Do the “Unwritten Rules” need revising?



Back in June 2009 while the Tampa Bay Rays were playing a series at home against the Cleveland Indians, the Indians starting catcher at the time,Victor Martinez took an exception to the Tampa Bay Rays base theft B J Upton stealing third base with his team up 9-0. Martinez voiced the opinion that such an action was against the “Unwritten Rules of Baseball” to condone or attempt such an action when your team is so far ahead, or in command of a game.

After the Sunday afternoon  series ending game against the two squads Rays Manager Joe Maddon thought  that maybe those same “Unwritten Rules” needed to be revised since the game had become a lot faster and more powerful then the older version of baseball. We sometimes forget that this simple game of baseball is a actually a complex game built upon the old traditions and viewpoints set forth by the overseers’ of the game over 150 years ago.

Everyone has heard about the unspoken “Code” or “Unwritten Rules” of baseball. They might have been passed down to you by a coach, your father or grandfather , or maybe another player on your squad if you played baseball beyond the High School ranks. While the code has been around for a long, long time, it is still a taboo subject to even be mentioned in the clubhouse by some still playing in the game.

In fact, some players are pretty uneasy to even chat openly about them “on the record” to reporters or even bloggers. For if they even talked about a set of parameters or even rules of conduct within the scope of baseball, and most of them do admit there is a set of rules. This might be the real  life version of the fable of Pandora’s box we read and were scared about as young kids.

The code seems to be built more on the game within the game concept. It can be viewed as a system of intimidation, retaliation and retribution between the hitters and the opposing pitchers.  It main goal seems centered on keeping the game on an even playing field, with no see-sawing of emotions or  out of character action within the finely defined scope of the contest.

Some say that the “rules” have their true basis in the basic emotion of fear, or the fear of pain upon a transgressor of the rules. I have to admit, when I was in college and a 95 mph fastball would come in close on my shoulder or near my knees, it took everything I had in me to stand tall and not bail out from the plate some nights.  For me, the fear of injury or a life after baseball filled with constant pain was a fear basis to play by the code and not tease fate or risk the penalty for abusing the code or trying to circumvent the unwritten rules.

But who is really right here?  Who out of these two self-proclaimed “defenders of the game” was in the right during that Rays/Indians meltdown? Actually, they both seemed to have great cause for their vocal opinions to be the supreme guidance that day. The unwritten bible from baseball infant stage to probably 1950 was envisioned because of the low scoring contests and a more gentlemanly aspect of the game. And in that manner, Martinez might be right.

Just as in life, baseball at that time seemed to be based on the puritan aspect of the game, and not the aggressive natures of some players to make an offensive explosion of the contest or put extra pressure on the opposing teams defensive unit. In a sense, Maddon is also correct here. Some of the rules put in place long ago have to be revised or dropped simply because the offensive nature of the game has changed ramatically today.

My generation was taught from an early age to “never give up” or ” fight until the last out.”  While some of the local youth baseball leagues now do not even keep score, and everyone gets to play in the games. And that is fine at the grass roots level, but not in a professional environment such as Major League Baseball. So looking at the game in the retrospect of the past, then some of the rules seem a bit too restrictive and have no sort of wiggle room for sideways interpretation.

It might seem odd to me now for Martinez to scream about an older baseball rule that was based more in the era of 5-6 runs scored during earlier stages of the Major League games compared to the recent run producing blasts of  averaging sometimes over 21 runs a game. Maddon make a good point that some of the games “Unwritten Rules” do need a bit of revision or tweaking. But who if anyone can take on this task and provide a suitable alternative solution to the ever expanding rules and social commentary of the game of baseball? 


So here we are in a no-win situational duel between the physical player and the situational manager battling it out in mind and body during every game. Who is ultimately right? Or are they both wrong in their assessments of the current rule system?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they are both  are partially right. Martinez is using the older set of rules he learned coming up in a storied system like the Indians and used this opportunity to basically foster up a sense of noble entitlement over his actions during the weekend series against the Rays. While on the other hand, Maddon was trying to instill a new aggressive set of offensive based parameters for his own team that currently might at times go against the grain of some of the older rules and standards.

So where do we draw the line? Where is it that we can make the needed changes or even attempt to even bring to light some of the outdated and antiquated rules that seem to beg for a extreme makeover. First let’s take a gander at some of these older established “unwritten rules” and you can be your own judge, jury and executioner on if they are in fact in need of a little twisting or restructuring ( I am not putting the rules in any order, just going to throw out a few for your viewing pleasure).

Unwritten Rule:
Do not steal a base late in a game that isn’t competitive.

This might be the rule
that Martinez was referring to when he accosted Upton about his stealing of both second and third in the sixth inning of a 9-0 game. But what is really the basis of this rule is the “winning squad” doesn’t partake in additional embarrassment, not the team trying to get some runs and make the game competitive.
If your team is winning by a lot of runs, so many that it looks like the game is pretty much over then stealing a base is just rubbing it in.

Unfortunately since it’s an unwritten rule nobody is clear on the modern interpretation of this simple rule. How big of a lead is too big in the modern game? How late in the game is considered “too late” is established by both parties playing in the contest, not by a lone participant in the game. In his scenario and interpretation of this unwritten rule, I think Martinez was grasping for straws and should have just let it go, but bitterness can be a bitter pill to swallow, even for an All Star catcher.

