views have imprinted other rookies. Lockers rooms will face an unwritten code schism. Sects will form. Doctrines will mutate. In many ways, unwritten rules are like religious views, with different values assigned to different doctrines, all of which must be taken on faith. And just like with many religions, believers will embrace things for which they have no clue of the origins, just because they've been told to believe them, and that there will be hell to pay if they don't.
You have to be fully indoctrinated to buy into this stuff, because the most common argument for the unwritten rules—Think of the children!—doesn't stand up to examination. If kids actually followed baseball's unwritten rules in everyday life, they'd end up in the principal's office or in juvie.
At one point in Kurkjian's article, veteran Nationals utilityman Greg Dobbs is talking about how the players that Cadillac home runs should all be put in their place. About how they're disrespecting the other team, and the game, and setting a horrible example for the youth. Really? The Yasiel Puigs of the world are destroying America's pastime because they flip bats and jog with swagger? What a shabby, house-of-cards argument that can be demolished by anyone who remembers being a kid.
When I was young, looking for a role model, I liked guys like Ken Griffey Jr. I liked him because he was talented, but there were lots of talented players. What made him stand out to me was that he had the audacity to turn his hat backwards. He showed his personality. He had fun.
Naturally, coach after coach after coach screamed at us for turning our caps around. "It's not how you're supposed to wear the cap. It's not respecting the uniform. It's not how a ballplayer should look." And yet, it's what we liked. We thought it was cool. It made the game more enjoyable for us without affecting anyone else. It made us want to be baseball players. I played with more than one guy who had the silhouette of Griffey's signature swing tattooed on their arm so they could recall that point in their childhood when they fell in love with the game.
So here's Greg Dobbs, saying that when a young gun hits a homer and looks entirely too happy about it, the logical and correct response, the one that shows our youth how to handle disappointment, is to physically harm the perpetrator or his teammate.
This is how you set a good example for kids?
Jonny Gomes believes there are more bat flippers and showboaters and long-ball pimpers in the game today because the sport has become soft. And if he had his druthers, he'd toughen them up.
"So many rules and regulations have prevented the players from policing our game. Now, a young guy hits a home run, he cruises around the bases, and then you hit him with a pitch to teach him a lesson and you get suspended six games. Is it worth it to make a point? No. The rules have been altered. You have a better opportunity to go out in the parking lot and fight a guy after a game than throwing at him. If you fight in the parking lot, you might not get suspended. But if you hit a guy, you are going to get suspended."
Yes, if you go to the parking lot to fight a guy for pimping a homer, that's a sign of a man who respects the game. Whoops, no, sorry, that's the sign of an idiot and a criminal. Taking a player to the parking lot won't necessarily get you suspended from baseball, it'll just get you arrested—which, in this case, is apparently the lesser of two evils.
This kind of thinking illustrates a point you see again and again in the unwritten code—that baseball, and the way you behave while playing it, is more important than the laws we ask society to abide by. How else can you rationalize breaking someone's wrist, hand, or skull with a beanball as an acceptable form of punishment? How else can you justify committing assault and battery as a learning tool? By that logic, the next time someone cuts me off in traffic, I should send my car barreling into the offender's because that's the only way they're going to learn.
Cubs catcher John Baker said baseball's frontier justice is OK because, unlike in other sports, you can't physically retaliate in-play. As if baseball would be a better sport, and a superior example to the youth it's ruining by its flagrant display of exuberance, if you could simply call time out and beat the shit out the player doing it.
Brandon McCarthy thinks vigilantism wouldn't get out of hand because there are more unwritten rules policing that. "In hockey, guys don't take their skates off and slash an opponent's throat with the blade." See, everyone: progress! McCarthy's choice of analogy is not without irony, since hockey is getting pushback against fighting in the wake of increased awareness of lasting brain damage, something McCarthy full well knows the dangers of. Is it not hypocritical to endorse head gear to protect pitchers from line drives, yet endorse fighting and beanballing?
