A code to play by: Baseball’s unwritten rules

This story originally appeared in October of 2010 on NBCSports.com. But since they’ve change publishing platforms, it has vanished. I’ve revived it here, and I hope it makes you feel like breaking the rules, written or otherwise.

“Get off my mound!” the pitcher screamed, directing his rage at a base runner as he left the field following an inning-ending double-play.

amd-dallas-braden-backpage-jpgHe threw his glove, kicking various objects out of his way as he stomped into the dugout, his sensibilities offended by a slight very real to him, yet very puzzling to others. The pitcher, Dallas Braden of the Oakland Athletics, had become incensed earlier that inning when Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees had run across the mound while retreating to first base following a teammate’s foul ball.

You just don’t do that, Braden would later say in explaining what caused him to lose composure. In his mind, it’s an unwritten rule in baseball that a base runner does not walk, run, trot or crawl across his mound. That’s the pitcher’s territory, and woe to anyone who enters it. Rodriguez, for his part, expressed a mixture of puzzlement and amusement at the whole incident, saying he had never heard of such a rule. And since the incident in April, reaction across the game has mostly landed in Rodriguez’s corner.

But not entirely.

David Wells, who pitched in more than 600 games over the course of a 21-year career, told ESPN after the incident that Braden was absolutely correct to take offense at Rodriguez’s actions. But former third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who hung up his cleats in 2008 after an 8-year big-league career, bluntly disagrees.

“David is wrong,” says Ensberg, who is now a broadcaster who also blogs about baseball. “That’s like saying Braden isn’t allowed to pass through the batter’s box when he’s backing up home plate. That’s silly.”

Such are the hazards of navigating a sport viewed by many as a gentleman’s game. A sport that more than any other is largely governed by a set of these so-called unwritten rules. The unwritten rules are a code of conduct, a guideline for conducting oneself on the field of play. The umpire can’t punish you if you break them, and the league can’t suspend you or dock your pay. But if your transgressions are bad enough, you will be dealt with on the field of play, for baseball players govern themselves.

Drop a bunt to break up a no-hitter? That’s a big no-no.

Hit a batter with a pitch on purpose? Expect one of your teammates to get hit.

Steal a base during a blowout? You’ll likely get a pitch aimed at your ribs the next time you come to the plate.

Try to steal the catcher’s signs? The pitch might be aimed at your head instead of your ribs.

Run across the pitcher’s mound? You’ll be yelled at – fiercely.

The problem is that the players often disagree on what exactly the rules are, interpret them differently, or choose to ignore them altogether. This leads to countless disagreements, some heated moments, and a handful of brawls every season. To understand how difficult it is to sort out, all you have to do is ask a player if he can tell when a pitcher is throwing at him. You’re likely to get a variety of answers.

“You can tell. There’s conviction behind it,” says catcher Rob Johnson, who played 61 games for the Seattle Mariners this season.

But Ensberg says “I don’t think the majority of the time you are (being thrown at). You definitely know if you get a ball on the far shoulder of your back. But if a guy is simply coming inside, it’s too arbitrary to really know.”

And Milwaukee Brewers All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun has yet another take: “Sometimes (you know). It depends on the situation, it depends on the game. There are a lot of things that factor in, but that’s also part of baseball.”

You can understand why conflicts arise, and the Braden-Rodriguez incident was only one of several to occur this season. In May, the Colorado Rockies caught a Philadelphia Phillies coach using binoculars in the bullpen to steal signs. In the same month, Chicago White Sox players took offense after a Florida Marlins player stole a base with the Marlins holding a 7-0 lead in the fourth inning. And in early September, Washington Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan started a brawl against the Marlins after he was hit by a pitch. His offense? Stealing two bases with his team trailing 11-0. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Nats, Marlins brawl after Nyjer Morgan is hit by a pitch
Nats, Marlins brawl after Nyjer Morgan is hit by a pitch

The rules are passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately, they are not passed on actively – it’s not like there is an unwritten rules convention every year during spring training where rookies are taught the ways of baseball – but players are expected to learn through osmosis.

“I don’t teach young guys about the rules,” admits Cincinnati Reds reliever Arthur Rhodes, a 19-year veteran. “They just go out and play the game hard every day and do what they’re supposed to do. If the other team hits one of our players, you might have to hit ‘em, you might not have to hit ‘em. But you don’t put all that in a young guy’s head.”

So it is assumed young players will just know what the rules are, and how to follow them.

“They’re part of the game,” claims Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher. “They’re part of the workplace, part of your job. You know what they are and you stay with them.”

But when asked how he learned the unwritten rules, Swisher cracks a grin. “When you come up you might not know every single one of them, but you’ll learn them along the way. Then again, there are probably some that I don’t know,” admits the seven-year veteran. “And hopefully by my 15th, 16th, 17th year, then maybe I’ll know more.”

Spend enough time around the game, most players say, and you just learn how to play the game properly. But the assumption that everyone knows the rules, can learn them, or is even willing to follow them, seems to be misguided and the root of the problem.

“I think the issues arrive because not everyone necessarily knows the unwritten rules, or because they’re unwritten they don’t think they have to follow them,” says Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. “Because of those two things it leads to issues sometimes.

“I think a lot of it too is just a difference in mentality between the guys with old school philosophies and opinions, and the younger guys.”

braun-110803-standard1A generation gap, as it were. Older players demand respect, younger players refuse to give it, and problems arise. Ensberg, though, says the blame lies not on the players, but by those entrusted with the responsibility to teach them.

“I think the majority of coaches and managers don’t really have guidelines,” he says. “Their default answer is that you just know when a guy is disrespectful to you. They don’t know.”

Further complicating matters, some believe that players, being ultra-competitive athletes, will sometimes make up their own rules as a kind of motivational tool in the heat of battle.

“I think that on the big league level guys are so intense and want it so bad that sometimes they invent some unwritten rules where you’re not even quite sure how it came about,” says Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, talking specifically about the Braden incident. “I think it’s just two guys competing, sometimes it gets a little heated and it’s more emotions than say, unwritten rules.”

Tulowitzki says such tension is constantly brewing beneath the surface, mostly unnoticed by fans. Perhaps a batter is mad at himself for missing a pitch he felt he should have hit, so he kicks the dirt, swears at himself, shows some emotion. The batter is only angry at himself, but the pitcher might view it as a sign of disrespect. At times like this, Tulowitzki says, “you know as a player you have to cool down.”

So if no one really knows all the unwritten rules, coaches and veteran players are not actively teaching them, and some players actually make up their own as they go, is there any hope at all at solving this dilemma? Will there ever be serenity on the baseball diamond, and would we even want it?

Should the unwritten rules, in a shocking act of revolution, be put down on paper?

“They could (be written down),” says Braun with a laugh, knowing they never will be. “I think that presents the highest likelihood of everybody following them and understanding what’s going on.”

Or is the answer, as St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday asserts, much simpler?

“Honestly, I’m not sure what any of that means. I don’t know what we’re talking about as far as written rules, unwritten rules. I just try to play the game hard, play the game right, try to respect your opponents and try to respect your teammates.”

And so we have completed the circle and come back to where we started. Baseball is a gentleman’s game. A game of respect and honor. A game where players strive to bash their opponents into submission, but with the proper amount of civility.

Sounds simple enough


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