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Some Thoughts About Baseball’s Unwritten Rules

As you are probably aware, an incident last week involving White Sox manager Tony La Russa and one of his players — designated hitter Yermín Mercedes — has led to a lot of chatter about baseball’s “unwritten rules.” Since the debate over these rules has aesthetic implications, I want to talk about that today.

In case you missed it: On May 17, Mercedes had the take sign but swung anyway — and homered — on a 3-0 lob pitch from an infielder-turned-emergency pitcher during the ninth inning of a 15-4 laugher against the Twins (see video above). In La Russa’s pregame press conference the next day, he called Mercedes “clueless” for swinging. According to one report, “La Russa’s entire availability with reporters encompassed [discussing] the unwritten rules of the game.” La Russa said, among other things, “We were taught from Day 1 to respect the game, respect the competition, respect the opponent. I heard [Mercedes] said something like, ‘I play my game.’ No he doesn’t. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents.”

Since the 76-year-old La Russa is by far the game’s oldest manager, most observers quickly described him as out of touch and used the incident as an opportunity to critique the sport’s unwritten code of conduct. Former MLB pitcher CC Sabathia, for example, went off on a rant in which he referred to “these stupid-ass unwritten rules.” Things reached the point where McSweeney’s, of all places — the site that hosted my Key Ring Chronicles project — responded to the situation by running a satirical piece ridiculing baseball’s unwritten rules. (The Twins, however, apparently agreed with La Russa, because they invoked an unwritten rule of their own by throwing behind Mercedes in retaliation for his perceived transgression.)

Discussion of baseball’s “unwritten rules” has been building for several years now. But I had already observed a big uptick in such chatter this season — and, in fact, had already started writing this essay — before the White Sox incident. Here are some of the other articles and comments I’ve noticed recently:

• On April 7, ESPN staff writer Joon Lee ran a strongly reported piece with the headline “Unwritten rules are made to be broken! How a new generation of players is shifting MLB’s culture.”

• A few weeks later, on April 26, Sports Illustrated posted a video featuring several writers discussing how Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer are “rewriting baseball’s unwritten rules.”

• A few days later, on April 30, The Guardian published an article, written by freelancer Drew Lawrence, with this headline: “More than ever, baseball’s unwritten rules were made to be broken.”

• Ten days later, on May 10, ESPN ran a multi-writer, multi-section piece about the current state of baseball. One of the sections, written by staff writer Marly Rivera, was called “Enough with the unwritten rules already.” It read, in part:

[T]here are numerous players, many of them of Latin American heritage, who were never aware of baseball’s unwritten rules. … Baseball in Latin America is a much different experience than in Major League Baseball. Many players grew up playing in an environment in which celebrations that violate baseball’s unwritten rules are widely accepted. Players who do not fit the mold of the “American Way” are vilified here, particularly because of the unquestionable racial undertone.

When one of these incidents of breaking baseball’s unwritten rules happens, you can expect to see a Latin player standing in front of a camera saying, “I did not mean to disrespect anybody.” Baseball, which aspires to be a multicultural and multiethnic sport, often falls short because of the demographics of its audience. Jose Bautista was infamously ripped for his postseason bat flip, a moment that the former Blue Jays outfielder described as an “out-of-body experience.” Bautista did not do it to “disrespect” anybody. He did it out of joy. Legislating joy is a pointless attempt to not celebrate the changing culture of baseball.

• The next day, May 11, GQ published an interview with Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard. It was conducted by staff writer Clay Skipper and included this exchange:

Skipper: I feel like there is this view that there are some unwritten rules of baseball: you don’t show up your opponent, you don’t engage in this type of trash talk. That feels sort of outdated to me. I’m curious how you feel about that sort of old fashioned unwritten rules of baseball.

Syndergaard: I think they’re pretty stupid, to be honest. Anything unwritten sounds pretty stupid. I think it’s very old school, and I think there needs to be a new school approach.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And you also know the types of unwritten rules these articles are referring to. Some of them are nebulous and open to interpretation: Don’t “show up” your opponent; respect the game; respect the uniform; play the game “the right way” and “the way it’s supposed to be played.” Others are more specific: Always hustle, even when you hit a routine ground ball; if there’s a scuffle on the field, run out there and have your teammate’s back; don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter; don’t swing at a 3-0 pitch from an infielder during a 15-4 laugher; and so on.

Inherent in these articles and discussions — sometimes directly stated and sometimes just as an implicit (unwritten!) undercurrent — is the notion that baseball has more of these “unwritten rules” than any other sport, and possibly more than any other sector of society. According to this notion, adherence to these rules has resulted in baseball becoming unduly tradition-bound and on the verge of becoming culturally irrelevant unless its young, bat-flipping stars can give the game some much-needed swagger.

You can like bat-flipping or dislike it — I’m not interested in debating that (at least not here, not today). What I’m more interested in is this notion that baseball’s profusion of unwritten rules is somehow unique, or at least unusual.

The reality, of course, is that life is full of unwritten rules, many of which form the guardrails that allow us to maintain a somewhat orderly and pleasant society. You know these societal rules just like you know the baseball rules: Say “please” and “thank you”; do unto others; wait your turn; chew with your mouth closed; don’t talk loudly at the movies; if you borrow something, return it; if someone needs help, offer it; honesty is the best policy; virtue is its own reward; don’t be selfish; don’t interrupt; don’t show up at a party empty-handed; and so on.

These unwritten rules are collectively known by various terms, such as manners, or courtesy, or etiquette, or not being a total fucking jerk. (By any name, they overlap significantly with the concept of shame, which I wrote about last year.)

Similarly, the sports world has a term for its unwritten rules: sportsmanship (a gendered term, unfortunately, but it will have to do for now). The concept of sportsmanship is so ingrained in athletics that many sports and leagues have codified a sanction for its absence into their rules. Generally speaking, sportsmanship is just a subset of, and largely in keeping with, the larger set of societal rules we all live by. In other words, unwritten rules are not unique to sports, much less unique to baseball — they’re all around us.

These guidelines — the ones that form the basis of sportsmanship and the ones that undergird our larger societal code of manners and etiquette — didn’t come out of nowhere. Most of them can be traced back to ancient religious and moral teachings like the Seven Deadly Sins, the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule. Consider, for example, a scenario we’ve all seen countless times: A batter hits a long fly ball, thinks it’s a home run, and stands and admires it instead of running hard out of the box. But the ball doesn’t go out — it hits off the wall. The batter should be on second base with a double, but instead he ends up on first base because he didn’t run hard right away. (I was once at a game when Rickey Henderson did this. Afterward, he gave one of the all-time Rickey quotes: “I hit it out but it didn’t go out.”) Now, we could say that this player “isn’t playing the game the right way.” But what we really mean when we say that, whether we realize it or not, is that the batter committed two of the deadly sins: pride and sloth.

If you look at those big societal guidelines, you’ll see that most of them are designed to promote the core value of the collective good over the individual good. That’s not to say that individuals don’t matter — they have rights, agency, free will, all that good stuff — but they must sometimes subordinate or suppress their self-directed impulses for the sake of the greater good, or else society would devolve into chaos. That’s where all those standards of manners and courtesy come from.

This emphasis on the collective over the individual translates well to team sports, where players are always taught to do what’s best for the team, not what’s best for themselves. In the big picture, the hypothetical batter who stands and admires his hit isn’t problematic simply because he’s being prideful and slothful, but because he hurts his team by ending up on first base instead of second base. Or to put it another way, he put his own selfish impulses above the greater good. So, again, you can see how the “unwritten rules” of baseball and other sports often reflect the same core values embodied in the longstanding behavioral codes that we all live by every day.

Now, it’s true that the big societal guidelines have changed a lot over the years. At one point, for example, it was unheard of to wear jeans for an office job, a man would always pick up the tab when he and woman were out on a date, and it was common to disparage something by saying, “That’s so gay” — none of which is true any longer. Does that mean our values have changed? No — generally speaking, I think our values have remained fairly consistent. But our cultural consensus regarding which behaviors do or don’t embody those values has changed. The parameters of that consensus are changing all the time, as part of the endless push/pull of societal norms, especially as we realize that many of the old rules both reflected and reinforced caste and status systems that bolstered the powerful at the expense of the marginalized.

As the big societal rules have changed, so have the unwritten rules of sports. The NFL, in particular, has had lots of controversies (and, in some cases, rule changes) based on behavior that was initially thought to embody the unsportsmanlike sin of pride, from Giants wide receiver Homer Jones spiking the football to Washington’s “Fun Bunch” and Jets defensive lineman Mark Gastineau’s sack dance — all of which seem fairly tame by modern standards, although they were hot-button issues at the time. Other sports and leagues have seen similar changes in protocols.