After wishing he could take his frustrations out to the parking lot, Gomes likened baseball service time to ranks in the military, saying—and this highlights a real misunderstanding of how the military works—"the more you move up the ranks, the less the unwritten rules apply to you." As if a four-star general can unilaterally bomb a country he's not at war with, or rush in from left field to smash Yunel Escobar in the back during an argument that has nothing to do with him.
It makes zero sense. But then again, it doesn't have to. Not if you're a veteran. All established baseball players are above having to make any sense concerning unwritten codes. Whatever they do, logical or illogical, becomes an accepted part of their character, and worse, it becomes a benchmark for the behavior of others.
When David Ortiz hits a home run, his leisurely trot around the bases is just shy of a professional wrestler's ring entrance. The crowd goes wild, his bat is raised for the first three steps, pyrotechnics follow, music roars, somewhere a Yankee fan is being clobbered with a steel folding chair.
In Ortiz's case, it's all perfectly acceptable. Why? "Because he's Big Papi," says McCarthy. Adds Adam Jones: "If you have 50 career homers, then don't celebrate like Cano or Big Papi or Soriano."
Orioles slugger Chris Davis says of younger players, "Sometimes, you have to act like you've been there before."
You mean, like Ortiz, who pimps his homers as standard operating procedure? He's been there before hundreds of times, and I'm pretty sure he's influenced lots of young stars who'd very much like to act just like their hero.
Or is that just Ortiz being Ortiz? Like Manny being Manny? How many plate appearances does he need to qualify for "Puig being Puig"? (Assuming he survives the barrage of behavior-adjusting fastballs sent at his head in the meantime.)
The most ridiculous premise for baseball's unwritten rules was the one put forward by C.J. Wilson, who said that baseball is unique in that it punishes the selfish. I think the fumes from Wilson's lifetime supply of Head & Shoulders have finally gotten to him. Baseball rewards the selfish. Oh, it masquerades as a team sport, but it has always been one of individual accomplishment first, team benefit second. It's one where players have no loyalty beyond the highest bidder, where teammates lie to teammates about performance-enhancing drug use, and the words, "I want to be with this team for life" apply only as long as the team in question will pay what the player thinks he deserves.
If being a humble servant of the game means holding on to grudges for years until the chance to exact revenge presents itself, then my moral compass is off. If being a selfless, I'm only hitting you with this 95 mph fastball because I love you guy is how you play the game the right way, I was happy to play it wrong. I gave up plenty of home runs, far more than I'd care to remember. More than a few of those dingers received the pimp treatment. It sucked, it was frustrating, and sometimes it pissed me off. But at no point did I think the proper response was to put another player's career or health in jeopardy because I made a mistake and the hitter did what he'd trained all his life to do.
There were times I took my sweet time on the mound, smiling at hitters who had whiffed on a change-up, or got caught looking at fastball on the black. I've talked plenty of shit and received just as much in return, but that's all harmless. When you start inventing rules for why it's OK for you to hurt someone for making you look bad, you're not a gamesman; you're an egomaniac.
Or you're an insecure old man worrying about about some fit, hungry kid taking your job. That's what this is really all about. There are 25 spots on an active roster, just 750 in all of MLB. Your young teammate is also your competition, and the inevitability of aging means he's going to eventually win. The unwritten rules—your rules—are about maintaining power, about putting him in his place. It's institutionalized bullying, and the only positive thing that can be said about it is that it may be a better release of tension than making it personal or resorting to physical hazing. I don't have a lot of sympathy for that argument, but making rookies buy dinner for vets is preferable to outright emotional abuse.
The best way to fix the system is to kill it. Baseball's unwritten rules justify hypocrisy, stupidity, and injury. They are feud propellant. Ego lubricant. Complete and utter bullshit. And they've been around for so long now that no one even knows why they're kept in service beyond the immature fear that the world would screech to halt without them. Well, three cheers for teaching our kids the importance of vigilantism. And God bless the first player to selfishly turn the other cheek.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former MLB pitcher, broadcaster, and author of Bigger Than The Game: Restitching a Major League Life.
Image by Jim Cooke.