By Ken Reed
I love baseball. But the ego-based false machismo that is the foundation of the Stone Age “Unwritten Rules of Baseball” (aka “The Code”) drives me nuts.
The latest example comes from a minor league game between the Hartford Yard Goats and the Trenton Thunder. Hartford had a combined no-hitter (between four pitchers) going in the ninth inning of a game in which the score was 3-0 in favor of Hartford. With one out in the ninth, Trenton’s Matt Lipka laid down a perfect bunt for a single. The no-hitter was broken up.
Hartford ended up winning the game 3-0 but they weren’t happy campers after the final out. Players and coaches were steamed that Lipka had the unmitigated audacity to try and get on base by bunting in that situation. They yelled and swore at Lipka, as well as other Trenton coaches and players. The benches cleared and players met in the center of the diamond. A near brawl broke out.
Are you serious Hartford? Play the game! If the guy can bunt to get on more power to him. If you don’t want him to bunt for a hit, adjust your defense and make the play! When a batter goes up to the plate, the objective is to get on base. Bunting is a legitimate way to get on base. It’s a powerful tool in the toolbox of fast players with bat control and bunting skills. If an opposing hitter is fast and can possibly get on base via a bunt, then play your corner fielders in a little bit.
From Little League to the Bigs, coaches always talk about giving your best effort until the final out. There’s no clock in baseball. That Hartford-Trenton game was still very much in doubt when Lipka laid down the bunt.
Here’s the deal: Expecting Lipka to give up one of his tools — bunting for a hit — in order to give the Trenton pitchers a better chance at completing a no-hitter is simply silly and not a fair ask of Lipka. If Hartford wanted to take away one of Lipka’s tools for attempting to get on base — a bunt — then the Trenton pitcher should’ve agreed to remove one of his tools for getting Lipka out — let’s say by not throwing a curve ball to Lipka. No curve ball, no bunt. Fair is fair. One thing that isn’t fair is to expect Lipka to remove the bunt as a tool while the pitcher gets to keep all his tools.
There are other unwritten baseball rules that are equally as silly and arcane as the “no-bunting to break up a no-hitter” rule. For example, no bat flipping after hitting a home run. Penalty for that? Getting a 95 mph fast ball in your ribs during your next at-bat. Same for celebrating too much while rounding the bases. Hey pitchers, if you don’t like to see hitters celebrate after taking you deep, how about just focusing on getting them out next time?
Under The Code, hitters also get to retaliate for unwritten rule infractions. For example, hitters don’t like pitchers pointing fingers or pumping their fists several times after striking them out. To some hitters, that’s a violation of the unwritten rules. So, these hitters, when next facing the offending pitcher, will sometimes lay down a bunt to the first baseman and then purposely try to spike the pitcher’s foot/achilles when he covers first base to receive the toss from the first baseman.
A couple years ago, Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly was infuriated because the Dodgers’ Cory Seager had the gall to swing at a 3-0 pitch in the bottom of the seventh inning of a 5-0 game the Dodgers were winning. In Mattingly’s mind, that somehow broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules. So, Mattingly ordered his pitcher, A.J. Ramos to hit the Dodgers’ Brett Eibner the next inning. Well, that led to the Dodgers following another unwritten baseball rule: if you’re batter gets plunked on purpose you must plunk a batter on the opposing team. So, the Dodgers’ Ross Stripling proceeded to fire a pitch at Marlins’ star Giancarlo Stanton. However, his aim was bad and it sailed behind Stanton’s back. Benches cleared and a lot of pushing and shoving took place.
Here’s another beauty from the unwritten rules department: In a 2017 regular season game, San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Hunter Strickland fired a 98 mph fastball into the side of Washington Nationals star slugger Bryce Harper. The reason? Harper had hit two home runs off Strickland during the 2014 NLDS playoff series between the two teams and Strickland didn’t like the way Harper looked at him after one of them. That wasn’t a misprint. It was a 2014 playoff game. Strickland drilled Harper for the unwritten rules violation in 2017, three years after the incident!
These unwritten baseball rules have been around the game — in one form or another — for more than 100 years. That doesn’t mean they’re right or should be part of the game moving forward. These “rules,” which allow retaliation for a laundry list of “offenses” need to be scrapped. Modern Major League Baseball needs to grow up.
Unfortunately, a great game is being tainted by players and managers doing stupid things in the name of a stupid Code.
Here’s a novel idea: Play the game as hard as you can, as fair as you can, all the way to the end.
Now there’s an unwritten rule I can get behind.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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