A recent string of on-field flare-ups should show all of us why the concept of unwritten rules is archaic, distracting, and damaging to the game of baseball.
Competition tends to bring out the worst in people.
Emotions get heated when a player takes a hard slide into second, a pitcher misses with a fastball up and in, or even when somebody feels that they’re being provoked. When you factor in ego and testosterone, it’s not too difficult to understand why baseball is a powder keg waiting for the right spark to light the fuse.
Then add to all of those factors the concept of the “unwritten rules,” a paragon of truths cultivated over the hundred-year history of the game, and you’ve got the makings of an all-out war on the diamond.
Baseball has been rife with bench-clearings over the past decade. Really, bench-clearings happen in every decade. But lately, they feel more noticeable, angrier, on a grander scale. Could it be that social media has made sharing live content easier than in any point in human history? That’s probably a big reason, but not so much the key reason. No, the truth of the matter is that players are human. And as humans, they experience a phenomenon called “feelings.” And lately, a lot of teams have seen their feelings getting hurt.
On May 19th, as many of you know by now, the Dodgers and Marlins got into an interesting dispute during a normally uninteresting blowout. Late in a 7-2 Dodgers victory, Marlins skipper Don Mattingly took great exception to L.A.’s Cory Seager swinging at a 3-0 pitch. So following a Cody Bellinger home run in the 8th inning, Marlins reliever A.J. Ramos hit Brett Eibner with a pitch which led to a retaliation from Dodgers’ pitcher Ross Stripling in the 9th. He threw a pitch behind Giancarlo Stanton, and then came the fireworks.
Mattingly aired his frustrations following the game, saying that the Dodgers’ bullpen should be reason enough for L.A. to quit trying to run up the score:
“They have Kenley Jansen out there,” Mattingly said, referencing the dominant Dodgers closer who the Marlins tried to woo to Miami when he was a free agent last offseason. “I’d like to see how many five-run leads they’ve blown in the last year, in the eighth and the ninth.
“It’s probably borderline.”
No matter where you stand on the concept of “unwritten rules,” this reasoning is just plain garbage. If you follow Mattingly’s train of thought here, he essentially argues that because the Dodgers are a superior team with a great closer, they must stop trying to score with a seven-run lead. So if Cory Seager sees a fastball that looks like a grapefruit with a big, red bulls-eye painted on it, he should let that pitch go by because Donnie Baseball, a .200 lifetime hitter when facing a 3-0 count, says so.
If this seems ridiculous, don’t worry. That’s because it is. But this wasn’t the only recent case where unwritten rules created issues.
Take a look at another feud between the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves. Two days prior to the Dodgers-Marlins incident on May 17th, the Braves and Jays engaged in a beanball war. Down 6-3 to Atlanta in the bottom of the 5th, Jays reliever Aaron Loup hit Braves’ star and early season MVP candidate Freddie Freeman in the right wrist with a 94-mph fastball. The pitch fractured Freeman’s wrist, landing him on the DL for the next 8-10 weeks. In the meantime, the Braves decided to get revenge. In the 6th inning, Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz hit Devon Travis with the first pitch of the inning, a 94-mph fastball. Whether Loup intended to hit Freeman is unknown and quite frankly doubtful, but it’s easy to assume that the Blue Jays probably didn’t appreciate having pitches thrown at them while losing, adding insult to metaphorical injury.
So maybe it isn’t too much of a surprise that Kevin Pillar had some ugly words for Jason Motte following a quick-pitch strikeout in the top of the 7th inning.
There’s no excuse for Pillar here. Yes, he’s frustrated. But Motte has every right to quick-pitch him. But Pillar is likely venting his frustrations from the lopsided score his team is facing, and more importantly, the fact that the Braves began taking vigilante justice into their own hands by targeting Devon Travis earlier.
Which probably explains why Jose Bautista flipped his bat following a meaningless (albeit pretty) solo home run in the 8th inning.
Keep in mind that the Braves have this game well in hand. The Jays have struggled all season long, and they weren’t making much of an effort to come back in this game. So why is it that Atlanta got so upset over Bautista’s bat flip? Because you’re not supposed to show up the other team? Despite this popular example of “sportsmanship,” no such rule exists in the Official MLB Rulebook. It shouldn’t matter if Bautista did a cart-wheel out of the batter’s box after that home run. If you’re up by four runs, who cares? Let him flip the bat while you go back to the plate and knock in five more runs to make that meaningless solo shot all the more meaningless. That’s called matching your opponent.
