George F. Will: In baseball, the most valuable rules are unwritten

Houston Astros' Alex Bregman hand his bat to first base coach Don Kelly after a home run against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of Game 6 of the baseball World Series Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Washington • In the rush of the passing seasons, sports memories fade like photographs left in sunlight. But before memories of the 2019 World Series are bleached by time, let us hope that one episode from Tuesday’s sixth game will be indelible. A nation that now more than ever needs a reminder of the role of manners in smoothing life’s rough edges got such a reminder. Two young men did not mind their manners, and two mature men put aside their intense rivalry of the moment and firmly affirmed some standards.

Alex Bregman, 25, the Houston Astros’ supremely talented third baseman, is so fierce about his craft that when he was at LSU his coaches gave him a key to the batting cages rather than endure calls from him wanting to practice in the dead of night. In the first inning Tuesday night, he hit a home run, which was admirable, and then did something that was not: He admired it. For the first and surely the last time in his major league career, he ostentatiously carried his bat all the way to first base before discarding it. This was preening.

Which is an infectious virus. In the fifth inning, Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals’ 21-year-old prodigy, crushed a monster home run — and carried his bat to first base because he thought this was “pretty cool.”

After the game, Bregman, who carries baseball's culture in his DNA, apologized. Then did so again. Then a third time. His manager, A.J. Hinch, 45, evenhandedly disapproved of both players' comportment. Soto's manager, Dave Martinez, 55, deplored Bregman's behavior as much as Bregman did, and said: "I didn't like it when [Soto] did it as well. It's a conversation I'll have with Juan. That's not who we are." Or who we intend to remain.

Although baseball once was unambiguously "the national pastime," other sports have prospered as Americans' leisure time and discretionary income have increased. Competition for sports fans' attention and dollars has intensified now that there are just six weeks between the last NBA championship game and the first NFL preseason game. Baseball, however, remains unique — and indispensable — because it tries to remain an oasis of reticence in a culture of exhibitionism. There are those in Washington who could learn something important from the Nationals' manager.

Football has been blighted by endzone dances by players who are pleased with themselves for scoring touchdowns. They should be reminded of what Vince Lombardi supposedly said to one such preener: "The next time you make it to the end zone, act like you've been there before."

Baseball inoculates itself against unseemly behavior by means of rules that, although unwritten, are not unenforced, as Hinch and Martinez demonstrated. Just as the common law is derived from ancient social practices and judicial precedents, baseball's codes are the game's distilled mores. Their unchanging purpose is to encourage players, in the midst of passionate exertions, to show respect for opponents and the game. In baseball, as in the remainder of life, the most valuable rules are unwritten. By the observance of unwritten rules, mostly learned from parents, we avoid being codified into social death — smothered by written rules and drowned in formal adjudications as learned civility withers.

On June 2, 2010, with two outs in the ninth inning, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game — 27 batters up, 27 down — something that had only been done 20 times in more than a century of major league baseball. Then first base umpire James Joyce made an obvious mistake, calling the 27th Cleveland Indians batter safe when he was clearly out on a ground ball. With nothing more demonstrative than a wry smile, Galarraga stoically went about getting the 27th out. In post-game comments, Joyce forthrightly regretted his misjudgment, and Galarraga said, in effect: To err is human, and tomorrow is another game. The next day, the Tigers took the unusual step of having a player — Galarraga — present the lineup card to the home plate umpire who, as is standard practice, had been the previous game's first base umpire. Galarraga and Joyce shook hands.

Now, which would you have preferred, a perishable memory of what would then have been a rare perfect game, or this unforgettable example of mutual graciousness? Of course.

Some say that baseball's unwritten standards are out of date. But as has been well said (by a character in an Alan Bennett play), standards are always out of date — that is why we call them standards.

George F. Will | The Washington Post

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.