Unwritten Rules? I’ve got a rule for ya!

Fernando Tatis, Jr. found himself in violation of an unwritten rule, and talking heads are falling all over themselves trying to protect him (courtesy Getty Images)

Ah, the Unwritten Rules of Baseball. Nothing drives a wedge between generations of fans faster than trying to explain the existence of, let alone the validity of, the Unwritten Rules of Baseball. So what are these rules? Well, that’s the thing isn’t it? Nobody wrote them down, they were just passed along from generation to generation by veteran players tasked with “showing the ropes” to the rookies as they stared, wide-eyed in wonder, trying desperately to figure out what they did wrong and why everyone was mad at them.

“Well, you see, kid, what you did technically violated one of the unwritten rules of baseball… that circle of dirt there around the plate? You see that? You can’t stand there while the pitcher is warming up. That’s a good way to get yourself or one of us killed. You understand? Nod if you understand!”

As frustrating as it might be to have players trying to play to a standard that only gets communicated to them AFTER they’ve broken said standard, there really is a general rule of thumb to follow: don’t show up your opponent, and don’t try to gain an obvious advantage over your opponent. Stick to that, rookie, and you should be fine.

On Monday night, however, a young, dynamic player dared to break not one but TWO unwritten rules: never, EVER miss a sign, and you don’t swing 3-0 when your team is up big late in the ballgame. Fernando Tatis, Jr, one of the most heralded rookies to hit the scene since legend Ronald Acuña, Jr, had the audacity to swing at a grooved 3-0 fastball with the bases loaded in a game his team was winning by 7 runs in the 8th inning. The end result? A Grand Slam, a tongue lashing from his manager, criticism from the opposing manager in the post game presser, his teammate Manny Machado getting thrown at, and an apology on national TV after the game.

So what were the charges, Your Honor? Misdemeanor violation of the observation of signs by the hitter and the much more heinous felony violation of the rule governing teams with big leads late in ballgames. Jace Tingler, the manager for the Padres, mentioned the missed sign as the reason he was frustrated with Tatis that night. His third base coach gave him the take sign 3-0, and Tatis either missed it completely or ignored it thinking he had misunderstood the sign. After all, why would he have the take sign 3-0 in the 8th inning with the bases loaded? Well, that is governed by the aforementioned rule regarding teams with big leads late in ballgames.

Baseball is a noble game. It’s not sweaty men banging into each other fighting over pig skins, it’s a gentleman’s game. As gentlemen, the expectation is that the players respect their opponents. You don’t cheat. You don’t show up your adversary with antics. And if you find yourself with a significant advantage late in a ballgame, you take care not to offend them by rubbing it in and piling on. For those who played little league sports as kids you are likely familiar with this concept. Kid on the mound obviously has never had pitching lessons and is walking the bases full. Your coach leans over to you and says “hey, if this ball gets by the catcher, we aren’t going to try to score. Just stay here.” No need in demoralizing the kid right? It’s just good manners. One would call it “The Golden Rule,” right? Now, if the opposing coach pulls that kid and puts in his son who is already being recruited by division I schools, all bets are off and we’re scoring, but as long as they aren’t trying too hard to win, we aren’t going to bury them on the scoreboard.

This idea is rooted in generosity and civility, something that used to be a huge part of the game. Sure, if their catcher is blocking the plate you’re going to plant him like a turnip seed, but generally speaking players were conscious of winning and losing gracefully, possibly so their momma didn’t tan their hides when they got home.

So, you see, when Tatis Jr. decided to go for it all and swing 3-0 for the first time that season and only the second time in his career, he was violating the spirit of the unwritten rules governing big leads. Up 7 with his opponent only having 3 more AB’s to make up that deficit, players operating under the unwritten rules are expected to apply minimal effort to score more runs. This is with the understanding that their opponent would accept this and meekly end the game the following inning with minimal effort on their part. Think of it as saying to your opponent “hey, man, I know you’re struggling right now, and I don’t want to make things worse for you. How about we just do what we have to do to get through these next couple of innings and call it a day?” Instead, what Tatis Jr. essentially did was similar to watching a kid take a dodgeball to the jewels and then walk over to him and push his face into the mud.

So what’s the big deal? Well, for decades, even a century, the game was played with the idea that no player was bigger than the team or the game. You played as a team, you blended in with the team, trying not to seek attention even though attention might be heaped upon you by others. The unwritten rules protected that concept, providing a manner of policing the game through retribution and, on occasion, outright fighting. As the game moves to a more individual-centric version of itself, however, these rules are being challenged and, in many cases, completely disparaged and ignored. Players are playing the game with flair and reckless abandon, calling attention to themselves at the plate and on the mound, and generally speaking having no regard for the feelings or concerns of their opponents.

So the question is, is this a bad thing? Each person has to draw their own conclusion, of course, but people who are paid to comment on these things have spoken loudly and clearly that there is no room in the game for requiring players to behave like gentlemen. Go out there and get yours, young fella! If you want to be a star, that’s how you be a star! If they don’t like it, that’s their problem! Maybe they should try not sucking so bad next time, haha!

Personally, I find myself torn on the issue. On one hand, I’ll likely cut you over a friendly game of checkers. On the other hand, if we’re playing H-O-R-S-E and you’re on S and I’m on H, I’m probably not out there dunking the ball knowing full well you can’t reach the rim. I’m probably shooting low percentage backwards 3 pointers while you figure out a way to make free throws. So I guess you can say I see the value in the unwritten rules of baseball, but I also see the value in playing the game with emotion and fire. In my perfect world, I guess I’d say I wish Tatis had taken that pitch and hit that grand slam on a 3-2 count, but that’s just me.

The thing is, those who played under these rules for most of their careers still feel like playing the game like a gentleman is something that has value. They try to instill that in their players and they generally expect that other teams are still doing the same. And in this particular case, both managers were operating under the same understanding of the rule. The Rangers manager was using the moment as a teaching tool for his pitcher to try to get out of a mess he himself had constructed, and probably hoping that the Padres would oblige and go quietly. Tingler had actually given the take sign as a way to do just that, letting the kid Ian Gibaut either hang himself with a ball or get back into the count. Instead, Tatis deposited a center cut fastball into the bleachers, making a name for himself in the process. Adding insult to injury, Gibaut continued to play by the rule and threw at the next batter, Manny Machado. He is now appealing a 3 game suspension by the league, and he’s probably wondering what the hell just happened. These are the rules, aren’t they? Well, not anymore, young fella.

It’s going to be real popular over the next few days to pile on Woodward, the Rangers skipper, and Tingler over their archaic views. That is what we do now, is it not? Once you find which way public opinion is pointing on an issue, we’re pretty well committed to destroying the minority viewpoint as being stupid and useless. All I would say is consider where these unwritten rules have their roots, the Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The league may be moving towards a more “do unto others before they can do it to you” model, but the old farts catching all the criticism might just have had it right all along.

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