“We got rules here an’ in order to learn ‘em, you gotta keep your ears open and your mouths shut.” –Cool Hand Luke
The Unwritten Rules of Baseball are anything but. They are as inviolable and permanent as the ink and paper they were written on. Ah, if only we could find them.
The only thing we know for sure is that the manuscript—rarer than any Shakespeare First Folio—is in the hands of folks who are dedicated with the task of protecting it from the hoi polloi at all cost. If it were made into a movie, we’d get Dan Brown to write the screenplay and Tom Hanks on the case, chasing down the clues, searching every baseball cathedral from Fenway to Forbes Field. He’d, of course, become a marked man. The game’s gatekeepers would surely come after him, their fastballs in and their cleats high. Of course, Ken Burns would accompany him and document the hunt for posterity.
Sadly for film buffs, the mystery of the Unwritten Rules of Baseball is not screen-worthy, as it’s no mystery at all. It hides in plain sight. There’s no need to scour old photographs or hit the microfiche room for endless hours. We needn’t bother attempting to bribe some blue-blazered security guy at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for the keys to the hidden 19th-century crypt of Knickerbockers Rules creator Shane Ryley Foster.
Just find the current address of Brian McCann already.
McCann retired in 2018 as the self-appointed Sheriff of Major League Baseball. His bona fides were well known, sealed in 2013 when he upbraided the late Marlins ace, Jose Fernandez, for the sin of enjoying his home run, because, of course, pitchers routinely go yard and shouldn’t show up opposition hurlers by having fun. Act like you’ve been there, even if, as a pitcher, you rarely are.
That same season, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez found himself blocked from touching home plate for the unpardonable sin of enjoying his surroundings as he circled the bases. There are strict time limits for making the trek around the diamond, and if you don’t know them, well, while it’s unclear what kind of ballplayer you are, you most certainly aren’t the right kind, and as Boss said to Paul Newman, “You’re gonna get your mind right.”
Javy Baez’s braggadocio lifted him effortlessly over the dugout railing with the swagger of a man who knew nothing would come of his antics which were little more than a show to burnish his clubhouse credentials. The preening display of testosterone—unlike the kind Frank Thomas now relentlessly hawks on television with a wink of an eye—come not from a bottle, but the braying bravado that comes with the years of entitlement born of a game that has taught him well.
Watching the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers drop the gloves and go into UFC mode before the puck had hit the ice was as laughable and predictable as anything you see in sports. It’s laughable for its childishness, predictable because it’s as ordinary as first-pitch fastballs. Gary Bettman’s boys could stop it, but that would involve unweaving the brutality from the skill and beauty of the game. Professional hockey long ago came to the conclusion the sport cannot survive without it.
Having largely solved its excessive brutality problems—such as they are given the controlled violence at the heart of the sport—with stiffer and stiffer penalties to miscreants like Vontaze Burfict and Ndamukong Suh, the NFL moved on to reign in touchdown celebrations, only to earn the wrath of fans and some writers who labeled it the No Fun League. It wasn’t long before even football’s robber-barons, long recognized as the most iron-fisted collection of boss men, was forced to relax its draconian rules and restore more entertainment to our fall Sundays.
The NBA operates on a different plane. Consider the professional basketball player. The close contact, the one-on-one, the unavoidable isolation that pits player against player, mano a mano, and exposes the loser, all on full display for the fans, begs for hurt feelings. Yet, the combatants largely accept it and move on, nodding in silent acknowledgment after being dunked on, determined to exact their revenge the next time down the court. It’s part of the culture, born of the sweat and swearing that are part of the playground game, where trash talk and a player’s ability to retaliate by breaking ankles off the dribble are the equalizers.
This brings us to Amir Garrett. A guard out of Findlay Prep High School in Las Vegas, Garrett hooped for St. John’s and Cal State Northridge before turning his athletic aspirations to baseball full time. He brings an NBA mentality to his moment on the mound, intent on dunking on hitters with his slider and celebrating every success. His game is self-aggrandizement in service of building his confidence, a crucial ingredient in the service of overpowering and outwitting the hitter.
In laying down a 7-game suspension, MLB cited Garrett’s gesturing as the “incitement” of the incident. If incitement is the measure of primary responsibility, it helps to understand where incitement begins. MLB treats it like a baseball game, a contest with a 0-0 beginning, as if all parties enter emotionally with the same clean slate. They don’t. That long-ago feud between Gomez and McCann began long before Gomez celebrated his way around the bases. It was a continuation of grievances, incitement that began long before MLB decreed Gomez the instigator.
You only need to follow the National League Central Division to understand the retaliation tactics that move across the baseball calendar, month-to-month, and beyond, rules of conduct spearheaded by players like Chris Carpenter and sanctioned by the Tony La Russas and Clint Hurdles of the baseball world. MLB could begin by instituting tougher penalties for pitchers throwing at hitters, which is often at the heart of hitters’ responses when they celebrate at the expense of opponents. The league was happy to assume Cardinals’ pitcher Jake Woodford wasn’t retaliating to the ribs of Nick Castellanos in response to the Reds’ right fielder’s celebration of his Opening Day homer off Cardinal ace Jack Flaherty. As long as MLB continues to fail to connect the dots that draw a picture of team resentments, they will continue to get it wrong.
Major League Baseball wants to have it both ways. It grudgingly has embraced bat flips, recognizing it needs younger fans to grow the game. And it also insists on preserving an old culture where players take it upon themselves to police their opponents as they see fit with intimidation and even injury, if necessary.
His reduced suspension served, Garrett has been explicitly told that Let The Kids Play may no longer apply to him. Like Luke on the big screen, Amir needs to “get his mind right.” You can bet that other teams will try to determine how the Reds’ reliever can celebrate, if at all, continuing to enforce the same old rules Brian McCann once attempted to enforce with his metaphorical badge and gun.
I love baseball, as long as the people I’m watching play it are absolutely not in any way enjoying themselves https://t.co/0P9ZwwuKgY
— Bill (@Bill_TPA) May 9, 2021