MLB: Some of sport’s best rules are left unwritten
Bean balls • Battle of bean balls: strikes and counterstrikes.
Published: May 17, 2012 10:43AM
Updated: May 17, 2012 11:39PM

More has been written about baseball’s unwritten rules than about most of the sports world’s written ones.

In the wake of Tuesday night’s narrowly averted New York Mets-Milwaukee Brewers beanball battle; of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels’ admission that he threw at Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals last week; and of the increased awareness of player safety issues in other sports, some are calling for baseball’s unwritten rules to be rewritten. Or written, then rewritten. Or re-unwritten, or something. When dealing with a set of longstanding traditions of suspicious provenance and dubious wisdom, things are bound to get confusing.

The unwritten rules are back in print after the seventh-inning shenanigans in the Mets’ 8-0 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Mets reliever D.J. Carrasco hit the Brewers slugger Ryan Braun in the shoulder one pitch after allowing a home run to Rickie Weeks, then threw up his arms in the international gesture for “how dare you accuse me of anything but the most innocent intentions?”

Carrasco pleaded innocence but was immediately ejected. Mets manager Terry Collins then pulled his star third baseman, David Wright, for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning, fearing retaliation by the Brewers. Wright responded to Collins’ helicopter managing with a dugout outburst.

“If someone’s going to get hit, let it be me,” Wright told Collins.

Pinch hitter Jordany Valdespin, the back of whose jersey should now read “Expendable,” then grounded out without incident.

The Carrasco episode illustrated several controversial elements of baseball’s unwritten rule book. First, there is the post-home run plunking, best written about in “The Baseball Codes,” a 2010 book by Jason Turbow with whole chapters on “Intimidation” and “Retaliation.”

Second, there’s the retaliatory strike, which is actually Rule 26 in Baseball Digest’s “Unwritten Rules of Baseball,” a magazine article from 1986.

Don’t worry: After a while, the crippling irony of these writings’ very existence eventually starts to fade.

“A profound majority of baseball’s policing emanates from the pitcher’s mound, and covers numerous Code violations: shows of disrespect ... or acts of showboating, like watching a home run,” Turbow wrote, recounting examples like Nolan Ryan’s knockdown of Lenny Dykstra during a 1986 Astros-Mets series. Dykstra celebrated too cockily after scoring a game-winning run the night before Ryan’s start. “That boy just asked for a bow tie,” Ryan told a teammate, referring to Satchel Paige’s charming term for a neck-high fastball.

There were no signs of Dykstra-strength disrespect in the Brewers-Mets game. Weeks did not admire his shot, and once he realized it was a home run, he jogged the bases quickly, with his head down. To behave any more humbly, Weeks would have needed to sweep the ground in front of him to protect the lives of innocent insects.

The unwritten rules lost something in translation from Paige to Ryan to the likes of Hamels.

Last week, Hamels reinterpreted “give the bow tie to someone who showboats” as “throw a fastball at the game’s brightest young star for no apparent reason.” Hamels hit Harper in the first inning of the third game of the Nationals series, after the struggling Phillies lost the first two games. “You know what, it’s something that I grew up watching,” Hamels explained. “So I’m just trying to continue the old baseball.”

Two points: First, the 28-year old Hamels grew up watching old-timers like Andy Pettitte ply their craft, not Satchel Paige or Don Drysdale. His idea of old-school baseball comes in part from Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for the Super Nintendo. Second, Harper stole home two batters later, which is the best kind of retaliation there is.

The unwritten rules were undergoing editorial revision before Hamels was even born. Turbow recounts an incident from the 1970s, when the Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice walked to the mound and told pitcher Jim Colburn he would “tear [your] head off” after an attempted brushback. By the 1970s, “baseball was a different game, played by men with different attitudes,” Turbow wrote. “Brushbacks were no longer taken for granted as part of a pitcher’s repertoire.”

No one has informed the pitchers themselves of this over the last four decades.

Unwritten Rule 26 on the Baseball Digest list was the sole reason Collins benched Wright on Tuesday. “I’ve got news for you: In this game there are unwritten rules and one of the unwritten rules is, ‘You hit my guy — I’m hitting your guy,’” Collins said, revealing as “news” an allegedly unwritten principle first written about in 1986.

Fascinatingly, none of the other “unwritten rules” in the Baseball Digest list cover beanings, bow ties, or quid-pro-quo acts of aggression. They cover benign bits of strategy like “don’t hit and run with an 0-2 count” or “if you play for one run, that’s all you get.”

Suddenly, Rule 26 demands frontier justice. “If one of your players gets knocked down by a pitch, retaliate.” It’s like thumbing through an etiquette guide and discovering a sudden, disturbing tone shift: salad fork to the left of dinner fork, address a duchess by her title, and if someone rings the doorbell during high tea, bludgeon him in the face with a garden shovel.

The unwritten rules say little of Wright’s predicament, or more precisely Valdespin’s, since he was the one sent to face the possible chin music. Neither Baseball Digest nor Turbow has anything to say on the appropriateness of beaning a pinch hitter as a slugger-by-proxy. Even if they did, it would be of little help in a world where pitchers like Hamels make up “old school” rules as they go along.

Perhaps publishing Thou Shalt Not Brush Back a Pinch Hitter in Retaliation for Beaning a Slugger as Punishment for the Previous Batter’s Home Run in a paper of record might help future players in Valdespin’s predicament, but writing one unwritten rule only opens unspoken loopholes.

As for Wright, his laudable desire to take one for the team (and possibly increase his on-base percentage!) lost nobility and machismo points when he turned his back on Collins and huffed across the dugout in a snit.

A calmer Wright flipped the script during postgame interviews, hinting that Carrasco misinterpreted the unwritten rules by throwing at an inappropriate time. In other words, he violated a nonrule by doing the wrong thing for the not-quite-right reason.

Like any oral tradition, especially one that has been explicitly written down numerous times, the rules have undergone slow evolution. Turbow tells of an incident from the 1980 World Series, when Phillies pitcher Dickie Noles knocked down the Kansas City Royals superstar George Brett. Noles was guilty of several Code violations, including the worst one of all: He threw intentionally at Brett’s head. “I was trying to take his head off, and I’m not proud of that,” Noles said.

A rule about not throwing directly at an opponent’s skull? Someone should really write that one down.