I’ll be frank: I’m not a big fan of bat-flipping, or choreographed celebrations, or a lot of other stuff that we now routinely see on the field. But I also realize I’m a straight, middle-aged white guy who self-identifies as a classicist. If I step outside that bubble, I can see how one person’s unsportsmanlike self-aggrandizement is another person’s admirable expression of joy, or how one person’s idea of rubbing it in the other team’s face is another person’s idea of entertainment. Those lines, it seems to me, are flexible and will always be in flux, especially as our society — and our sports — become increasingly culturally diverse.

The key to finding the happy medium, it seems to me, is distinguishing between behavior and values, or maybe between behavior and consequences. In and of itself, bat-flipping doesn’t amount to much: Some people may like it, others may hate it, but it doesn’t really have an impact on the outcome of the game. Admiring your “home run” that turns out to be a double-turned-single off the wall, on the other hand, hurts your team. I’d like to think we can all agree that there’s no excuse for that, whatever the “unwritten rules” of the cultural moment happen to be.

Either way, I hope we can see a more thoughtful approach when discussing baseball’s “unwritten rules,” which have deep cultural underpinnings and are more nuanced than most people give them credit for. Writing about them has helped me work out some of my own thoughts about this topic — thanks for listening.

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NBA leaks, continued: Remember those five 2021-22 NBA leaks from last Friday? quickly confirmed their legitimacy, and now we have our first look at one of them — for the Heat — in real life. The lack of a maker’s mark is puzzling, but this image is from from ace leaker Igor Coelho, whose track record on this stuff is impeccable.

As for the design, well, I’m sure it violates some unwritten rules. But today is the day I’m trying to see things from both sides.

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Click to enlarge

Collector’s Corner
By Brinke Guthrie

Starting off this week with an interesting AFL-themed ad, “The Stoppers,” for the 1969 Dodge Polara. While the focus of the ad is Kansas City defensive lineman Buck Buchanan, another player caught my eye — Bengals defensive back Bobby Hunt, who is shown wearing a uniform that the Bengals never wore on the field. They didn’t go with orange jerseys, nor did they ever have a helmet stripe down the center. The ad must’ve come out in mid-1968, for the 1969 model year, before the Bengals had ever played a down.

Now for the rest of this week’s picks:

• In 2003, Green Bay-area McDonald’s outlets gave away small models of Lambeau Field. This seller is offering a set of three.

• Jay “Dizzy” Dean was a star pitcher in the 1930s and ’40s. Here’s the big guy on a 1940s Falstaff Beer hand fan, saying, “Tune In!”

• Jim “Catfish” Hunter is clearly the cover star of this 1977 MLB All-Star Game program, which makes sense — the game was played at Yankee Stadium.

• Here’s another All-Star Game program from about two decades earlier — July 8, 1958, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

• Actor Burt Reynolds had an ownership interest in the 1980s USFL Tampa Bay Bandits, (who weren’t named for his movie Smokey & The Bandit, but rather the dog of owner John Bassett’s daughter Carling) and so he was featured on this 1984 promo poster. What, no Sally Field? No Trans Am?

• This Rolling Rock/Pittsburgh Steelers insulated tote bag would be perfect for tailgating, so they called it the “SteelGater.”

• Also from the Steel City: This is a very cool-looking 1947 baseball-themed newsstand sign for the (Pittsburgh) Sun Telegraph.

• Joe DiMaggio narrated this 1950 kids’ record, Little Johnny Strikeout. (Such an unfortunate surname! Couldn’t they have gone with “Johnny Homer” instead? Boost up the kid’s self esteem!)

• Here we have a late-1970s New York Jets team bag, with player photos on the sides, as opposed to the Jets’ logo. I would bet this was a National Football League Player’s Association item, due to the lack of team branding.

• The 1968 Family TV Baseball Handbook was sponsored by Phillips 66. “It’s performance that counts!”

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The Ticker
By Alex Hider

Baseball News: Good catch by @Phixated, who notes that the Phillies’ Father’s Day caps have a red squatchee, while their normal caps usually have a blue squatchee. Further investigation by @barrelman_mke noted that other teams that typically wear a contrasting squatchee will have non-contrasting versions on Father’s Day. … Orioles players wore hockey jerseys during their travel day to Minnesota on Sunday (from Phil). … The Blue Jays are moving a bit closer to home and will begin playing home games in Buffalo next month — and all of their cardboard cutout fans will be making the trip north as well. … Cleveland P Sam Hentges has “Dr. Honch” stitched on his glove. Team broadcasters weren’t sure what it meant, but they guessed it’s a nickname (from Pete Gill). … Did you know there’s a small farm on the grounds of Fenway Park? The team uses the resulting produce at some of its concessions around the stadium (from Brinke). … Brian Ball notes that in the 1999 movie For Love of the Game, actors Kevin Costner and J.K. Simmons are wearing different jerseys in the same scene (note the lack of a headspoon on Costner’s jersey). … The Corpus Christi Hooks, the Astros’ Double-A affiliate, will play as the Blue Ghosts on Memorial Day weekend in honor of the USS Lexington, a World War II aircraft carrier that remains docked in Corpus Christ Bay (from Ignacio Salazar). … The Gwinnett Stripers, the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate, are honoring essential pandemic workers by including their names in the pinstripes of their jerseys on Friday (from Phil). … New uniforms for the Hastings Sodbusters of the collegiate wood bat Expedition League (from Kary Klismet).

NFL News: The Patriots announced new numbers for new veteran players yesterday. Of note, QB Brian Hoyer, now in his third stint on the team, will wear No. 5, his third different number with the club (from Paul D. Vold). … Dolphins coach Brian Flores’s signature is a rare one in sports — it’s printed, not cursive! Weirder yet, Preston Feiler notes that Flores uses a lowercase “r” in his first name and a capital R in his last name. … Check out this 1951 Steelers schedule keychain. Makes good use of color to denote home and road games (from Doug Keklak).

Hockey News: The Canadiens displayed some of their fans’ jerseys in the Bell Centre during last night’s playoff game (from Moe Khan). … This video tells the story of how the Flyers created their mascot, Gritty (from Kary Klismet). … Brandon Weir sends along this spectacular photo of the old Lethbridge Broncos, who played in the WHL in the ’70s and ’80s. Lots of green and yellow, and even Cooperalls. … We’ve probably seen this before, but always worth seeing again. Check out the FNOF (first name on front) jerseys that the New England Whalers broke out when Gordie Howe and his sons, Mark and Marty, signed with the WHA club in 1977 (from Matt Sammon). … A committee has unanimously recommended that Michigan should rename its hockey arena, citing a history of racial issues involving its namesake, former school AD Fielding Yost (from Timmy Donahue).

Basketball News: The Celtics’ DG-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, is adopting the name and colors of its parent club and will now be known as the Maine Celtics (thanks to all who shared). … Former Marquette players are joining together to create a team called the Ultimate Warriors for The Basketball Tournament (from Steve Flack).

Soccer News: Here’s the trophy and logo for UEFA’s new Europa Conference League, which will serve as the bottom level of the existing men’s European competitions beginning next year (from our own Jamie Rathjen).

Olympics NewsHere’s a visual history of Team USA’s uniforms through the years (from Kary Klismet and Phil). … U.S. gymnast Simone Biles — without a doubt one of the Greatest Of All Time — wore a leotard that included a rhinestoned goat while competing at the GK U.S. Classic in Indianapolis on Sunday (from @PJM75TWEETS).

Grab BagThe New York Times (soft paywall) has published an interesting look at the psychology behind sneaker colors (from Tom Turner). … New uniforms for Hawaii sheriff deputies (from Kary Klismet and Timmy Donahue). … Benji King found a house in Bountiful, Utah, whose mailbox is inspired by Old Main — the oldest building on Utah State’s campus. … Nebraska vexillologists are calling on the state to change its flag. Nebraska is currently one of the 28 “seal on a bedsheet” states (from Dave Feit). … You know how it seems that almost every high school or college team with the nickname “Bulldogs” likely uses one of just a handful of logos? It turns out, you can trace those logos back to a Disney animator named Preston Blair, who included a bulldog sketch tutorial in his book (from @lolo_phynarski). … Here are all the 2021 Australian Football League Indigenous guernsey designs (from @JeffChrz).

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Our latest raffle winner is Aaron Lieber, who’s won himself a Uni Watch membership card. Congrats to him, and my thanks to Cesar Duran for sponsoring this one. — Paul

Comments (120)

    I prefer the unwritten rules. I look at the NFL…half their highlights are guys preening after a sack, tackle, completed pass, etc, even when they’re down 20 points. It’s more about the “look at me” than the actual game. MLB is going down the same road the last five years with all the bat flips. It’s a bad look for a great game.

    I can tell you as a former college baseball pitcher, the “unwritten rules” should NEVER be abolished.
    I would say with 99.9% certainty that if I pitched to Mercedes after that display, he would’ve been wearing a fastball between the 7 and 3 on his back.
    Tatis bat flip? Plunked.
    Admire a fly ball/homerun too long? Plunked.
    This is just my humble opinion.

