I know an 11-year-old who plays a game at school that he and his friends inaccurately call handball: two players, one wall and one big, red ball. One player hits the ball against the wall, and before it bounces twice, the next player must hit the ball to the wall, and so on. Fail to hit the ball to the wall and you're out. The next challenger in line then gets to play.
This 11-year-old's mom was worried because her son was getting into a lot of loud, drawn-out arguments while playing this game. Indeed, every time it was his turn, his opponent would say he had made an illegal hit, he would protest, all the kids waiting in line would agree the hit was illegal, he would refuse to leave the court and the argument would last until the bell rang. Another day of play.
So let's talk about Minnesota Twins star Brian Dozier, who took Stupid Unwritten Rules to a new level this weekend. Dozier is, in his words, "getting hammered" for his complaint against the Baltimore Orioles, which he should be if you consider the point of "unwritten rules" to be enforcing a rational code of play that exists for the good of the sport. Dozier's claims, in that interpretation, do not stand up, not even a little bit.
But that's the wrong way to think about unwritten rules. Unwritten rules are a scam that players run on each other to trick their opponents into acting against their own self-interests. They are stupid, of course, but more than that, they're brilliant, on multiple levels, and they seem to work -- and ever since I realized this, I've been a lot less annoyed.
To recap: Orioles rookie Chance Sisco batted in the ninth inning on Sunday, with Baltimore trailing Minnesota by seven runs. The Twins shifted their infield against Sisco, he bunted against the shift, he got a hit and he found out a half-hour later that by trying hard at baseball in a seven-run game he had violated something sacrosanct.
"When they didn't hold our runner on [earlier in the blowout], they conceded to the fact they didn't want us to steal, so we didn't steal," Dozier explained. "We could have very easily stolen and put up more runs, so therefore in return, you don't bunt. That's what everybody is missing in this whole thing."
In other words: We weren't trying, so he shouldn't have tried.
Of course, Dozier's logic prima facie was bad: The Twins kept throwing breaking balls, they kept positioning their defenders in elaborate shifts and so on -- so they were still trying. Intuiting some fluid and ambiguous code about how much to try is a lot to ask of players who are merely attempting to play baseball well, for money, in front of a large audience. Complaining about this -- as other Twins did, as well -- is comically sensitive. So most will hammer Dozier.
But Dozier's goal isn't, I'd argue, to get Chance Sisco to respect the game. It's to get Sisco -- and other Twins opponents -- to go easy on the Twins. It's to get them to not try extra hard to come back when they're trailing by seven runs. It's to get them to not force Dozier and his teammates to run any harder than they have to. It's to get them to be afraid of offending, embarrassing or tricking the Twins. (Or, alternately, to get them to be afraid of offending, embarrassing or tricking veterans, such as Dozier, who use their clout and seniority to steer young players toward certain types of non-threatening behavior.) It's to weaken their opponents or to cause their opponents to weaken themselves -- more complicated than but otherwise consistent with every other baseball strategy.
Run down the unwritten rules that are most often enforced and almost all of them hit these themes: "Don't bunt to break up a no-hitter because we want to throw a no-hitter." Brilliant! "Don't yell 'Ha!' right when we're about to catch a popup because that would startle us and we might drop it." I'm sure it would! "Don't bunt 10 times at our pitcher who has the yips because he'll probably mess up and you'll get on base. Don't pimp home runs, because it makes us feel lousy (and you feel pumped up). Don't quick pitch -- I'm not ready! Don't throw changeups in hitters' counts during a blowout because I'm trying to have a high batting average. Also, don't steal bases in a blowout, because then we have to keep trying to make sure you don't. And no hustle doubles in blowouts. Take it eaaaasy." I've seen teams complain that the opposing pitcher was throwing too many breaking balls. I've seen teams complain the opposing hitters wouldn't swing enough. Lawyer ball.
There is one unwritten rule for which ballplayers admit that this is the game: The one about not hitting batters with pitches lest ye too be hit by pitches. "I've got news for you. In this game, there are unwritten rules," Terry Collins once said. "You hit my guy, I'm hitting your guy. They're not hitting my guy tonight." Another way of saying "not hitting my guy" is "not throwing inside as much." Another way of saying it is "not making me feel uncomfortable."
It helps to consider the Mafia -- not the real Mafia, which I don't know much about, but the fictional TV Mafia we all understand. The TV Mafia is notably disdainful of written rules -- the laws of the state -- but strictly, violently defensive of unwritten rules. In particular:
• Don't rat
• Wives and children are off limits
Why, in a culture that ignores virtually every law and moral code, are these principles so strong? Not because they represent some deeper morality about the sanctity of innocent life or group loyalty or the value of hierarchy, but because these are where TV Mafia bosses are the most vulnerable. There's not an easy defense against an enemy who wants to hurt you by hurting your children or who knows your secrets and might use them against you. So TV bosses use peer pressure to construct an ethical code, and the most powerful weapons against their most exposed vulnerabilities get neutralized.
The unwritten rules of baseball are not as, shall we say, high stakes, but they almost all fall under some version of this: Where we are exposed, we ask nicely that you don't take advantage. If you do, we will shame you. (Note that a lot of unwritten rules have to do with convincing the opponent not to hustle. Note also that most unwritten rules are policed by veterans, who are tired and don't want to get in a hustle-off with a bunch of youngsters.) They can't get away with it for everything, of course. They can't say "home runs are snakes, no hitting homers." That would expose the bad faith of these claims. For this to work, everybody has to believe that Brian Dozier is truly, genuinely upset by this lack of decorum, and his opponents have to be concerned he really means it. Which, after arguing long enough, he eventually might.
Here's why this is all so awesome: Screaming "unwritten rules" in bad faith is exactly the sort of annoying, but effective, try-hard behavior that unwritten rules purport to prohibit. It's taking advantage of the vague boundaries of the rulebook to claim a small edge, and it's pursuing victory even at the expense of honor and decorum. Dozier claimed to be annoyed by Sisco, but Sisco was just trying to win. Meanwhile, we're all annoyed by Dozier right now, but he doesn't care because he's just trying to win. In a 7-0 game, Chance Sisco bunted. That's hustle. But in a 7-0 game, Brian Dozier was running a long con. That's a lifestyle commitment. Everybody else is playing baseball, but he's playing baseball players.
Back to the 11-year-old playing handball: Upon further investigation, his mother and I discovered that he was not an anomaly. Almost every match between any two kids went the same way: two or three hits; a claim of something done illegally; an argument; the kids in line agreeing that it was illegal; and a loud, drawn-out fight. This negotiation over legal vs. illegal was the game. It wasn't about handball but about who could win the argument.
Calling "illegal" first was one skill. Defending yourself and refusing to give in was another. And, of course, standing in line and agreeing that it was illegal was a third, because everybody in line wanted you to lose so it would be their turn. This game doesn't sound like it's very fun to play, but it's the game those kids have chosen, and danged if they aren't playing to win. It does sound like a lot of fun to watch.
I think we all agree that Dozier and the Twins were acting like 11-year-olds. But my interpretation is that they're acting like 11-year-olds who are fully invested in winning their game and who are taking advantage of not just the rules but the unwritten rules to do it. There's a pure competitive brilliance to it. I respect that.
The other interpretation is that they're way too sensitive and snitty, like ... well, like children. I would never assume so little of a classy group like the Twins.