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PERSPECTIVE

Baseball's unwritten rules may be softening, but they haven't gone away

By ADAM KILGORE | The Washington Post | Published: August 22, 2020

The most passive act in baseball is to take a strike, to stand and watch, and the game's current crop of young stars is generally averse to inactivity. Monday night in Arlington, Texas, Fernando Tatis Jr.'s third base coach instructed him to take a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded in the eighth inning and the San Diego Padres ahead by seven runs. Tatis missed the sign, he said later, and had no conception of why swinging could be perceived as impolite.

Juan Nicasio grooved a plump fastball, and for years what would have happened is nothing. Tatis would have abided his manager's sign, or he would have known the other dugout would take exception to swinging. But while Tatis grew up in the game as the son of a big leaguer, he is part of a generation emboldened by a different code. Action erupted in waves that have not ceased.

Tatis's swing, and the titanic grand slam it produced, resurfaced the age-old conversation about baseball's esoteric etiquette and codes, typically referred to as the sport's unwritten rules. The oversight of not writing them down means not everybody agrees on them, interprets them alike or even knows of their existence, which over the decades has led to repetitive conflict, abundant resentment and a lot of seam marks imprinted on a lot of body parts.

The unwritten rule Tatis violated that led to a week of debate: no swinging 3-0 late in a blowout. Reliever Ian Gibaut replaced Nicasio and rifled his first pitch behind Tatis's teammate, Manny Machado, which led to Gibaut's ejection and, later, MLB's suspension of Gibaut and Rangers Manager Chris Woodward. Immediately after the game, Woodward expressed displeasure but allowed "norms are being challenged on a daily basis." Padres Manager Jayce Tingler said the Padres were "not trying to run up the score," and Tatis apologized afterward, saying it would be a learning experience.

The avalanche of opinion and discussion, which included a wave of 30- and 40-something managers and current players chiming in on social media, revealed the degree to which baseball's codes are evolving and perhaps fraying. Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said the only thing Tatis did wrong was apologize. Cincinnati Reds iconoclast/ace Trevor Bauer instructed Tatis to swing any time he wants. New York Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, a third-generation big leaguer, said some of the mores have become "silly." Woodward's mild rebuke of Tatis received backlash from most players who spoke out, and even Woodward backtracked and reexplained himself the next day.

Author Jason Turbow released "The Baseball Codes," a book delving into baseball's unwritten rules, in 2010. Ten years ago, he estimated, maybe 50% of players and coaches, and maybe more, would have stood against Tatis's 3-0 swing.

"Now, the overwhelming chorus of opinion is, 'Why are you going to suppress a bright young star like that for any reason?' " Turbow said. "It is the latest example of dissonance between the institutional mandate of 'Let the kids play' and a sport being populated by people brought up in a way contrary to that."

The week of debate, which persisted in part because of Tatis's stature as one of baseball's most dazzling talents, led many to conclude the game's unwritten rules are dying. That is not true. Every profession has its own code of conduct, and baseball is no exception. But the shape of baseball's code is ever-evolving, and it has reached an inflection point in an era in which MLB itself is marketing individual personality in an effort to create stars. In its "Let the kids play" campaign, launched before the 2018 playoffs, the sport promoted bat flips, group celebrations and other actions that not long ago would have led to a meeting of horsehide and ribs.

Turbow recalled a conversation he had in the late 2000s with Dusty Baker, who told him, in his recollection: "These rules are not mine to hold. They're mine to absorb and pass on."

"The way it's being passed on now, and to whom it's being passed, are different than ever before," Turbow said. "It's an alive thing. The unwritten rules are perpetually evolving. They may be less stringent now than ever before. But that does not mean they exist any less than before."

Tony La Russa, the longtime manager and proud guardian of the game's codes who is in his 57th year in baseball, put it another way.

"If you don't think sportsmanship belongs in the game," La Russa said, "you're full of s---."

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For anyone confused by the creation and durability of unwritten rules, La Russa is an ideal guide. La Russa received his education from the American League managers he competed against when he broke in as manager of the White Sox in 1979. They were "masters," as he called them, who required one name for identification: Sparky. Billy. Whitey. Earl.

Sparky Anderson imbued La Russa with lessons about sportsmanship. One tenet: Late in the game, once the lead got to five and therefore out of range of a tying grand slam, it becomes inappropriate to do anything excessive to score runs. Primarily, that means stealing bases and swinging in a 3-0 count.

"The reality of our sport is very simple," said La Russa, who is a now a special assistant with the Los Angeles Angels. "You're supposed to create entertainment for the fans the way one team competes against another. That's all it is. Well, I was always taught, and I do believe, there is a level of sportsmanship for the game and for your opponent that's at the core of the competition. You don't abuse the game for personal value, without getting too hoity-toity about it."

The sport has evolved, both on a societal and strategic level. The proliferation of offense, of course, changed the context of a five-run lead. "To me, it comes down to respect and a sense of sportsmanship," La Russa said. "Where do you draw the line?"

"I know what these unwritten rules are, supposedly," La Russa added. "Every one has a good sense of why they came to be. They do evolve, because the game continues to change — slowly, usually, but at times not so slowly. You factor in how the circumstances are changing, and that affects the code of conduct."

In the past week, La Russa had conversations with friends in the game who agreed with Tatis's actions and those who didn't. La Russa believed Tatis was in the wrong. If Tatis took a strike, La Russa reasoned, he still would have had two pitches to hit. Swinging 3-0, in his line of thinking, was attacking at a moment when the opponent was vulnerable, more for personal reasons than needed team gain.

