Against the concept of "Unwritten Rules"

The funny thing about the notion about baseball's Unwritten Rules is that because people (usually media pundits) talk about them so frequently, they've now been written down. Four different books cataloguing baseball's Unwritten Rules have been published, released to the public in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

What's an Unwritten Rule?

Off the top of my head:
  • Don't steal a base in a blowout, whether you're leading by a ton of runs or trailing by a ton of runs.
  • Similarly, don't swing at a 3-0 pitch in a blowout.
  • Don't bunt to break up a no-hitter.
  • Don't show up the other team.
  • Give effort (not to be confused with false hustle).
  • If the other team hits one of your players on purpose, hit one of theirs in response.
  • If you purposefully hit one of the opposition's players, make sure to aim for their back. By all means, don't throw around head level.

Restaurants really don't have to tell you not to eat the silverware; such a thing is understood. Is it an Unwritten Rule? Yes, but it's also common sense. Calling such a thing an Unwritten Rule is rather insulting to your intelligence. In an office setting, there are plenty of regulations and expectations to go around, and then there are also certain expectations that must be learned -- far subtler than "Don't eat your fork." One office setting differs from another in culture, dress, and what can and can't be said.

Each baseball team is its own workplace, with its own dress code, facial hair code, and its own office culture. Moreover, every employee arrives having gathered his training (and expectations) from different stops along the way. If an employee learned from his apprenticeship to keep his emotions tamped and under wraps and then he sees a new co-worker who conducts himself in the opposite manner, he understandably may judge that co-worker based upon the office culture he was groomed in.

Consider this for an example: One employee has learned, through his prior baseball nurturing and mentorship, that one must never bunt to break up a no-hitter. Another employee has learned, through his own upbringing, that bunting to reach base is always a weapon, particularly in a close game. The former is upset by the act of the bunt and declares it contrary to the baseball he knows. The latter is upset that his bunting was called into question, for it is an essential part of the baseball he knows. Outsiders see the former's outrage and attempt to understand it. There is no rule in the rulebook specifically barring bunting to break up a no-hitter; therefore, it must be an Unwritten Rule of Baseball!

It isn't.

In my first job, I would never dream of entering work without wearing a tie. In my current job, should I wear a tie to work, I would be the sole person one wearing a tie. That's all Unwritten Rules are: cultural expectations of the game. If I sat at my desk in a nice suit and tie, looking askance at a co-worker clad in sweatpants and a hoodie, it wouldn't be because he broke an Unwritten Rule of All Minor League Baseball Offices -- he only crossed my own cultural expectations for the office environment. 

That said, certain Unwritten Rules really are similar to "Don't eat your fork." If you're a base runner at first base, your team is leading 18-0, and the other team is utterly ignoring you -- for heaven's sake, don't steal second base. What could possibly be your reasoning? Is your end goal to pad your stats, is it that important to stay out of the double play, or do you simply think that 19th run is going to make all of the difference?

As far as throwing at batters' heads goes, purposeful head-hunting is as clear and present a danger as line drives into the stands. It is usually (and properly) punished swiftly by both the home plate umpire and the league office. In older days, it carried around an aura of machismo. Now, it marks a pitcher as a maniac and puts a black mark on his character.

"Don't show up the other team"? That's the Golden Rule, at its core. Treat opponents with the respect you yourself wish to be shown. If a player disrespects the other team, take a flat guess how they'll feel toward him.

But disrespect is a fine line, and that brings us right back into cultural expectations. As was pointed out following Jose Bautista's bat flip, the best bat flips in the world come from the Korean Baseball Organization which carries a reputation of class and respect. Unwritten Rule? No, only perspective.


Baseball players and coaches don't often use the phrase "Unwritten Rule." They'll talk in code -- "That's not the right way to play the game," they may say, or supply a blunt "Respect the game." Perhaps they'll follow pitcher Sam Dyson, rankled by Bautista's bat flip, and mention how players need to see themselves as role models and set a better example for kids to follow. (What he's really saying is that young ballplayers should learn to play the game within the same culture that I learned. He isn't alone. The majority of us feel that how we were raised is the proper way to be raised. I bet Bautista would love to see kids playing baseball within his cultural expectations.)

Unwritten Rules, then, are utilized to describe personal guidelines to playing the game "right," a learned definition. I'm certain there are specific painters who know the "right" way to paint, magicians who know the "right" way to perform, and so on. I'm certainly learning the "right" way (and the "wrong" way) to broadcast a baseball game -- although there are plenty of folks in my field who do it "wrong" and still are doing quite well for themselves.


More troubling, I hear that label of Unwritten Rules used disparagingly, as if the speaker is so irritated by a ballplayer's outrage that an honest to goodness Unwritten Rulebook is needed. "Stealing a base with a big lead?" someone scoffs. "How big is a big enough lead?" If it's a true Rule, you see, that number would be fixed. Five-run lead or less? Steal away. Six runs or more? Too big! That fine line, determining what gets one person's goat while barely lifting another's eyebrow, is disparaged, and baseball is disparaged in the bargain. "How ridiculous these players are, disagreeing about their own Unwritten Rules!"

They aren't ridiculous, though. They all play baseball, but they come at it from different backgrounds and teachings. The basics remain the same -- throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball -- but the etiquette is as varied as accents and dialects in a country. In this clubhouse, a bat flip is celebrated. In that one, it's punished with a beanball. That's the natural order of things, each team (and each league, to extrapolate further) developing its own baseball etiquette and code. In one league, across the world, it may be seen as unmanly to throw anything but a fastball; in another, prepare for change-ups and curveballs in any count.

Someone who does not understand this, who seeks to pin down specific Unwritten Rules of Baseball down upon every player, from the Dominican Republic to Canada, and upon every team, from sandlot to American League, is at best shortsighted in the same way as the players, governed by their own personal code of cultural expectations.

But I'm more inclined, when I hear those scoffing words of "Unwritten Rules," to write them off as someone who does not understand the true scope of baseball.


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