    My two cents on this particular unwritten rule. If batters who flip bats or admire long fly balls get to hide behind the beard of “joy,” pitchers are allowed to express their joy by throwing at those joyous batters.
    The aforementioned batters are expressing mockery and derision, plain and simple.

    Someone flipping their bat has never ended another player’s career. Someone hitting a batter with a fastball on the other hand…. so yeah they’re totally the same.

    Really? I think unwritten rules that allow for legitimately dangerous acts are completely contrary to the above essay. And yes, throwing a hardball 100 mph at a person can cause serious harm to the individual who is hit.

    They’ve had to make new written rules in other cases, like slides at second or home, because of unwritten rules that allowed the baserunner to essentially force situations that threatened the health of the fielders.

    If anything, the unwritten rule that retaliation by beanball for a player who swings at a 3-0 pitch is acceptable is an argument against the essay here today: it isn’t something that makes the sport safer or clearly helps the team win.

    I’m unaware of any pitches purposefully thrown inside in observance of this unwritten rule ending a career. If you have examples, I’m all ears.
    This particular unwritten rule has three criteria:
    -It’s the first pitch of the subsequent at bat by the hitter under discussion.
    -It’s not a full speed fastball.
    -It’s aimed squarely at the torso, not the head.
    The batter knows all of these criteria. If he chooses to not use his foreknowledge to get out of the way, he has that option. He also has the option to dodge the pitch, get ahead on the count, and try to get a hit, maybe an extra base hit, maybe a home run, in order to further his mockery and derision of his opponents.

    If a pitcher pimps a strikeout, the batter should be allowed to go after them with a bat.

    That’s literally in line with the logic you’re espousing.

    I’ve never played baseball, and wasn’t good enough to be a college athlete, but if I was playing football and went and hit a offensive player while they were celebrating in the endzone I would rightfully be ejected and suspended. Similarly if I was on the wrestling may and did an illegal move to hurt my opponent because the last time we wrested they beat me badly I would rightfully be ejected and suspended. Why is it baseball you can intentionally try to hurt an opposing play where they have little ability to avoid it?

    Similarly as a pitcher if you’re up by ten and the opposing pitcher is down 0-2 in the count are you going to throw a ball so as not to embarrass him?

    And out here in the real world if I drill my next door neighbor in the ribs with a baseball because I don’t like his music, I’m going to jail.

    What are you enforcing by hitting the batter? In Paul’s formulation, the batter is potentially hurting his own team by admiring his long fly instead of running. Why should you respond with unsportsmanlike violence? Because your feelings were hurt? Focus on winning the game instead of intentionally trying to hurt someone who made you feel bad about yourself.

    Don’t give up home runs and you won’t have to intentionally try to cause an injury.

    Don’t act like a jerk after you hit a homer and you won’t have to worry about getting plunked.

    The act here though wasn’t “acting like a jerk after hitting a home run” it was hitting a homerun in itself

    I think we do a disservice when the topic is framed as “unwritten rules, yes or no.”

    It’s not that Yermin Mercedes or Fernando Tatis, Jr. have unwritten rules, it’s that those rules are different from the kind you see from Tony La Russa.

    One of the things coming from some of the White Sox players was that the Twins had thrown out a position player to pitch, signally that all bets were off. An attitude of, “If you’re going to disrespect the competitive spirit by putting a guy throwing 45 mph out there be ready to face the consequences.”

    That’s an unwritten rule too.

    Similarly, whereas in a past era, a pitcher would be justified in throwing at or behind a batter perceived to have slighted them, today that pitcher is a coward. (Here Tim Anderson’s reaction to the Twins throwing at Mercedes is instructive).

    It’s not fewer rules. It’s different ones.

    What I like about this piece is that it acknowledges this all lives in a gray area.

    My interpretation of Paul’s point is that we should look at whether or not the particular unwritten rule is truly disruptive or not when evaluating whether or not it’s a good one. A bat flip after an obvious homer? Not disruptive, really, and the game could probably use the personality. It’s going to take a while to trot the bases, anyhow.

    Elongating a game in which the opposing team has already thrown in the towel and everyone just wants to go home by hitting a homer just to pad your stats? More problematic.

    It’s not “yes” or “no.” We probably need to consider it on a case-by-case basis.

    Swinging on a 3-0 pitch while your team is up 15-4 is just disrespectful. I don’t see it as a race or culture issue it’s just common sense.

    Putting a position player to pitch the 9th inning is an effort to save your bullpen for the next game. That helps the team. You have 7-8 players in the bullpen and have probably already used 4-5 of them while giving up 15 runs. It’s the last inning of an 11-run game. It’s a clear signal of, “this game is over, let’s just finish it and play another day”.

    Then the Twins should have just forfeited. If it was a signal that they considered the game over, then end it.

    Why is a player trying to hit a home run disrespectful? If he’s replying on his own statistical output for future employment, then it’s in his best interest to hit as many home runs as he can.

    Baseball’s unwritten rules are just a subset of society’s unwritten rules about courtesy and friendliness and simply not being a jerk.

    We don’t usually tolerate people breaking unwritten rules in person so why should we do so in baseball?

    And people’s need to tie it to Latin players is on those people. It’s not on me. A white player being a jerk like Mercedes is just as much a jerk.

    Because baseball’s unwritten rules are not about basic decency, courtesy, or respect. They’re about 1)protecting the fragile egos of guys who get paid to play baseball when their opponents outplay them, and 2)codifying the macho bullshit of throwing a baseball at somebody because they hurt your feelings (which ironically, hurts the pitcher’s team because it puts a runner on base).

    “If you look at those big societal guidelines, you’ll see that most of them are designed to promote the core value of the collective good over the individual good. That’s not to say that individuals don’t matter — they have rights, agency, free will, all that good stuff — but they must sometimes subordinate or suppress their self-directed impulses for the sake of the greater good[.]”

    That basically sums up the entirety of civil law and civil jurisprudence since the time of the founding. The central tension in the law of a “free” country is always between the public good on one side and individual liberty on the other. Which is a big reason why the central tension in our politics (not to open that can of worms) is solidarity and compassion on one side, selfishness and cruelty on the other.

    “I think our values have remained fairly consistent. But our cultural consensus regarding which behaviors do or don’t embody those values has changed.”

    I agree with that, to a point; values change and evolve too, in the sense that “our values” reflect what we want and expect to see or have happen, the standards we set for ourselves and others. To use a uni-related example, baseball uniforms of the 1970s valued colorfulness (with the advent of color TV) and novelty, whereas those values had changed by the 1990s to tradition and player comfort.

    Frankly, I’m with Mercedes.

    That pitch was an absolute frisbee. It was a beer league slow pitch softball toss that happened to land right in the middle of the strike zone. It would be insulting not to annihilate it.

    The problem came when La Russa broke a different rule: the manager protects the players.

    Letting the door open for the Twins to throw at Mercedes (and potentially injure him) was egregious. This is a 28 year old rookie having a stellar season after a long time in the minors. He should not be putting him at risk.

    This right here. I get that there’s room for debate on celebrations, but expecting players to not play their best for the full game is shameful. If a team can’t field a competent pitcher, they can either take their beating like big boys or they can forfeit. The idea that a batter taking a clean hit at a pitch is grounds for retaliation just because a pitcher is in over his head is almost as disgraceful as expecting a team to help out an opposing pitcher with a no hitter.

    Mercedes didn’t even celebrate. He put that ball into orbit and rounded the bases like it was nothing.

    It’s the Twins acting unprofessionally.

    It’s also important to note that so many contracts have performance bonuses–a lot of guys make more money when they have more homers, RBI’s, etc… it’s unfair to say to a guy, “hit as many home runs as you can” but then also say, “unless they throw you a really easy one.”

    Even if he doesn’t get bonuses, Mercedes is on a one year contract. Can you imagine going into a job interview and telling a prospective employer that you would have been more productive in your last job, but the unwritten rules said that you had to sandbag?

    In PoliSci we refer to these “unwritten rules” as norms or regimes. Mostly they stick around as long as the powers that be in the area still more or less support them. It’s been interesting to watch players in leagues like the NBA and NCAA football wrestle significant power from owners/schools over the years and this change has reconfigured many unwritten rules. Once the powerful start questioning a rules legitimacy, whether it be from a changing of heart or a changing of the guard, they lose steam quickly. Sometimes rules do stick around a bit longer though. In these cases it might be too costly for one single player to defect so even if most people think the rule is stupid the cost to the first person who violates it is so high people toe the line. Then one day enough people test the waters and don’t pay a huge price for it and the rule disappears quickly.

    In sports some of the changing of the rules is likely generational but the generational shift is so closely aligned with changing power dynamics racially (those with power are getting more diverse over time, too slowly for sure) that it is going to be really difficult to tease out the Independent Variable.