"It's just not sportsmanlike," La Russa said. "The way it was described to me was, it's team against team. That's what our sport is, with these very talented individuals matching up. What it isn't, though, is an exhibition of your talents. You swing 3-0 in that game, and you're up by seven, you're trying to drive in more runs."

La Russa knows that the balance between individuality — the "exhibition of talent" — and team is moving in the favor of the former. MLB's Twitter account posted the highlight of the Tatis's grand slam, retweeted two stats about Tatis's night and posted a graphic of Tatis calling him "the future. And the future is now."

Later that night, Cut 4, a more offbeat arm of MLB's social media, wrote: "Unwritten 'rules' are meant to be broken. That's it. That's the tweet."

When Tatis stole third base the next night with the Padres up 6-0 in the middle innings, a move that would be considered a no-no in many corners, MLB posted the highlight to its main Twitter feed and noted Tatis stood atop the league leaders in home runs, RBI, runs and steals. "Dominant," the tweet proclaimed.

MLB's financial structure also encourages players to rack up stats regardless of situation. Tatis is a superstar making the league minimum whose salary in two years will be decided, through arbitration, by his performance. Taking a pitch rather than swinging away would have meant prioritizing Nicasio's and Gibaut's feelings over his own financial incentives.

Setting aside the team-vs.-individual notion, there is also competitive justification for Tatis swinging. Three days after his grand slam, the Blue Jays fell behind the Phillies by seven runs before rallying to win.

But the reasons go beyond such comebacks. Had Tatis grounded out on a less-friendly 3-1 pitch, the Rangers would have been a walk, a bloop single and a homer away from making it a four-run game in the bottom of the eighth. Then the Padres, who have endured bullpen issues that include an injury to closer Kirby Yates, probably would have gotten their closer warm at the first hint of trouble. Even if the Padres escaped with relative ease, those warmup pitches could affect the next day's game. In baseball, there is tangible benefit to winning big.

One Padres official asked Tingler how he felt up 10-3, and he replied he felt good, but not assured because of San Diego's recent bullpen performance. Then he asked how Tingler felt being up 14-3. Tingler said he felt great. The point was made.

Presented with the argument, La Russa stood firm.

"It's the judgment the manager has to make," La Russa said. "When is it pouring on? And when can I explain it to where I maintain the respect of the competition? The manager in San Diego, he decided a seven-run lead, he decided that seven runs was enough. If you're not good enough to get six outs with at least a seven-run lead, then you're not good enough to win the game."

La Russa allowed that scoring more runs would skirt bullpen issues. But he also said managers have to feel comfortable "when you look in the mirror, and you answer to the baseball gods, or you answer to the fraternity of the managers on the other side."

"Am I pouring it on, which would go against the sportsmanship I'm responsible for?" La Russa said. "Or am I enhancing the chance to win, which is my number one priority, and I can explain why it was important to keep scoring? But — and this is a big but — you better realize in your contemplation that if you give the other side a reason to retaliate [against] your player, you better factor that into your decision, too."

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The enforcement of baseball's unwritten rules helps explain their staying power. Baseball is the only sport that has no unsportsmanlike conduct penalty or some analog thereof. In place of that, the sport polices itself through injurious practices: players throwing baseballs at each other or sliding late or high into bases. In recent years, baseball has legislated against those dangerous plays in an attempt to get them out of the game, replacing unwritten rules with actual ones.

MLB has increased the length and frequency of suspensions and fines for throwing at batters, including the automatic suspension of a manager whose pitcher is found to have thrown at a hitter intentionally. Recently, a manager called the league office and profanely told an MLB official the league's policy was working — he had wanted to retaliate by hitting an opposing batter, but the prospect of suspensions persuaded him not to.

Major League Baseball wants to promote personality and celebration, but a thin line separates joyful outburst from taunting. A bat flip may induce chuckles from the opposing dugout or spark a months-long quest for vigilante justice. A 3-0 swing late in a blowout may be cause for cap-tipping or retaliation.

Turbow suspects the public wave of players backing Tatis does not match the true disparity of opinion within the sport. A player outwardly supportive of old traditions would be bucking popular opinion, the majority of his peers and his sport's marketing. "It's almost to the point where anyone who disagrees with what Tatis did might be keeping their mouth shut to avoid the fire," Turbow said.

Two pieces of evidence support Turbow's inkling. The pitch Gibaut sailed behind Machado showed that, in real time, the Rangers believed Tatis had committed a violation. When the inning ended on veteran Eric Hosmer's groundout, Hosmer heard shouts from the Texas dugout. "I'll talk to him," Hosmer appeared to mouth.

But even Hosmer's act involved multiple layers. On Thursday night, Hosmer told reporters he was "perfectly fine" with Tatis's swing. Upon hearing the "chirping" from the Rangers, he only wanted to defuse tensions. He knew Tatis would feel bad about his swing getting Machado thrown at, and he wanted the 21-year-old to enjoy his two homers and seven RBI. Hosmer wanted to de-escalate to avoid another purpose pitch, and perhaps to prevent Tatis from getting thrown at and potentially injured.

Hosmer saw himself as a protector, not as an upholder of the game's codes. He is not an old man, only 30, but he seemed to understand those codes belong to a different generation.

"The game nowadays is different than before I came up, when I came up," Hosmer said. "That's what people really need to understand."