The drama continued the next day when Bautista took a pitch in the back from Braves starter Julio Teheran. Toronto would end up getting the last laugh however, as they would blow the Braves out 9-0 in a game where even pitcher Marcus Stroman took Atlanta deep.
While both beefs are ridiculous for their own reasons, they have been fairly short-lived unlike the longest-running feud of this season.
It didn’t take long for the first conflict of 2017 to get underway. Late in April, Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado spiked Boston Red Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, sliding to break up a double play. Pedroia left the game, infuriating him and manager John Farrell.
The Red Sox believed that Machado had illegally broken up the double play. So in retaliation, Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes threw a fastball behind Machado the next game, exacerbating an undying feud between the O’s and Sox.
Said feud carried over to a particularly nasty series in Boston. There was of course the racial abuse of O’s star Adam Jones to immediately amp up tensions between the AL East rivals. But then came the game that turned shots across the bow into straight up cannon fire in the face. Red Sox starter Chris Sale followed up a classy move letting Adam Jones receive a standing ovation from the Fenway Park crowd by throwing behind Machado in the very first pitch of Manny’s at-bat. Machado would later park a Sale pitch over the Green Monster. The next two games would feature ejections and tempers flaring, but no real bench clearings.
What all three of these incidents share are a ridiculous subscription to the “unwritten rules” of baseball. Fake rules like “never act like a showboat,” “always hit a guy from the other team if one of their pitchers hurts one of our players”, or “throw behind the dude who unintentionally spiked one of our guys until he loses his mind and goes off on an obscenity-laden tirade to the press after the game.”
These rules aren’t written down anywhere because they don’t exist. These are courtesies, suggestions for how to behave in the heat of competition. But none of these antics make baseball better. Admittedly, it’s sometimes fun to watch brawls and bench clearings. It’s nice to see teams occasionally throw good manners to the wind and start literal fights every once in a while. But when those brawls and bench clearings involve your team, all of a sudden you want things to stay civil.
Cubs fans know exactly what I mean with regards to one particular incident that took place in 2015 against the hated St. Louis Cardinals.
During a September series at Wrigley Field, former Cubs starter Dan Haren hit then-Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday in the helmet with an 86-mph fastball. Holliday would be substituted for a pinch runner, putting men on 1st and 2nd with one out in a one-run game in the 5th inning. Keep in mind, the situation was not ideal for Haren to be head hunting. His team was clinging to a small lead against the best team in baseball in the middle of a heated Wild Card race. There is zero competitive advantage in plunking Holliday in this situation. Also, Haren’s command was all over the place. He ended up walking the bases loaded and walking in the tying run two batters later.
The Cubs would get out of the jam and eventually take charge offensively to pull out a big 8-3 win over St. Louis. The game would be out of reach by the bottom of the 7th, which just so happened to be the same inning that Cardinals reliever Matt Belisle plunked Anthony Rizzo in his back leg. He would immediately be ejected along with his manager Mike Matheny, putting a quick end to the retaliatory antics St. Louis began to employ.
Joe Maddon took notice of this, and proceeded to go on an epic rant against his former favorite childhood team. Maddon decried the Cardinals’ reputation for “policing” games, going out of his way to emphasize that the next time the Cubs would get a big lead on St. Louis, he would instruct all of his players who reached base to keep running.
“The next time we do it, we’re going to run,” he said. “I want everybody to know that. I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day. I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never read this book that the Cardinals had written on how to play baseball.”
The first-year Cubs skipper made it clear that the “unwritten rules” had no place in the game.
“[…] That really showed me a lot today in a negative way. I don’t know who put out the hit. I don’t know if Tony Soprano is in the dugout. I didn’t see him in there. But we’re not going to put up with it, from them or anybody else.”
“We don’t start stuff, but we will stop stuff.”
That’s the way to go. If you have a problem with what the other team is doing, it’s quite simple, really.
That’s the mentality the Cubs have taken over their past three wildly successful seasons, and it hasn’t changed since they won the World Series.
In the most recent Reds-Cubs series, young Cincinnati pitcher Amir Garrett started his first-career game at Wrigley. On the mound, he drew a little “A” in the dirt, something that would be considered in other parks to other teams as a big no-no, an ultimate sign of disrespect worthy of Old Testament-style baseball justice. But instead of throwing at Reds players or Garrett himself, the Cubs pounded the rookie for six runs in four innings en route to a 9-5 victory to complete the three-game sweep.
Teams that handle their business on the scoreboard tend to win more games, more titles, more adoration, etc. Perhaps this means teams should abandon an imaginary set of stuffy axioms and instead focus on the actual game.
That’s real baseball.