    As easy as it is to dunk on LaRussa, one possibility that occurred to me is that Tony was trying to reach Mercedes through the media. Good managers/coaches know that different players respond to different approaches, and maybe LaRussa thought this was the best approach for Mercedes. (I don’t claim to follow the White Sox closely enough to know if that would be the case.)

    I look at it as celebrating is fine in big spots, playoffs, walkoffs, etc. But a bat flip in the 2nd inning of an April game is kinda silly.

    I think a big factor that is often ignored though, is that these unwritten rules and sportsmanship are fine between the foul lines, but they were developed in the days before arbitration and free agency. So taking a strikeout just because you have a big lead vs adding a home run to your stats is going to affect a player’s salary at the end of the day.

    This. The best reliever sits on his butt in most critical situations, because his salary is directly tied to saves. Same thing for hitters. They know that being awesome isn’t enough for top dollar—you need to max out the stats for dorks in the front office. Now we have NBA stars pretending to heave a three after the buzzer or handing it to a role player to take the turnover. It’s lame, but I’m not sure there’s a remedy.

    Great piece today Paul. As you note, the unwritten rules, regardless of specific instances, are essentially to be respectful to others, be a good teammate, and not be a show off. And ultimately, we still teach these things to kids in sports, and life in general, so why would baseball’s unwritten rules need to change?
    I think the push is ultimately because society has slowly changed norms, or perhaps chose ignore norms. While we still teach those unwritten rules, they come into conflict with two prevailing messages that are everywhere now. The first is overt, in “you do you” or other permutations of that. The expression of self and self desire is taught to a be a primary force, and only to be curtailed when directly and overtly hurting others. Since sloth, vanity, etc do not overtly hurt others, why not be a show off, even if they do affect others in less obvious ways.
    Secondly, and I think this goes to the bat flipping and similar showboating, our society is ever more attention seeking, be it social media, or just celebrity in general. Most especially the players under 30 in the game were essentially conditioned to see fame and attention as virtues unto themselves.
    So while the values that make up the unwritten rules are still important to society, they are undermined by the glorification of self and ego in society, and baseball, a historically pastoral and traditionalist institution is a very visible battleground for these competing sets of priorities.
    And if baseball thinks it needs bat flipping to remain relevant it clearly has no self awareness of what the actual problems of the game are (hint, pace of play).

    If the Miami Heat wears that jersey and a player wears a single digit, which style of number is he to wear?

    Who disrespected the game more? The guy who tried to hit a pitch when he was up to bat, or the guy who put a position player on the mound to throw 45mph? The only reason this is a story is because the Twins are trying to distract from their pitching mismanagement.

    How is that different from an NBA coach putting in the end of bench players at the end of a blowout? The “unwritten NBA rules” then leads to the winning coach pulling his starters, not instructing his team to dunk on G-leaguers.

    Putting in the emergency pitcher is waving the white flag and suggesting “let’s go home, we’re beaten.”

    If the Twins wanted to go home, they should have forfeited the game, as provided for in the rules. But they wanted to keep playing, and have no reason to whine because the other team kept playing too.

    Whether or not you say “OK Boomer” to someone who respects the unwritten rules of the game, they are about sportsmanship. MLB doesn’t really care, they’re willing to sacrifice the principles of sportsmanship and 150 years of history to maybe get the next generation to care about (meaning buy into) the sport. Baseball as everyone over 40 has come to know it is dead. It’s kind of sad really.

    If the pitcher gets to celebrate after a big strikeout, the batter gets to celebrate after a big hit.

    If you don’t want me taking real at bats against your position player pitcher, you shouldn’t pitch position players in real games.

    How is throwing at a batter in retaliation (giving him a free base) different than turning a double into a single by watching it fly (taking away a free base)?

    Ultimately, sports are entertainment. What is more entertaining? A batter standing there as a position player lobs it in, or a batter hitting a homer?

    What makes this such a complicated topic is that there are so many moving parts to a perceived action it’s hard to really know what the intent is. But here are my two cents:

    Teams intentionally taking it easy on an opponent late in a blowout always irks me; in a way that’s disrespecting them even more than keeping a bit of your foot on the gas. Particularly with baseball where time literally doesn’t have to run out; there’s nothing in the rulebook PREVENTING the Twins from scoring 14 runs in the bottom of the 9th and winning the game. It’s unlikely, yes, but I’m not sure I can necessarily fault the Sox for acknowledging that it’s technically a possibility.

    That said, I get that the Twins had basically signaled the white flag to the Sox by putting in a position player to pitch…but then it’s also weird to me that they would bother retaliating the next game. It’s almost like they’re saying ‘how dare you take steps to further beat us in a game where we made it clear that we’re ok with you beating us.’

    What further complicates things: I think there’s a big difference between Mercedes potentially MISSING the 3-0 take sign vs potentially IGNORING the 3-0 take sign. If he missed it, yea I get it you probably should inherently know not to swing in that situation, but I also get that sometimes instinct and muscle memory can override the brain in certain moments. If that’s what happened, I wonder if a quick apology on his end would’ve sufficed and ended the whole matter. Not an apology for hitting the HR, mind you, but an apology for missing the take sign.

    As far as bat flips or strikeout celebrations, I think the line is pretty clear *most* of the time: if you turn to your own dugout and start cheering/fist pumping/whatever, I’m ok with that. You’ve made it clear (at least to me) that your antics are to try and drum up some energy, some momentum. If you stare down your opponent or start screaming/fist pumping/whatever in their general direction, then you’re showing them up/displaying poor sportsmanship. Even though the two acts appear very similar in nature, where your energy is directed makes all the difference (again, at least to me).

    However, I think what makes bat flips in particular so controversial is that the game essentially has to stop when a home run is hit, and all the focus turns on the person who hit it, in order to allow him to make his way around the bases. The attention of the entire stadium is on him, including the players in the field. Any amount of perceived disrespect sent their way at the beginning of the play gives them almost 30 seconds to watch the hitter and stew over it; not only about the disrespect, but about the score as well. I can see how some emotion can end up bubbling to the surface during that time, from either side.

    I wonder how many of these team dust-ups/long term beefs would be avoided if you allowed the hitter to bat flip and just walk back to the dugout to celebrate instead of having him trot around the bases. We do it for IBBs now, just giving the hitter the base, maybe it’s time to consider that going forward. Let any runners on base finish their trip, but the hitter can just meet them at the top of the stairs or the on-deck circle for high-fives or dances or whatever.

    I get that the Twins had basically signaled the white flag to the Sox by putting in a position player to pitch

    Important point! And the thing is, the rules – I mean, the actual literally written rules of the game – permit any team to forfeit the game. If you’re down by 10 runs after 8 and don’t believe you can win the game in the 9th, a manager is free to tell the umpiring crew chief that his team forfeits and the game ends right then and there. We don’t need “unwritten rules” to mandate mercy; a losing team is free to invoke the written rules and end the suffering at any time.

    So this is an interesting piece, and I’m glad to see it’s prompting a lot of thoughtful discussion.

    To me this all comes down to the balance between sportsmanship and passion. To me, I want to see guys on my team celebrating in big moments. Shane Victorino hitting a homer in the 2013 ALCS against Detroit comes to mind. I’ll remember that moment forever, in no small part because the image of Victorino pounding his chest as he ran up the first base line is such a powerful one.

    Now, a die hard purist would say that something like that doesn’t belong in the sport, which to me seems so arbitrary. Did Carlton Fisk break an unwritten rule when he celebrated his home run in the ’75 World Series?

    All that being said, my general thinking here is that the “ball don’t lie,” to quote Rasheed Wallace. If you want to celebrate, before the finish line, you better be damn sure what you think is about to happen actually happens. Paul’s example of Ricky Henderson celebrating a long single perfectly captures how I think about this. If you start celebrating before the three goes in, or before you reach the end zone, or before the ball goes over the wall, then you’re bound to have an embarrassing moment, and it’ll likely be caught on film for everyone to watch over and over.

    Finally, the idea that teams should police what they perceive as bad sportsmanship (hitting a homer on a 3-0 pitch or whatever) by engaging in MORE bad sportsmanship by throwing at a guy really bothers me. We’ve seen countless examples of someone getting seriously injured–including career ending–by being hit in the head with a fastball. To me it’s unacceptable that a baseball is used as a weapon whenever a pitcher feels upstaged by a batter. To me that’s more childish and unsportsmanlike than any bat flip.

    About 10 years ago I read a book about baseball’s unwritten laws, and it lead me to write a blog about how much more vicious cricket is than baseball because of’s unwritten laws, and b. the very structures of the game.
    (In cricket you can have draws on time, you have to bowl out the other side to win – therefore a winning side must enforce its advantage, it can’t just wait out the game preserving a healthy lead and still win. As always there are exceptions, but this largely holds)

    In this case, in cricket, a batter put in to bowl would get hit to all parts without mercy. We have a term for it – buffet bowling.
    (Line up, and help yourself)

    I give you a gift, you’re gonna stand here and show up my pitcher? Run, dummy!

