By Andrew Kahn
Major League Baseball’s unwritten rules have become a list that Goldilocks can appreciate. You can’t run around the bases too slow, like Yasiel Puig did recently against the Mets. And you shouldn’t run too fast, like Adam Rosales does. You have to trot just right or else risk upsetting the self-appointed keepers of the game.
Unwritten rules—not written down because they are silly and weren’t worth recording—are unique to baseball, at least among the major sports. They typically address showboating, which, for whatever reason, is widely accepted in football and basketball. Baseball is a far older game, in terms of its founding and its fan base, and perhaps that contributes to the problem.
And, yeah, this is a problem. It has been for some time, but this past week had several examples. Last Wednesday, Puig admired his home run from the batter’s box before beginning his trot. This bothered the New York Mets. “I think there’s a way to enjoy a home run,” said Wilmer Flores, who exchanged words with Puig as he rounded first base. “That was too much.”
Flores is not alone in his thinking. To many players, broadcasters, media members, and fans, baseball celebrations should be internal. Put your head down and don’t “show up” the opposition. But, as critics of Rosales’ home run sprints remind us, going out of your way to avoid the spotlight can be viewed as disrespectful to the game.
The reasoning behind the disapproval doesn’t hold up. The joy expressed by a batter who has just hit a home run is a direct result of the difficulty in hitting a home run. Batters do not celebrate singles, after all. A hitter who acts like a home run is nothing special is, in a way, disrespecting the pitcher. By not reacting, the slugger is essentially telling him: “You stink. That was easy.” Of course that’s an unfair way to scrutinize a low-key reaction, but it illustrates the absurdity of the issue.
Even for aspects of the game that are allowed, there are unwritten rules that govern when they are permissible. The same night Puig irritated the Mets, Jarrod Dyson reached base on a bunt against Justin Verlander. No big deal, except for Verlander had pitched 5.1 perfect innings up to that point and the Tigers led 4-0. After the successful bunt, four of the next five Mariners reached base, chasing Verlander before the inning closed. Seattle scored three runs in that sixth and four in the seventh to win 7-5.
Bunting to break up a no-hitter is frowned upon by many. To Verlander’s credit, he did not have a problem with the play. He noted that Dyson is a speedster and that it wasn’t that late in the game, though the circumstances shouldn’t matter. No-hitters are rare and special. If there is any unwritten rule it should be that the opponent is not complicit. A pitcher knowing that, after a certain inning, the batters won’t attempt to bunt diminishes the achievement, if only marginally. Same goes for a pitcher grooving a fastball to a hitter approaching a milestone.
There are many more unwritten rules, like the one about not stealing when your team has a comfortable lead. The non-writers of the unwritten rules forgot to define “comfortable,” however, and if the league thought running up the score was an issue it would adopt a mercy rule. As a rule, Major League Baseball should be about professionalism, but not at the expense of joy and honest competition. That one is so obvious it shouldn’t even need to be written.