Rienhold Matay / AP

Unwritten Rule:
Always back up your teammates in a fight.

This rule also came into effect during that same Rays vs. Indians series. But what is more concerning is the fact that before the benches did clear, that Martinez was verbally accosting Maddon with profanity and comments that do not ever get voiced to an authority figure off the field, or a team’s Manager. Martinez seemed to have failed in this attempt to fight for his version of the “Unwritten Rules”. Some say baseball teams are like gangs. When a fight starts they all run out and each take a side and face-off.  

Unfortunately the posturing is suppose to be the “united front” effect here, not the actual throwing of punches or gang-tackling that some brawls evolve into during the bench clearing incidents in baseball. 

A great example is the Rays Pat Burrell running to look for a pair of baseball pants and a team B P jersey  to wear as he stepped on the field during the bench clearing incident. Burrell was on the training table, deep in the Rays clubhouse getting treatment for his neck injury and came out onto the field in his B P  jersey since he could not find his game jersey at the time. Burrell showed regard for the unspoken rule that you always have your teammates backs in a situation.

Unwritten Rule:
Never bunt to break up a no-hitter. 

If an opposing pitcher just has your number that day and can even get to a magical point, or that once-in-a-lifetime level of perfection against your team, you should honor that event, not try and throw it under the bus to establish your own agenda. I’ve never understood this unwritten rule. What if there is not a no-hitter and the score is 0-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning and the team at bat tries to bunt? Isn’t it considered a viable option for the team to try and win that contest at any cost, but then bunting in a no-hitter situation is thought of as a cheap way to end a no-hitter? 

I do see the respect and the aspect of preserving the integrity of the pitching duel, so I would also consider it a disgrace to try and bunt to end a no-hitter by another pitcher. But then again, I still wish Chicago centerfielder Dewayne Wise had not caught that hard hit ball by Gabe Kapler high up on the centerfield wall during Mark Buhrle’s no-hitter during the 2009 season.

Unwritten Rule :
Do not show up the pitcher after hitting a home run.

I think that this rule is going to get more and more intense in the next few years. As relievers and pitcher also  are adjusting to their own emotional outbursts on the mound, the actions of the batters have been deemed to stay consistent and not provoke a  retaliation or bean ball or even a well placed intentional pitch high and inside at another hitter. This unwritten rule could also be known as the “Don’t do what Sammy Sosa used to do after a dinger” rule.

When a batter hits a home run it is considered rude to jump up and down and celebrate or to watch and admire your homer.  Some say tossing your helmet either towards a dugout or give eye contact to the opposing team before crossing the plate in a “Walk-off” situation is also considered taboo. I  can understand this rule in the game, but if it is a game-winner, You have to consider the rush of emotions that will explode within a players as he rounds those bases. I think I could take a bit of a breather knowing it is a classic event and let the batter slide a bit on it as long as it is not a long linger and a comment or look towards the mound after the ball clears the wall.

Reinhold Matay / AP

Unwritten Rule:
If the opposing pitcher hits one of your batters then you must retaliate and hit one of their batters.

Sometimes there is a reason for a pitcher to take offense to a hitter at the plate. Plucking a hitter has always been a part of the game. And most hitters know when it is going to happen to them in their career no matter if they are respectful or not, it will always be a part of “respecting the game”. Most of the time, a hitter knows it is coming, but sometimes pitchers can take an isolated hitting incident from the far reaches of leftfield and run the situation into a personal vendetta against a hitter. Basically saying that “the other team has insulted us now we’ll show them!”

Major League Pitchers are accurate, sometimes to within millimeters of their targets. Most pitchers intinctively know that they can place the baseball with pinpoint precision exactly where they want it. If a player gets hit in a certain spot, and the situation is ripe for payback, then there is no doubt as to whether or not a bean ball is just that, versus a mis-thrown wild pitch.

That’s the ballplayer’s intuition, or sixth sense, taking over. And here is another thing: If a batter gets nailed with a 95 mph fastball on the fleshy part of his thigh, he had better not act like a baby and start rubbing it. No way. He should suck it up and be a man by simply “walking it off” on his way to first base. Period.

A batter can never let a pitcher know that he hurt him with a pitch, that would be a psychological advantage and a clear sign of weakness. The code forbids it unless he is knocked unconscious or bleeding bad enough to warrant some medical

So here we have listed a few of the “Unwritten Rules” that most of the fans of this great game might already know. There are really tons of pages of antiquated and outdated rules that do need to be readdressed and potentially modernized to support the current pace and future aspects of the game. But it is not my place to sport the revolution of the rules .

That has to be done within the confines of the sport itself.  Either by the members of the teams, their managers, the Major League umpires, or even the guy who lines and grade the turf and clay for each game at your ballpark. Isn’t it a grand notion to know that a set of rules ,or a simple code is  still alive and well and permanently in place to keep the respect and the admiration of the game within guideline for all of us to enjoy in the stands every season.

But if I had to put a quick personal summarization of the code, it would be a simple fact of respect for the essence of the game of baseball. A level of respect for the players, the history of the game and the hopeful promise of good sportsmanship by the opposition. In a true one sentence line, it is the players’ sacrificing personal glory for the good of the team and the game.

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