    I am a lifelong baseball fan, and coached baseball at the high school level for 20 years. I have zero problem with the a player hitting a HR off a position player on a 3-0 count. What I do have a problem with is a player hitting a HR off a position player on a 3-0 count in which the hitter was given the take sign. He disobeyed a sign from his manager, and, at that level, he should be fined by his manager. LaRussa should not have aired this out in the media, either. He should have handled it behind closed doors.

    Nailed it with disobeying the take sign thing.
    Now the player may disagree with the managers decision, but ultimately you follow the chain of command right?
    There is something to be said for sportsmanship and not running up the score or humiliating your opponent, but given these are professional adults, and not children, and given the value placed on stats, it makes little sense to stop trying to get the game over. I mean if that is the objective, just put a mercy rule in, or have one team concede and end the game if it is completely out of hand and they don’t want to use their bullpen.

    Came here to say this.

    Also, TR may have felt the need to clarify that “hell no we didn’t tell him to swing” just for his own reputation.

    I’m personally more offended that a 76 year old LaRussa was driving drunk. Fortunately he was busted before he could hurt someone.

    LaRussa’s handling of the issue left a lot to be desired. The public shaming and apology to the Twins was an overreaction. He could have addressed it internally and none of us would be talking about it today. The White Sox have a talented team capable of winning the AL (I’m a Cleveland fan so it pains me to say that) but they now run the risk of the manager losing the clubhouse due to his mishandling of this incident and misinterpretation of the rules of the game. Going to be an interesting summer for Sox fans.

    Any unwritten rule that involves not trying hard for one reason or another seems like the ultimate disrespect to the game. You’re there to win and also provide entertainment. Taking a strike on a pitch that could easily be a home run is not serving either of those causes.

    I’m also continually mystified by the focus on respect and not showing people up at the big-league level. These are professional grown men. Who the hell cares about their feelings? Don’t want to get your feelings hurt? Pitch better. Or retire. Whatever. ​

    ​The whole thing gets even more sketchy when you start trying to enforce one culture’s norms (I’m including old guys as a culture here) on people from another culture.

    When my kids reached Little League age, I started thinking that many of the unwritten rules in Major League were descended from rules that kids learn when they are six years old.

    Often, these rules make a lot of sense for six year olds. (Anybody here remember Dallas Braden yelling at Alex Rodriguez to get off his mound? I can tell you that as a dad pitching to kids, I often had to shoo kids out of the way!)

    Rules related to not hurting feelings, not expressing too much joy, and so on make sense with the kids, but don’t make so much sense with grown men who are supposed to be the greatest players on Earth. And yet, they’ve been learning these rules since they were little, at least the kids who grew up in the United States have.

    When I’ve lived in other countries, there were lots of unwritten rules that were different than those I grew up with. I don’t think those other rules were inherently or consistently better or worse than the rules of my childhood — some made more sense to me, others less.

    Regardless of everything I’ve said above, MLB’s job is to entertain people. That’s why so many articles have been written on the topic this year: turns out that many of the unwritten rules decrease the entertainment value of the sport.

    In the particular case we’re looking at today, putting in a position player to go against the best players in the world only has two possible entertaining outcomes: 1) the position player actually pitches well and retires the side, or 2) the position player fails horribly. Watching a position player play catch with the catcher while the batter never swings is just boring.

    Obligatory greatest bat flip ever shout out to Tom Lawless.

    Tom Lawless, banjo hitting utility infielder with two (2) career regular season homers to his credit, connected with a pitch in the 1987 World Series, watched it *barely* clear the left field wall of the cavernous old Busch Stadium dimensions, then flipped his bat straight in the air before loping around the bases.


    And I don’t recall him getting plunked or a big to-do in the media back when ratings for WS games were WAY more than today. Maybe because was just little old Tom Lawless? Maybe because we didn’t have the 24/7 media beast to feed? Who knows.



    Why are people piling on Latinx players but not on Tom Lawless??


    Imo, if you send a position player out to pitch, swing for the fences. I’m supposed to be less aggressive because you’re resting your bullpen? Nah.

    One unwritten rule that I disagree with is stealing a base when your team is up or down by a bunch of runs. Up by 8? Don’t steal. Down by 8? Steal like you’re DB Cooper.

    I have never looked at “sportsmanship” as a gendered term. When you say “mankind” it’s inclusive of all genders. I like to think it can be derived from that.

    Actually, “humankind” is now the preferred term in many circles. I’d like to see non-gendered term for “sportsmanship” as well.

    The definition of mankind is “human beings considered collectively; the human race” That seems inclusive enough to me. An alternative to “sportsmanship” would no doubt be clunky.

    Doug, I am aware of the definition of “mankind.” But while the *definition* may be inclusive, the word itself is not. That’s why, as I’ve already explained, “humankind” is now the preferred term in many circles. Try to imagine it from a woman’s perspective and it’s easy to see why. (How would you feel if we changed it to “womankind”?)

    If you still think “mankind” is fine, no problem — but many people, myself included, feel differently, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I agree that “sportshumanship” would be too clunky. That doesn’t mean that no other substitute term is possible, however.

    I have seen awards for Sportsperson of the Year so my money is Sportspersonship. It does the job, but in my opinion is a bit clunky. My preference would be Sportstership. It sounds like something grandparents would call their athletic little grandkids. “That Jinny is a real sportster. Made the captain of the school softball team. Billy, on the other hand, he likes to draw. He’s more of an artster. And Jules, what isn’t she good at? She’s our polymathster.”

    “Sporting behaviour”?
    “Fair play”?
    “cricket”? (lol)

    The obverse, in the UK, was “ungentlemanly conduct” but that’s been dropped for something like “unsporting behaviour”

    You can be a Good Sport or a bad Sport, so why not just “Sportship”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I bet if you actually polled women, they’d be more concerned with something like the gender pay gap. Solutions to so-called problems like these take attention away from those problems that truly need solved.

    I bet if you actually polled women, they’d be more concerned with something like the gender pay gap.

    That may be true!


    Did I say this issue is more important than the gender pay gap? No, I did not.

    If we address issues of gendered language, does that prevent us from addressing things like the gender pay gap? No, it does not.

    Is there any reason we can’t address gendered language *and* the gender pay gap? No, there is not.

    In short: You are presenting a false choice.

    The unwritten rules thing is pretty nuanced. I’m 36 with a more old school-leaning mind, but I like bat flips and fist pumps and stuff like that. But as always, context is king. You hit a big go-ahead homer or strike a guy out to strand the bases loaded in a tie game, go crazy. But hitting a home run on 3-0 in an 11-run game off a position player (which in and of itself is a signal of surrender by the other team) doesn’t really prove anything. Cool, you went yard against a dude throwing 60? Tell me more… ::eyeroll::

    I don’t know. Sort of feel like, “Don’t be a dick” is a good barometer for what crosses the line.

    It’s very interesting to see the comments about this topic on Uni-watch compared the say, Reddit. Obviously a very different demographic on both sites.

    Perusing the younger generation comments it is apparent that change is coming to the game regardless of the complaints of the older fans.

    If the “unwritten rules” are so important, why hasn’t someone written them down and codified them into the rule book? Seems pretty simple to do. If you don’t want me to hit a home run, put someone in who gets paid to get me out.

    They’re not written down because then everyone would see how ridiculous they are.

    I’ve been a White Sox fan all my life, so I am obliged to comment. I have never cared for Larussa. It’s always about him. It’s NOT. Regardless of how you feel about unwritten rules, the game should not be about him. This team would be just as good without him. The team and their players should be the stars. Go home Tony!

    There are two distinct varieties of “unwritten rules” in sports: Those which govern the play of the game, and those which govern the conduct of players playing the game.

    The decision about whether to swing or not swing on a 3-0 pitch is a play-of-the-game situation. The decision about whether to flip the bat after hitting a home run is a conduct-of-players situation.

    The latter, conduct-of-players, is naturally most commonly a matter of informal rules, which are more properly called “habits” than “rules,” and Paul’s comparison to manners here is apt. All of life is interwoven with invisible webs of “unwritten rules” that mostly govern our conduct. I’m a big believer in HLA Hart’s description of the nature of rules, which very roughly holds that 1) A rule that people follow but that they don’t expect to be punished if they don’t is a habit. Most of culture is a habit. “Water the vegetable garden every third day unless it rains” or “Tuesday is taco night” or “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you'” or “department members meet for drinks after work on Wednesday” are habits. 2) A rule that people follow and they do expect to be punished if they don’t follow it is a rule. Games, for example, are created by establishing a set of rules. Contracts establish a set of rules. Parents create rules for the children in their household. 3) A rule that is enforced by the state is a law. “Wave back to other drivers who wave at you” is a habit. “Return the car to the rental office with a full tank of gas” is a rule. “Drive on the right side of the road” is a law.

