Have you ever tried to explain baseball to someone who didn’t grow up with it and doesn’t understand it? It’s not impossible, if that someone is interested, and if you’re patient … and if you’re both at a game where obviously interesting baseball things are happening. (Sure, advanced-level baseball watchers might prefer a pitcher’s duel to a 10-8 slugfest, but it’s difficult to explain why the former is interesting to someone who can’t yet tell a fastball from a changeup.)
Unwritten sports rules are stupid, and they present an unnecessary barrier to getting into baseball; a game that already takes a while to appreciate and understand. They’re hard to explain and their existence is even harder to justify.
Arguably, unwritten rules aren’t proper rules at all. Merriam-Webster defines a rule as “a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” (Sure, this isn’t the only definition, but it’s a pretty good one.) If a rule isn’t written down, who is prescribing it? What’s the basis for its authority?
In theory, one of the great things about sports is that there is a clear set of rules that are written down, that are accessible. Everyone can look at them. That way, when the rules are in dispute, there is only one text to interpret. People may not agree on the interpretation — hell, there have been dozens of Supreme Court decisions that turned on the definition of a single ambiguous word — but at least everyone will be looking at the same thing.
You don’t have to play baseball for twenty years or watch it for forty years to figure out the infield fly rule, weird though it may be. You can just look it up.
Unwritten rules are inherently ambiguous. They are not consistently applied. They also, strangely enough, tend to be invoked to defend the status quo, to shield stodginess from the looming terrors of fun and change. Even stranger, they always seem to buttress the preferences of the person invoking them.
Take plunking as an example. Try to name all of the situations where –according to the unwritten rules of baseball—it is considered acceptable or even good form for a pitcher to purposefully hit a batter with a baseball. Here are a few examples, culled mostly from Wikipedia and my memory:
- The batter is acting “rude” or “unsportsmanlike.”
- The batter acted “rude” or “unsportsmanlike” earlier in the game.
- The batter acted “rude” or “unsportsmanlike” earlier in the series.
- The other team started it by plunking someone earlier in the game.
- The batter hit a home run earlier in the game.
- The batter hit a home run earlier in the series.
- The batter is having an extraordinarily good day.
- The batter is having an extraordinarily good series.
- The pitcher thinks the batter is crowding the plate.
- The pitcher doesn’t like the batter (Cole Hamels/Bryce Harper).
- The batter is Rickie Weeks.
This list is non-exhaustive, obviously, because I’m not sure an exhaustive list is possible.
One obvious “in” with a new sport is superlative acts, things that most adult humans — even most adult athletes — simply cannot do. There is a reason why dunk contests and home run derbies exist, even though they’re pretty stupid: 99.9% of us are incapable of dunking a basketball or hitting a baseball 400 feet even once, let alone performing either feat repeatedly.
On July 8th, my girlfriend stopped my place by while I was watching the Brewers-Reds game. I still have a bit of Marge Schott-related distaste for the Reds, and the Brewers were still technically capable of making the postseason at that point, so I was pretty into the game. Plus, it was a close, Lohse had pitched well (yawn, snore) so we watched the 9th inning together. And then the Catch of the Season happened.
I didn’t have to explain why The Catch was great. It was there in Votto’s “SHOW ME THE BALL” reaction of despair, in Carlos smiling and cockily revealing the contents of his glove. (My girlfriend and I were both pretty giddy. Or at the very least she faked it well enough.)
In part, Gomez’ defense is impressive because he makes stuff like game saving catches look easy (not Mike Cameron easy, but Gomez’ routes are already noticeably simpler than they used to be). Before The Catch, Gomez seems to simply eye up the ball, step back to the wall, and jump at the exact right moment. No big deal. No one’s being leapt over and posterized, but the effectiveness and efficiency of that act was enough to impress at least one unseasoned observer.
It’s still impressive, though, just in a less aggressive way than most big Sports Moments. Baseball has a thorny relationship with physical contact, with retribution, and with overt celebratory acts. Its code of honor is apparently clear/clearly apparent to a few (Brian McCann, Braves fans, Cardinals fans, the Disciplinary Wing of MLB High Command) but is patently non-obvious to outsiders. Essentially, baseball pretends to be a pacifistic sport while the covert warfare of retaliation and “teammate protection” goes on in the background. But hey, only one guy’s died, and you can’t prove chin music ended Kirby Puckett’s career.
Baseball’s actual rules only allow physical contact in specific situations (sliding, blocking the plate, etc.). It’s the Unwritten Rules that let a pitcher plunk a hitter because, say, that hitter hit a home run earlier in the game. Or maybe yesterday. Or maybe just because that particular hitter absolutely owns that particular pitcher, just as Carlos Gomez has owned Paul Maholm over the last few seasons (as of last Wednesday night, a .421/.476/.684 slash line).
A pitcher can simply deny he did it on purpose, or deny that the reason everyone said he did it is the actual reason he did it, and now the guy who charged the mound was just being a maniac and not a white knight valiantly defending his team. A Nyjer Morgan and not a Brian McCann, if you will.
On the other hand, if the Unwritten Rules of Plunking didn’t exist, every HBP would be equal — although umps would still have to determine whether an HBP was intentional or not. Every HBP would simply be against the rules.
Look, Gomez was definitely making a few shaky assumptions when he showed up Maholm. He assumed that when Maholm plunked him in June, it was both on purpose and a direct result of Gomez’ past success against the pitcher. He assumed that getting plunked twice in one season by the same pitcher couldn’t possibly be a coincidence. He assumed that he had earned the right to show up Maholm, and he was probably wrong.
But Brian McCann broke an actual rule, a rule I’ve never seen broken in that particular way (has anyone seen it broken that way?). He stopped Gomez from reaching home in order to dress him down, to take him down a peg. Purposefully or not, he escalated what was already a terrible situation; if he didn’t start the brawl, he ensured it would happen.
I’ve shown the Wednesday’s incident to a few non-baseball fans, and the general reaction is confusion with a side of distaste for McCann’s screamy overreaction. Gomez swung really hard at a pitch and missed, then stared down the pitcher. He swung really hard at another pitch, hit a home run, stood and watched that home run, and stared down the pitcher on his way to first base. By the time he reached first, the entire Braves infield was screaming at him. And by the time he got home, McCann was blocking the plate without a ball in play.
Sure, in context, Gomez was clearly trying to show up Maholm, and Gomez made sure that Maholm knew he was being shown up. But to baseball novices, Gomez’ “pimping” — ugh, really guys? — looks like bog standard sports bravado, and McCann’s paternalistic bellowing is just a crazy overreaction. (I realize that cultural context is important, but sometimes you have to take a step back from a culture’s norms and mores to see if they actually make sense.)
Meanwhile, Braves fans have called Gomez a “thug” and a “goon” and a “hothead.” Especially “thug.” They love that one. (You can find examples on your own, I don’t feel like reading that crap again.)
Presumably somewhere an equivalent number of people called McCann a thug or a goon or a hothead, but I haven’t found a prominent example yet. Or maybe “he started it” is another stupid Unwritten Rule, one of which I was previously unaware.