The problem with baseball's unwritten rules

Credit: John Sleezer

Credit: John Sleezer

A year before the great Elmore Leonard died at 87, he told an interviewer he reversed "decades of nonsense" with a single scene from Hombre, the Paul Newman classic. In it, the bad guy, Richard Boone, calls timeout during a standoff to parlay with Newman's outmanned bunch. When a smug Boone asks if his intended victims have any questions, Newman pipes up smartly.

"I got a question: How you gonna get back down that hill?"

At which point Newman shoots him.

This moment of clarity about unwritten rules came to me the other day while watching Jurickson Profar steal second with a seven-run lead in the fourth inning. Profar soon paid for this apparent breach of etiquette when he was hit for the third time. Which, believe it or not, merely tied his personal record.

For anyone other than the Twins who were offended by Profar's steal, I have to ask: Have you seen the Rangers play this year? Does any lead seem safe with these guys?

Could they show up anyone, legally or not?

The problem with baseball's unwritten rules is that it's not as if there aren't enough actual laws as it is. If they gave everyone in the game a pop quiz, no one would pass. MLB amended eight rules just this year. And there's still stuff like this, under "5.06 Running the bases":

"If a runner legally acquires title to a base, and the pitcher assumes his pitching position, the runner may not return to a previously occupied base."

I don't want to seem like a smart aleck, but if an opponent wants to run the wrong direction, why would you object?

Baseball has so many actual rules, it couldn't possibly enforce them all. This probably explains the general interpretation of "4.06 No Fraternization," which reads, in part, "Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform."

If fraternizing with the enemy is really against the law, what's up with all the gab at first base and anywhere within 30 feet of Adrian Beltre?

Bottom line: Because baseball occasionally provides latitude in areas where common sense should prevail, despite rules clearly established and documented, it should regard most folklore with a grain of salt.

The problem with some of these unwritten rules is that they appear to be of dubious origin. Like in 2010, when Oakland's Dallas Braden took umbrage after Alex Rodriguez cut across the mound on his way off the field. Braden told reporters that he'd have given his grandmother the same speech if she'd violated his personal space.

Sure, it was A-Rod, an objectionable category unto himself. But did Braden really have grounds to be offended?

"I don't know if there is an unwritten rule," Keith Hernandez told a reporter, "but I would never do that."

Of course, that's at the root of the problem here. One man's egregious insult is another's joyous bat flip. Donald Harris, whom the Rangers famously drafted instead of Frank Thomas, told me that was his problem with baseball. Harris never hit much, but he could play outfield. Once, after a running catch in center, he kept right on running up the wall, then flipped onto the warning track. Not cool, they told him back in the dugout.

I suppose we can still argue whether it's cool to show emotion on a baseball field. But as it pertains to the actual pursuit of winning, the fewer unwritten rules, the better.

Consider a case this spring, when Baltimore's rookie catcher, Chance Sisco, bunted against the shift in the ninth inning of a game the Twins were winning 7-0. Minnesota's Brian Dozier complained loudly, even after social media backlash. He rationalized that when the Orioles didn't try to hold a runner at first in the top of the ninth, the Twins didn't try to steal. Therefore, he concluded, it was bogus for Sisco to bunt in the bottom of the inning.

Not an awful argument, except for this: If the Twins really thought the game was in the bag, why not play Sisco straight up instead of applying a shift?

If you're going to play your kind of game all the way to the end, it seems you ought to afford your opponent the same luxury.

Maybe the Twins are simply too thin-skinned. They didn't like Sisco's bunt when they were up big, and they didn't like Profar's steal when they were down.

The litmus test in any of these cases should be whether you're trying to help your team. Bill James, father of analytics, recently advocated a suspension for anyone who suggests a young player is doing something improper "when he is simply trying to win. That's intolerable." Elmore Leonard probably would have seconded that.

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