The Unwritten Rule About Baseball’s Unwritten Rules

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Let’s give the Boston Red Sox a round of applause for the team’s collective acting performance following Michael Pineda’s first pine tar incident. Give them all Oscars, Emmys or those little participation trophies your cousin gets for being in the school play. The entire team pretended like it was no big deal and goaded Pineda into pulling the same stunt again, making certain the second time that the New York pitcher was promptly removed from the game. Genius. Evil, but genius.

That was my assessment of the situation, as I watched the home plate umpire wipe pine tar from Pineda’s neck like a mother trying to clean a newborn child that has yet to master the art of inserting a spoon into its mouth. I’m a devout Yankees fan, but game had to recognize game, and Boston seemed to have turned its mind game up a notch when they convinced Pineda it was safe to lather his pitches with pine and let ‘em rip. But that’s not how the larger baseball community saw it.

Come Thursday morning, baseball pundits and former players were in unanimous agreement that the infraction was not the use of the pine tar, but Pineda’s lack of discretion. Red Sox manager John Farrell seemed almost apologetic for approaching the umpires about the visible pine tar mark. Players agreed the lesson everyone should take from this should be: everyone uses pine tar, just don’t show off about it.

It’s one of baseball’s many unwritten rules. Sure, baseball has a written rulebook, but there’s also that notorious code of conduct that governs how all baseball players must act on the field of play like they’re going to a ball in a Jane Austen novel. Baseballisms such as “Don’t have your star slugger bunt” or “Relievers go easy on relievers” are expected to be followed by all teams at all times, despite their absence from the official guidelines to the game.

The biggest problem with baseball’s unwritten rules is that no one is in agreement about which rules to follow and which to ignore. These types of rules drive me crazy and lead to writers penning articles like this every season.

I’ve had enough watching the debate over these rules, so I’ve decided to break the biggest unwritten rule of all by actually writing down these rules (this is some Inception-level rule breaking) and more importantly, ruling on whether or not these rules should exist at all.

Strike A Pose

Carlos Gomez yelling

Unwritten Rule: Don’t stop and stare when you hit a home run.

Who Broke It: Carloz Gomez, when he hit what he believed to be a home, realized it was staying in the park, still managed to turn it into a triple, and then started a brawl when opposing pitcher Gerrit Cole didn’t like that Gomez watched his hit a little too long.

Official Ruling: This rules shows just how boring baseball can be. This offseason, the NFL banned players from dunking the football over the goal posts following a touchdown, and we branded them the No Fun League in response. Break it, and there’s a 15-yard penalty assessed too.

The MLB has no rules restricting celebrations, and the most exciting thing baseball players can concoct is watching the baseball you just mashed sale over the fence for an extra moment before trotting around the bases like a prized pony? Not only that, people get upset about that extra moment spent watching the ball.

I most likely have a different perspective on this than most people. I’m a scrawny dude. The circumference of a baseball bat is akin to that of my waist. I will never know the feeling of hitting a home run, not in the Majors, not in a local slow pitch softball league, not ever. But if I ever did manage to drive a ball over a fence, I would celebrate the feat by doing the Macarena around the base path.

I think baseball needs more celebrations, not fewer. So yes, let’s outlaw this boring stop and stare crap and instead require choreographed dance routines. Your move, football.

Let’s Shift Again, Like We Did Last Summer 

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Unwritten Rule: Don’t bunt against the shift.

Who Broke It: Jed Lowrie got in some hot water with the Gods of Unwritten Rules when he laid down a bunt against the Astros, who positioned their infield to strategically account for Lowrie’s tendency to pull the ball to right field.

Official Ruling: It’s a risk that comes with the shift. Baseball teams have employed the shift more often this season than anytime time in recent memory. This extreme defensive strategy is a clear result of the analytics revolution in baseball, as teams know more about opposing hitters than ever before. It’s an extreme defensive tactic that has clearly paid dividends, but it doesn’t mean batters need to blindly swing away at pitches and hit into the trap. What’s worse about this whole situation is that Lowrie bunted and was still thrown out at first.

Why are you complaining, Houston? This is probably the one defensive play you won’t screw up all season.

Wipe this unwritten rule from whatever you write unwritten rules in and stopping complaining about teams tying to beat the shift. If you constantly try to outsmart opposing batters with extreme defense, expect them to try and outsmart you back.

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

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Unwritten Rule: Don’t steal when your team is greatly ahead or greatly behind

Who Broke It: I don’t know, everyone? I started reading about the unwritten rules that get people upset and this kept coming up. Who describes what’s greatly ahead and behind anyway?

Official Ruling: Dumb rule. Steal all the bases you want. It’s this kind of mentality that leads to rec leagues instituting mercy rules, because teams hate to lose by a lot. Every team should play to win the game at all times, and that includes stealing.

Plus, steals are the most fun play in all of baseball. Everyone knows when a baserunner is going to steal, and the excitement is whether he can actually out run the throw. It’s the best. If anything, when a game is an absolute blowout, we should be promoting more steals.

This sentiment also extends to unwritten rules that forbid bunting during a lopsided affair and I think the same logic applies. If teams simply packed it in when facing an insurmountable lead, we would never have witnessed any of the sport’s great comebacks. The idea of never giving up is how we get the Red Sox coming back from down 3-0 in the ALCS to winning the World Series.

On second thought, the game is always over. Mercy rule! Everyone always stop trying!

Michael Pineda’s Wet Hot American Summer

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Unwritten Rule: Don’t put pine tar on the ball before you pitch.

Actual Unwritten Rule: Apparently, use pine tar, who cares, just don’t smear it all over your body. Hide your cheating like a real man.

Who Broke It: The Yankees’ Michael Pineda, who got caught twice and was suspended after the second incident for 10 games.

Official Ruling: I’m not an expert on the use of pine tar, but the explanations for using the substance range from simply getting a better grip in cold weather to improving movement on pitches. Here’s Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Dwight Gooden on the topic:

I’m not crazy about the use of pine tar personally, but as long as baseball players are in agreement it’s okay, then fine, let players use it. But for now, using pine tar is breaking an actual, written down rule that, when broken, results in you being thrown out of a game. So, until that rule is changed, don’t use pine tar.

Again, the infraction that has players upset is not the pine tar, but how blatant Pineda was about the whole thing. It’s the same as catching a kid cheating on his SATs and all his classmates saying, “It’s cool to cheat, just don’t write the answers on your arm stupid.” It’s the same mentality that led to the steroid epidemic in baseball, where everyone in the know was aware ballplayers were injecting each other behind closed doors, but as long as players were discreet about it, there was commotion coming from the clubhouse.

If players honestly want the rule changed, then argue for a change rather than hiding pine tar in your gloves, because it’s this unnecessary focus on baseball’s unwritten rules that distract us from addressing the rules that actually matter.

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