“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.

9 Responses

  1. Hotto4Votto

    Good stuff. I especially liked the comparisons to how the other sports operate in regards to letting players express themselves, the value of entertainment, etc. Baseball seems like the only “game” where fun is actively discouraged from the top, and only somewhat begrudgingly accepted at times when there’s enough media pressure.

    The one quibble is that baseball isn’t actually preserving a culture where players police themselves. If they were there would have been no Castellanos suspension. Castellanos takes offense to getting plunked, he gets fired up and yells standing over the pitcher who plunked him after scoring. Yadier takes offense to Castellanos yelling over his pitcher, he confronts Castellanos. Benches clear, it’s ultimately resolved, the game policed itself. But the league then steps in and enacts further penalties, going against the actual “old school” mentality.

    I think baseball would prefer to allow the players to have the old-school mentality, but can’t actually help themselves with meddling. Their need to show that they’re in charge overcomes common sense. The stuff on the field in both instances involving the Reds was resolved and sorted without much more than theatrics. But baseball steps in after the fact and levies excessive suspensions for what essentially amounts to the players policing themselves, which is sort of what baseball wants anyway.

  2. Grand Salami

    Love the ‘Of’ use for the title. A classic and oft neglected opening for the title. My old jesuit english teachers emphasized it throughout high school.

    At the game last night and a discussion with a colleague about the psychology of sports and the unique aspects of baseball versus more ‘in the moment’ sports like basketball or football.

    Emotion in baseball seems to serve as less of a fuel than those other two sports. That is not a judgement on the display of emotion. It seems that the unwritten rules attempt to outlaw displays due to the fact emotion (there’s no crying in baseball) may often be more of a hinderance than a help to performance.

    I am sure Geno’s emotions are playing games on his personal perspective within his slump. Clemens was known to regularly utilize sports psychology back in the 80s to channel his emotions productively.

    My point is the unwritten rules unnecessarily take umbrage against emotional displays.

    • Matt WI

      I can’t help but read this comment as suggesting baseball “evolved” a form of not having fun because it wasn’t selectively advantageous to producing results. It’s grown it’s own branch on the sporting tree of life. In that case, I fear the mark of the Dodo is upon it.

  3. gusnwally

    I will be 74 yrs old soon. So it is no surprise that I have always been anti celebrations. Seems like Reggie Jackson is the first guy I remember watching his homers for an extended period of time. And I have watched the evolution of joyful displays grow and grow
    Did not like it for a long time and still struggle a little now. But a few years ago I had a change of heart. I watched the World Baseball Classic and WOW was I amazes. I had so much fun watching all the celebratory antics and the drums pounding, the little bands and combos playing. The sheer joy of these fans was absolutely exhilarating. So I guess I am saying Let em play with one absolute rule. It’s good for every one. No pitcher getting mad at batter for showing his joy but thinking it’s OK for me to scream and pound my fist into my glove. I see this as having been the biggest problem. What’s good for the goose etc. So let’s not bean anyone for showing off and we can all have a great time.

  4. Klugo

    “Fun” is subjective. What’s fun for some is not fun for others. How do you decide?

    • Doug Gray

      Is someone actually being hurt from the other person having “fun”? If they aren’t, then let the other person have fun.

      • Klugo

        Yes, although I agree, some (especially in today’s society) would point to the harm that “harassment” has on an individual and their mental, social, and emotional health. They may even go as far as to claim verbal/emotional “abuse”. I’m not going to voice my opinion on all that, but will say they all seem like very subjective terms that I would imagine MLB’s PR department feels an obligation to protect against. Just playing Devil’s advocate here, although I tend to endear myself to those who quietly go about their business- silent assassins, if you will.

  5. RojoBenjy

    “Braying” to describe Baez–love it. What animal brays? And that is what he was acting like that day.

    Another great point, “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.”

    With one point for discussion from that line–does MLB “continue to get it wrong,” or do they “refuse to get it right” for all the reasons deftly stated in the article?