    So, the conduct of a player while playing the game is naturally and inherently governed by “unwritten rules,” just as is most of life most of the time.

    But play-of-the-game “unwritten rules” are inherently anathema to fairness and sportsmanship. A sport is a game of physical skill. A game is a contest conducted according to a set of clear rules that apply to and are known by all. An “unwritten rule” does not apply to all and cannot be clearly known to all. An “unwritten rule” is necessarily arbitrary and unfair in application. An example of a play-of-the-game situation is the batter’s decision to take or swing on a 3-0 count. Baseball has rules, and the rules say that 4 balls is a walk, a pitch down the middle is a strike, and the objective of the batter is to reach base and/or drive in runners currently on base. That’s it! Those are the applicable rules. Anything else, any “unwritten rules” that alter the play of the game by either the pitcher or the batter in that situation are bad for the game. They make the game worse to play, less fair, and less fun to watch.

    There are good reasons to swing or take on a 3-0 pitch, just as there are good reasons for a pitcher to decide whether to groove one in for a sure strike or take a risk of giving up the walk. Those reasons should be the only considerations affecting either player’s decision about what to do in the moment. (Also, there’s a good reason why a basic lesson taught to every player from youth ball up is, “Don’t throw a pitch on 2-0 that you wouldn’t throw on 3-0.”) Personally, in the situation of a batter facing a position player, I think it’s a no-brainer that you swing on 3-0, just as I think it’s usually better to take on a 3-0 pitch against a good pitcher. But that’s just me; it’s purely a calculation of what’s most likely to produce the best outcome for one’s team as measured by the scoreboard.

    One potential “unwritten rule” that I would approve of is, “Don’t throw at a batter’s head, even if he showed you up with a home run on a 3-0 pitch his last at-bat.” But that doesn’t need to be an “unwritten rule” because it’s already an actual written rule of the game! Umpires are empowered to eject any pitcher, and possibly his manager, anytime he believes a pitcher has deliberately thrown at a batter’s head. This is the perfect illustration of the value of written rules and the bullshit-ness of “unwritten rules”: If something should be a rule, then it should be a rule. Write it down. Make it official. If it doesn’t deserve to be part of the official rules, then keep it the heck away from the field of play.

    This is the rare instance where instead of being the geezer yelling at kids to “Stay off my lawn!” I’m with the kids shouting “Go back inside, old man!”

    I think, in place of or in addition to your habits, I would add “norms.” Norms are observed as a matter of course, but they are not only unenforced, they are unenforceable. Things like not crossing directly over home plate, not addressing the pitcher when you’re a hitter, calling the umpire ‘sir’ (at lower levels). These are good for the game, and some have useful historical context for doing them, but they are by no means NECESSARY. Some habits that get spoken of as rules, like not swinging on a 3-0 pitch, are situational and not absolute. Others are closer to absolute, like not taunting the opposing team. But norms should never be absolute. There are times and situations where not following them is perfectly acceptable, or even called for – like Griffey wearing a backward cap to BP.

    I’m very for the unwritten norms of baseball, but the feverish desire to punish offenders is ridiculous and repugnant to me. Making Tatis, Jr. apologize for hitting a homer was absurd.

    One of the unwritten rules is that you should always hustle so any unwritten rule that is about not trying is not a rule that should supported. You have a 3-0 count and the pitchers lobs one right into the sweet spot? Swing away (actually, I’m not sure why this isn’t done more in this era). Bunting to break up a no-hitter? If a team is down by a run or two or three and you need a baserunner, bunt away. “You play to win the game,” as Herman Edwards said. That win you give away for the sake of a pitcher’s ego can be the difference between playing in October or watching on TV. Does it stink to be on the losing end when your position player is in there heaving grapefruits? Absolutely. But the best part about baseball is that usually if you take your lumps today, you can be the one giving them out tomorrow.

    This is exactly my attitude. I’d call sportsmanship the “link” of all sports, indeed all competition. Fundamental to sportsmanship is that you play to win and you do your best at all times. Playing to win at all times is how you show respect to your opponent. To ease up or play softly is to show contempt for your opponent. You are demonstrating by action that you don’t believe your opponent can really compete with you, nor is your opponent deserving of experiencing or learning from fair competition against you at your best.

    I’ve played in (and coached) more losses than wins in my sporting career. And while losing often isn’t fun, sensing that the winning team was taking it easy was always more frustrating to me. Those situations are the only games where I’ve ever felt humiliated in a loss. I’ve also participated in many games, as a winner and a loser, where we’ve called the game and then kept on playing for the sake of practice and instruction. Once that decision is made, you’re no longer playing the game, so it can be totally OK for the better team to “play down” a bit for the sake of mutual enjoyment and learning.

    I’m reminded of the early-baseball primary sources I’ve read. When the first great East Coast amateur teams started barnstorming the Midwest and West, they’d often win by huge margins over the local nines. Like 40-0 kinds of lopsided shellackings. And in every case I’ve ever read, the local players expressed seemingly sincere gratitude to the visiting teams for giving them the chance to play against and lose hugely to such better sides. It was a learning opportunity – you become the best by playing the best.

    This is an outstanding point that I haven’t thought of. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

    Class, you either have it or you don’t. Of course one person’s class is another’s classlessness. It reminds me of the famous quote by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when trying to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene. I’m including the entire quote, because I think most of us only know “But I know it when I see it”. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (“hard-core pornography”), and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture in this case is not that.”
    Larry Fitzgerald handing the ball back to the referee after a touchdown is class, but I’m a 63 year old, straight, white guy. However, there are many celebrations I find funny and entertaining, and many that tasteless. I know it when I see it.

    Re: the Olympic uniforms slideshow.

    The photo starts with the only picture I have ever seen of the 1920 Olympic ice hockey jersey. The Olympics in Antwerp included not only the usual Summer Olympic events, but an ice hockey tournament.

    Friends, what color do you think those sweaters were? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a non-traditional color like gray or tan.

    It’s pretty simple IMO: athletes are entertainers. They are doing exactly what they are paid to do. Whether you LIKE the entertainment says more about you than it does them.

    “Athletes are entertainers” sounds like a simple statement, but it’s actually very complex. For most fans, competition and athletic excellence are entertaining by definition (that’s why most fans are watching), and literally nothing is more entertaining than victory.

    The way an athlete conducts him/herself while competing seems relevant, especially if it affects the pursuit of victory (like not running out a fly ball that becomes a single instead of a double).

    I think a lot of what you’re referring to is more about *attention* than entertainment. Those two things are not mutually exclusive — some fans certainly find attention-getting behavior to be entertaining — but they’re not the same thing.

    Or to put it another way: Hitting a home run is entertaining; flipping your bat afterward is attention-getting. (I don’t mean that as a critique of bat-flipping. I’m just trying to clarify our terms and separate one type of behavior from another.)

    One of the problems with NA sports is the debate seems to often comes down to “old white guys” vs “you find people of color.” It feels like baseball and hockey, the two sports that usually seem to the most conservative/repressive, are also the ones with the highest percentage of Caucasian players and management. And basketball is the more ethnically diverse sport and fan base with a more liberal/progressive attitude towards these things, even going back to the ABA.

    It feels like sometimes that underlining race/cultural can prevent an open dialogue on these things in the media (although not at UniWatch, where most people are thoughtful about debates).

    Loved the essay, but I do have one small (but important, I think) correction: The Twins didn’t throw behind Mercedes’s head in retaliation, they threw one behind him at knee level. Big, big difference.

    The unwritten rule debate extends to non-athletic competitions as well. There was a bit of a todo last week on Jeopardy! when one of the contestants was rather over-exuberant, and caught quite a bit of Internet flak about it. Of course, when you re-phrase the debate as being about “manners” rather than “unwritten rules”, it can pop up anywhere.

    Following up on a previous comment, for me the “conduct” side of the unwritten rules is a no-brainer. Little turns me off more than personal showboating, whether in sports or trivia. I’m a firm believer in the (probably apocryphal) quote about “acting like you’ve been there before” when getting in the end zone or hitting that Daily Double.

    Maybe if they’re not supposed to swing the bat, the manager can signal an “automatic out” and not send the man up to the plate in the first place. Not dissimilar to the “intentional walk” with zero pitches.

    We live in interesting times, and one of the interesting things about these times is that individualism, and one might say narcissism, has never been valued more in our society. Social media has made all of us think about our “personal brand” and what we all can do to increase the quantified amount of attention we get — and yes, it is quantified in terms of likes, follows, etc.

    Unfortunately, part of that shift in values has meant we’ve focused so much on individualism that we’ve seemed to lessen the importance of the collective good.

    I think you make a good point in this piece, Paul, in that some unwritten rules are merely in place to maintain a decorum, while others have purpose for the collective good.

