I currently have a copy of “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton on my desk. If you don’t know, Bouton was a Major League ballplayer. The book is about his time with the short-lived Seattle Pilots in 1969. One of the unwritten rules of baseball had always been that one does not talk publicly about what goes on in the clubhouse or the team dynamic in general. “Ball Four” kind of tore the cover off of that one. I deeply question the validity of some “unwritten rules” in baseball anyway. Some are perfectly reasonable. Some of them need to be ignored.
I’ll start with the unwritten rules that I agree with.
1. Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter – I am a fan of small ball. Home runs do not excite me, at least not with the regularity that we see them today. And the bunt is a perfectly valid way of getting on base or advancing a runner. But doing it with no one on base simply to break up a no-hitter is like kicking over the chess board when you realize you have no path to victory.
2. “If you hit one of our guys with a pitch, we hit an equal member of your team” – To some it is settling up of accounts. To others it is reaping what you sew. And to yet others it is a second wrong making things right. And of course there is the argument that all this does is escalate a bad situation. I am not for escalating tensions on the diamond but I think if one team’s biggest star player gets hit intentionally, the other team should expect that if there is retaliation, it will come to their own star player.
3. Don’t celebrate a home run – I have long enjoyed the creativity of the end zone celebration after touchdowns in the NFL, and more recently the elaborate home plate or dugout celebrations after a home run in Major League Baseball. I appreciate them as entertainment, but I agree that it is not something that should happen unless it is either a walk-off that wins the pennant or the World Series or something. Side note: There is another unwritten rule that a pitcher is not to celebrate a strikeout, but I’ve never really seen any pitcher do that.
4. No stealing a base or swinging at a pitch on a 3-0 count – Certainly with the runner on first, stealing second in this situation just screams to your teammate who is batting that you think they are going to find a way to not get walked. And the only redemptive value of swinging on a 3-0 pitch is if the batter knows without a doubt that this is their pitch to hit, and in doing so they can move the runner up more than one base by hitting it.
Then there are the “unwritten rules” that aren’t so straightforward.
1. Don’t step on the chalk line – I am conflicted with this one, so I am going to play both sides here. You should never step on the chalk lines because it messes up the beautiful infield. But throughout the game base runners are going to mess the lines up anyway. And not stepping on the baselines due to superstition? Well…yes, baseball is a terribly superstitious game over all. But catering to other people’s superstitions is no reason not to step on a bit of chalk.
2. Don’t talk about no-hitters – Again this is mere superstition and if you mention a no-hitter in progress and the pitcher goes out and gives up a hit on the next pitch, it isn’t your fault. He listened to you talking about no-hitters. He let it get into his head. He threw the pitch. He gave up the hit.
3. Don’t rub the mark after hit by a pitch – A batter is not supposed to show pain or weakness by rubbing the place where he just got hit by a pitch. But I think a pitcher knows he’s hurt the batter by hitting him with a fastball. If it was intentional, that was kind of the point. If it wasn’t you don’t have to concern yourself with whether he knows he hurt you.
4. Pitchers taken out of the game must stay in the dugout – What ever happened to a manager yanking the pitcher out of the game and telling him to “hit the showers!” To me “hit the showers!” means right now. He can come back afterwards to support the team.
5. Don’t run up the score – This includes stealing bases when far ahead. Look, the point of the game is to score more runs than the other team, and giant rallies do occur from time to time. So when you have a chance to score more runs, you take it. If you’re up 17-1 in the ninth, sure you don’t have to swing for the fences but you’re certainly not going to bunt either. That’d be breaking another unwritten rule. So all you can do is swing away. And if you happen to load the bases and you’ve got a good hitter up, he should be looking for a good pitch and swinging at it. Whatever happens happens.
6. Managers, don’t go against percentages – This one is complicated. Do you remember Moneyball? The Oakland Athletics were playing percentages to the extreme and it worked very well. But some of the best managers of all time had a sixth sense when it came to baseball. They knew their players, and they knew the opposition. Sometimes they saw things no one else did. Sometimes a managers just uses their intuition. Intuition is not necessarily logical. And besides, going against the percentages hold the advantage of the element of surprise.
Surely there are some baseball purists out there who will take issue with a good amount of what I’ve said here. I encourage debate.