This Is How We Do Things Around Here

One of my big things in life is growth and moving forward. Being stuck in the past has rarely served me well. I say this as this week we had another instance of someone from baseball’s old guard do his best to alienate fans and players alike. The unwritten rules of baseball need to die a swift death. They have done little to move the game forward in the 21st century.

The most recent incident which brought the unwritten rules of baseball to the forefront occurred last Monday when the White Sox Yermin Mercedes homered off Willians Astudillo of Minnesota on a pitch which clocked 47.1 MPH during the ninth inning of a game which ended 16-4 in Chicago’s favor. Tony LaRussa, the 76 year-old manager of the White Sox was not pleased with the home run hit by his own player. Among other things, he claimed it was bad sportsmanship. I have to challenge this assertion. I am of the opinion that once the Twins put Astudillo in to pitch they have thrown up the white flag for the day, so anything which transpired after that is fair game. I have issues with this on a few levels. The first being the game was being played by professionals. I can understand a little league game having a mercy rule, or some other mechanism, to help end the carnage when a team is catching a beating. This does not work for me when the game is being played at the highest level. The next problem I have this being professional baseball and the players are paid based upon their statistics. I seriously doubt Tony LaRussa will be in the next arbitration hearing advocating for Yermin Mercedes to be paid more because he didn’t hit a home run during a blow out in May; each at-bat counts regardless of the score. The third thing for me comes from the world of the British take on respecting your opponent in soccer. They see it as we owe it to our opponent to give our best effort for the duration of the game, irrespective of the score. So to apply this mindset to baseball would mean there is no turning off the running game, or just playing base-to-base. For me, there is no such thing as running up the score in a game played by professionals.

Unwritten rules in baseball can be a bit of a gentleman’s agreement. We won’t do X if you agree not to do Y. These can have another insidious effect on the game as they can be used to enforce a status quo, which isn’t always a good thing. To see this in a historical context, there was never an official rule anywhere which prohibited a team from signing a Black player prior to Jackie Robinson appearing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The teams had an unwritten rule. I think everyone can agree the game is better for having a diversified player pool.

It appears the unwritten rules have infiltrated front offices in baseball again, as the staffing of the various departments have been flooded with analysts with advanced degrees from Ivy League colleges. This had led to a lot of the sameness throughout the major leagues. This lack of diversified thinking is evidenced in things like the homogeneous approach to roster construction and the three true outcomes style of hitting. All of the ball clubs are looking for the same players and are only working on marginal gains. Every pitching staff is filled with a bunch of guys who throw 100 MPH with minimal ability to actually pitch; every lineup has a bunch of players who can hit 30 home runs with a season’s worth of at-bats, while hitting not better than .270. The game is better when there are multiple ways to win and different types of players are valued.

I understand unwritten rules help develop the culture of any environment. Baseball players are human, so their wanting to hit early in the count to keep a game moving when flying home after a game on a getaway day makes complete sense. Having the least tenured relief pitcher being responsible for the snacks in the bullpen is fair game. Peeking at the catcher’s signs (either from the batter’s box or by electronic means) is not. Players who violate the unwritten rules are policed within the confines of the game.

There is room for the previous baseball generations to pass along their knowledge gained from their years of experience, however, I don’t feel it is the place of the people no longer playing the game to tell the current players what is acceptable as far as the unwritten code is concerned. I have seen many instances of guys who last played more than ten years ago chiming in with their antiquated ideas of what should happen during the game. For the game to continue to grow and remain relevant, those voices need to be quieted down and marginalized. It isn’t the 1990’s anymore. The game belongs to the players.

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