    Finding the line is the difficult part. I think it cuts at the core of what this site seeks to discuss every day. On the one hand, we want our teams to look “uniform,” on the other, everyone feels more comfortable in different ways, so that may mean looking differently. Somewhere, there’s a line: Maybe one guy prefers having high-cuffed pants, while another guy prefers the spats look. While we’ve (perhaps begrudgingly) decided that’s allowable, having each guy take the field in different-colored pants, or having a football player wear the other team’s colors to be camouflaged, or whatever, would cross the line. Discussion of players on the same team wearing different styles of socks or undershirts is a good example of where things get hazy.

    Ultimately, though, my interpretation of what you’re saying here, Paul, is this: We should probably look at unwritten rules on a case-by-case basis and ask if they try to truly solve a problem in terms of the on-field product, or if it’s just expression and it should be allowed, even if distasteful, accordingly.

    And ultimately, I think the question is whether or not the individual expression hurts the collective good or not, which you referred to directly.

    I have learned to be permissive of celebrations as long as they’re not vulgar or time-wasting. In the NFL, the play clock does not wait for a player to be finished celebrating. As long as his team is not necessarily wasting game time they might need, go nuts if it’s not hurting anyone. I think we’ve seen a shift in the cultural norm there: I don’t think younger folks see it as showing up an opponent, because the mindset has changed to one more like Trevor Bauer’s — “If I didn’t want him to celebrate, I shouldn’t have let him hit a homer. Then I’d be celebrating.” The attention, and the chance to build one’s personal style and brand, are part of the reward for doing well.

    However, I go back to the paragraph where you outlined both nebulous and specific unwritten rules: To me, the problem is that we generally just don’t have as much respect for anyone but ourselves anymore, period. Take Joe Kelly & the Astros. One could be critical of Joe Kelly’s facial expressions toward the Astros; of course, one can be critical of the Astros and what they did. You can debate degrees of wrongness, but in our current age, we also have to debate whether either was really “wrong” — the Astros still got their World Series, and Kelly is now far better known and more marketable, even though both engaged in theoretically “wrong” actions. This is what our age breeds. We’ve kind of lost the idea of that you shouldn’t do wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right, largely because the consequences of “being wrong” aren’t as severe as the benefits.

    The Kelly thing also spoke to something else: As part of us becoming more individualized, we also tend to believe our own version of justice is appropriate rather than necessarily ascribing to one dictated by either an authority or the collective hive mind, which isn’t necessarily surprising since we’ve seen more and more people in authority also be more self-serving than thinking about the common good. Clearly, Kelly did not feel MLB went far enough in punishing the Astros and decided to issue his own snide manner of punishment. And, honestly, he was probably correct.

    The question, however, also has to be, “who gets hurt?” Who gets hurt with a bat flip? No one, really, save maybe people holding onto an old-fashioned notion of the game that may no longer exist. The Astros thing is too big of a can of worms to open up; you may claim their cheating hurt teams trying to follow the rules, or you may claim the other teams have access to the same means to cheat and just weren’t as innovative or didn’t do it as well. [shrug]

    A guy bunting to break up a no-hitter when it’s a 1-0 game and his team is in the pennant race doesn’t strike me as much of a sin at all. The team is paying you to try and win; at that point, you do what you have to in order to win. A guy bunting to break up a no-hitter when it’s an 11-0 game and his team has already been eliminated is another story.

    In Mercedes case, I think he didn’t read the room correctly. Astudillo pitching is the Twins waving the white flag. They’re acknowledging the game is lost. At that point, they just want a guy to throw strikes, no matter the pitch speed, and let everyone get home faster. And really, the White Sox should be thinking the same way: We’ve won, let’s get out of here. But Mercedes put himself ahead of everyone in the building and made everyone wait for him to trot the bases and for Astudillo to get another out rather than to just take a pitch, or, even better, take a nice, easy swing to maintain appearances and accept a ground out to third. Yes, that might mean one fewer homer, one less RBI, a .0003 lower batting average and, sin of sins, maybe less in incentives at the end of the year. Let it go. And honestly, if that happens, in a decent world, his agent would explain he came close and could have had it if it weren’t for such circumstances and the team would give it to him, anyway. I know that’s not how it works, unfortunately, but again, that’s our problem nowadays: It ends up being “too much me” on all sides, here the player’s and the team’s, and as a result, we wonder why we’re all cranky because we feel like no one does anything nice for us and we have to do everything ourselves.

    But I also think it would have been worthwhile for La Russa and/or the Twins to just let it go after it happened, too. Again, then we just move on and we’re not spending more time and effort on it. But no, we have to call attention to our own opinions of it, La Russa gets in the news, the Twins get in the news, and so on.

    So yeah. Am I kind of over unwritten rules? Yes. But I’m also over so many people just thinking of themselves all the time. Bat flips are probably good for the game; a lot of people seem to enjoy them. Elongating a game that’s already been won isn’t. I’d like to think we don’t necessarily need “unwritten rules” to just read the room and do the right thing in the moment.

    Just want to throw my two cents in:

    When I think of “unwritten rules”, I think of “tradition”. Some traditions stand the test of time and remain unchanged through generations. But not all traditions that remained unchanged are accepted by everyone. And that should be ok. Like Santa Claus. Some people subscribe to the tradition and pass it down to their children. Others prefer not to subscribe to the tradition.

    Some traditions are joined by other traditions in the same space. Look at marriage ceremonies. Is there a jumping of the broom at all ceremonies? Are all ceremonies conducted by a member of the clergy? Do all include a bride, groom and wedding party in a church? Nope.

    Look at traditions that were actually codified in law, as in property ownership, suffrage, enslavement, Jim Crow, etc. At some point, those traditions were challenged and new laws were (and are still being) codified to change the traditional norms that society accepted. (I think it is difficult to separate “unwritten rules” from “cultural norms”, and with cultural norms, you have to consider racial and cultural constructs as it relates to those “in power” at the time”)

    So with baseball, there are “unwritten rules” that some “old-timers” (both in age and in those who like a particular era) who will be in a mini-uproar because the rule was broken. But there will be others who feel that the “unwritten rules” are silly and do not represent how they feel the game should be played. Demonstrating excitement after making a play doesn’t always mean disrespect to the other team. I think common sense should prevail when a player flips his bat after a homerun – it isn’t always some sort of personal message to the pitcher in a disrespectful way. Sometimes it is genuine excitement like “Damn, I just rocked a homer, and it was against XYZ pitcher who is really damn good”. It sometimes IS about the showboat, and that’s ok too. I do understand that some love the showboat, and some despise it. But it shouldn’t be allowed to have a pitcher throw 100mph in the direction of a batter. Get him out, and then YOU showboat. Then at the end of the game, shake hands and move to the next opponent.

    A little piece on norms. This is from an interview between Barry Ritholtz who is a columnist and money manager and David Dunning who is a psychologist known for identifying the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dunning now studies norms. Here is the clip:

    DUNNING: Well, social norms, I think is the surprisingly understudied thing in the behavioral sciences, there are people who study it and social norms are an incredible guide both to successful human behavior, not only for individuals but for society, but also at times, the source of the greatest calamity, if you will.

    So …

    RITHOLTZ: Why is it? Give us some examples to better understand that.

    DUNNING: Well, I think that the clearest example that comes to mind is let’s take norms of politeness and let’s talk about the fact that the FAA has recorded, I believe I’m not sure of the numbers, 16 times where the crew in the cockpit of an airliner knew that the pilot was doing something wrong and they were going to crash into a mountain.

    The pilot didn’t seem to know but they are polite and so they indirectly keep telling the pilot you better change things up, but they don’t say it directly, and if you listen to the black box recordings, those planes crash.

    So there’s a norm that we try not to embarrass the other person, it’s a very important norm for day to day life, imagine day to day life without it, but it can go to extremes in terms of not telling pilots that they are on the course to disaster or not telling doctors that they are operating on the wrong leg, for example.
    [END SNIP]

    Last piece from me: La Russa needed to have the actual written rules explained to him two weeks ago. The White Sox lost a game against the Reds because of it. And that is not respecting the game.

    I agree with the unwritten rules. You hit a home run and showboat around the bases; you’re gonna get it. I don’t mean going at the head, which is uncalled for in any case. But expect to get plunked in the hip? Sure. This guy going for the fences, up by a dozen runs? Clueless.

    I don’t have a problem with (most) of the unwritten rules, but this idea that it’s okay to quite literally commit assault and battery against a player who violates one is a bit hard to swallow.

    It’s like saying that if somebody out in public burps without saying “excuse me” you have a right to punch him in the gut.

    And if a pitcher is allowed to assault a hitter who “showboats” why isn’t that batter allowed to club a pitcher with a bat if he celebrates a strikeout too much for the hitter’s liking?

