A long time ago, I was standing in an NFL locker room. I was reading the bulletin board. I had my notebook out. I was looking at the poster the league sends around to each team describing the fines for various uniform violations. Jersey untucked, socks rolled down, belt undone -- that sort of thing. $500; $750; $1,000. I was writing down these infractions and their penalties when someone came up behind me. He was someone very big and very strong and very famous and he pinned my elbows to my ribs and he picked me up and walked me maybe 30 feet down the hall while saying in a voice as deep and soothing and musical as Death Comes For Mel Tormé that the "Bulletin board is for players only." He set me down and rolled away bowlegged without looking back.
Thus it was that while making note of the written rules of the NFL, I had violated one of the unwritten rules of the NFL. Good thing I hadn't walked on the team logo in the center of their carpet. He'd have had to kill me and eat me.
A man's got to have a code.
There's been a lot of yammer and squawk and discord these past few weeks about the "unwritten rules" of sports, especially baseball, and about who's entitled to invoke them, and about The Code -- cap-T, cap-C -- and who is or isn't allowed to do what to whom, and where and how and when they are or are not allowed to do it.
Of course, I was going to write a zany breakdown this morning of the Dallas Braden/Alex Rodriguez feud over who ran where and who said what and who has the leverage to say anything about anyone to anybody in another dugout. (It is an unwritten rule of media feuds that, like starlets and sports bloggers, you strategically fight up, never down. Hence, many quotes from Braden, relatively few from sooperdooperstar A-Rod.) All this on the assumption that the low comedy of Cirque du SoWhat? would play all summer long.
Then comes Sunday's perfect game.
And in two hours and seven minutes, Dallas Braden goes from being a news-brief punch line, an 82-mph sound bite with an ERA like a healthy birth weight, a lifetime record of 18-22 and a Modern Jazz Quartet goatee, to being one of 19 men in the long history of something dear to us all to have thrown a perfect game.
So, very short today and to the point.
The unwritten rules -- not mentioning a no-hitter as it unfolds; not stepping on the baseline when you run from the dugout -- are the most human and illuminating of all, because they reveal our precious collective weirdness. They call down all the superstition we're too embarrassed to commit to paper. These are the rules we make up as we go along, the invocations against bad juju. This is the game-night OCD mojo of the thumbed rabbit's foot, of the 1,000th chicken dinner, of the unwashed socks and salt-ruined cap.
Never bunt to break up a no-hitter! At least after the sixth! Or maybe the fifth! Unless you're famous! Or you really, really need to win!
Never throw your cap on the bed! Stop whistling! Stop singing! Never stop singing! Never stop whistling! Look at me! Stop looking at me!
All these unwritten rules are bull----, of course. We know that. They're fetish and fear and wishful thinking. We know that.
And yet we conjure up that cheap household magic as long and as loud as we can, hoping for whatever help we might get.
But I elect for today not to mock the unwritten rule, The Code unspoken. I reserve, however, the right to mock them long and hard in the near future. Such is The Code of the Sports Columnist. (That, and "Ladies Drink Free, Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m.")
Dallas Braden seems a nice young man who may now run his mouth on any subject he chooses for the rest of his life. We will politely pay attention when he does so. He has earned a hearing. He threw a perfect game once in the majors. He lost his mother much too young and threw a perfect game in the major leagues on Mother's Day.
He can do and say as he likes.
Ironic then that thus empowered, the real money quote of this auspicious thing came from Braden's grandma.
"Stick it, A-Rod," said she to the vampire press.
Sadly, in the unwritten book of baseball law, this means that when the Yankees and the A's next meet, the New York starter is going to have to throw at grandma's head. That's The Code. Loyalty and goodness call for the high, hard chin music of tradition, just to let grandma know what's what.
In your ear, grandma. In your ear.
Honor demands it.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.