    Another thought here, and somewhat specific to the bat flip. Another commenter quoted the well known “I know it when I see it” line about pornography. And it really does apply here. The unwritten rules are less about celebration, more about the type of celebration.
    The bat flip is grandstanding, it is attention seeking, and it is self adulation. “Man am I awesome for crushing that home run”. Conversely, hit a home run, start heading down the bases, and when the ball clears doing a fist pump feels far more appropriate. It is a celebration of the score, of putting runs on the board for your team, just as you would high five the next batter or other runners on base now waiting for you at home. And likewise there is no fuss when teammates mob you at the plate after hitting a walk off home run.
    I have always read the unwritten rule around bat flips / celebration to be less about “not having fun” or not celebrating big plays, but more about avoiding self idolization.
    And that really applies to just about anything in life.

    Also, can somebody explain to me the logic behind the unwritten “don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter” rule?

    I mean, bunting is a legal play, but it’s not an effective way of getting on base and is usually employed as a sacrifice. And if a team is on the receiving end of a no-hitter, it’s their goal to try to get on base, right? Doesn’t actually decrease the value of a no-hitter for a picture if his opponents stop trying at a certain point?

    Am I missing something here?

    You’re not missing anything. Fuddy-Duddies hate when people mess up no hitters. As a batter, bunting is a perfect way to shake up a game. If it works, you’re on base and back in the ballgame. If it doesn’t, well, the other team has to take a look at the spray chart and wonder if they need to cheat in a little because a bunt is a possibility.

    There’s also nothing wrong with swinging at a 3-0 pitch that’s served up like a hot cake right over the plate, even if it is thrown by a non-pitcher.

    I mentioned Tom Lawless above. Look up his 1987 World Series bat flip. It puts every other bat flip to shame. Lawless only hit TWO other homers in his entire career. Did he or anyone else get plunked later in the game? If memory serves, nobody got plunked.

    If traditionalists want “unwritten rules” followed, then get them codified. Otherwise, sit back down in the easy chair and enjoy the show.

    For whatever it’s worth, the image you used of Fernando Tatis Jr flipping his bat was used on the cover of the latest iteration of “MLB The Show” video game for Playstation and (now) Xbox, which almost certainly had to get approval from the league. And based on advertising on ESPN and the like, they seem to show off the younger stars that don’t seem to care to much for the “unwritten rules.” So, I guess whether TLR likes it or not, the league and players ass’n both seem to feel they can make money off that attitude.

    Some of the unwritten rules, those along the lines of “don’t rub it in by celebrating too much”, maybe do have a place in the game for the sake of class and sportsmanship. But it’s hard to know where that line is sometimes. The Joey Bats Bat-Flip was a release of tension and emotion that felt forgivable and understandable to me. Real emotion is OK, but intentionally rubbing it in isn’t. Like you wouldn’t do a dance every time you strike out a guy or something.

    Other things like “don’t run up the score” or “don’t bunt to break a no-hitter”, or “don’t swing in this situation” are stupid, because the actual result of a game can change. Somebody could be up by a ton of runs, but big comebacks can still happen…. ever wonder if one of those might have been averted by breaking an “unwritten rule”? “We didn’t want to run up the score on them because that’s rude…. but they weren’t supposed to turn that around on us and win the game… that was also rude”


    Am I the only one that believes that the 1968 Cincy Bengals early concept uniform – never worn – depicted in the poster above is perhaps the VERY BEST Bengals uniform design – EVER!

    Said so a bunch of times over the past 15 years – the Bengals should go ahead and wear this as a “fauxback” uniform in a couple of games. When you have a pretty mediocre uni history – and the Bengals certainly do – why not go ahead and wear an interesting, however unworn, OFFICIAL Concept Uniform? After all, these Bengals uniforms did actually make it as far as these and other AFL promotional materials.

    Why didn’t they wear these Orange jerseys back in 1968?
    My best guess is that Paul Brown probably did not want TWO teams with Orange jerseys in a 10 team league.

    Go for it! Wear the Fauxbacks!

    Baseball is supposed to be men playing a boys game….instead we have a bunch of spoiled little brats playing a mans game.

    Lost interest in MLB years ago…..if its not the most boring game in the world, it’s surely the most out of touch with the world.

    There are so many layers to this. The players in the major leagues are adults, and if their opponent celebrates, they should have the emotional resources to deal with it. This isn’t the case in little leagues. If a kid hits a home run and makes a big show of it, it could hurt the pitcher to the point he might not want to play baseball anymore.

    But little leaguers watch big leaguers, and take their cues from them. If this is your argument, then sure, you could argue that the pros should tone down their celebrations. But then you also have to say that the pros shouldn’t retaliate by throwing beanballs.

    Personally, I think the game, aesthetically, is much more interesting to watch when players make their emotions visible.

    Late to the party, but for what it’s worth:
    The best lesson that sports teaches that is transferable to life writ large is how to both lose and win with dignity. There is a line, and it is rather fuzzy, between “celebration” and “being an ass” that is very reminiscent of the pornography standard of “I know it when I see it.”

    I guess for me if a batter wants to bat flip after a monster HR, they better not get salty if they get frozen on the next AB and the pitcher does a little something to celebrate, and vice versa.

    But don’t make a meal of it. Basically, the batter gets to admire the ball till it lands and the pitcher gets to swagger until the victim is back in the dugout. After that, like Vince Lombradi said, “Act like you’ve been there before.”

    Honestly, LaRussa should be more concerned about his batter swinging on a take sign than anything that happened afterwards.

    This was an excellent thinkpiece, and says a lot of things that I’ve been privately thinking. Unwritten rules aren’t to go unquestioned or set in stone … but unless we can impartially articulate WHY an unwritten rule might exist, we shouldn’t just dismiss it either (see “Chesterton’s Fence”).

    As someone else here pointed out, La Russa himself broke the unwritten rule of having your players’ backs–both in his interview, and in tacitly giving the Twins grounds to retaliate. Also, the worse a person you are, the greater your stake in eroding the unwritten rules of whatever environment you find yourself. It’s not ground to be abandoned instantly and without consideration, and one shouldn’t be automatically cowed here on the grounds of respect for other cultures.

    You and I have often disagreed on various fronts (always in good faith, which I appreciate), so your kind words here mean a lot. Thank you!

    Being a good sport?
    Displaying Class?
    Not being an a whole?
    Respecting tradition?

    For those who need it there’s plenty of other ways to say sportsmanship.

    Further to the Hockey Ticker. If we are going to talk Lethbridge Broncos and Cooperalls we need to look at this infamous uniform.

    They unexpectedly made a run in the 1983 playoffs and won the WHL championship while in Cooperalls that imitated short pants and socks. Stripes down the sides to the knee and striping around the calves like you would see with hockey socks.

    Here playing in the 1983 Memorial Cup against OHL champion Oshawa Generals.


    I have some thoughts, but I prefer to keep them unwritten…

    Anyway, that USFL poster in the Collectors Corner is mighty interesting…although in the actual game the Stars wore white and the Bandits wore red jerseys.
    The game is available on YouTube:

    At 2:02:50, you can see Ricky Williams’ Union Jack patch being worn next to his nameplate.

    One of the many things that brings me here each day is the perspective that Paul and my fellow Uni Watchers provide on any number of topics and issues.
    Thanks to all for sharing!

    Paul, thanks for an exceptionally thought provoking piece. I have always known I disliked it when players show a complete disregard of the unwritten rules. After reading your piece I now understand why. Humility, grace and respect are still widely held in high regard by many people and although these are less celebrated in many sports, this has always been part of the social fabric of baseball. I understand that a young player wanting to make a bold and aggressive play in a 15-4 game in mid May is harmless in the grand scheme of things. It is their right and they should be free to express themselves. I also know that the players on a major league baseball team who are down by 11 can hardly be compared to those marginalized in society. What I do know, is that when my 10 year old son asks why the runner on first didn’t attempt to steal second base when up 11 runs in the 9th, or why the batter didn’t swing at a 3-0 softball right down the middle, I can explain why. As he processes this, yes he is learning the unwritten rules of baseball, but he is also learning the unwritten rules of life. An invaluable connection we can all learn from.

    For those Who feel as if this has something to do with society, you are incorrect. This has to do with baseball.

    I agree with one thing: for those of you under 40 years of age, you probably don’t understand the unwritten rules clearly.

    For those who think that the “plunk” is brutal, check YouTube and search for Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura. Nolan still could pump out gas at around 93-95 at the time of that video. However, he hit Ventura with a purpose pitch that probably didn’t break 90. That was and is how that situation should have been handled.

    I’m surprised to see how many Uni Watch readers apparently believe in “You hurt my feelings, therefore I will hurt you physically.”

    Seeing the leaked Miami jersey makes me fear that we are witnessing the birth of a mis-matched jersey number trend. Buckle up boys.

    If Tony LaRussa is such a traditionalist, why does he let people wear numbers like 73, 79, 84, and 88 on his team?

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