The codes of baseball
ESPN The Magazine
Baseball codes of conduct have existed since the days of Ty Cobb, who might have invented some of them. They are unwritten but strict -- violation of one often will get you a 90-mph fastball in the ribs. Some codes are archaic, outdated and stupid, but baseball is nothing if not soaked in tradition. What was good for Wagner, Cobb and Ruth is good for A-Rod, Ichiro and McGwire.
Here are a few of the codes:
Never break up a pitcher's no-hitter with a bunt late in a game. This is preposterous. OK, if the score is 12-0 with two outs in the ninth inning, maybe dropping a bunt isn't the manliest thing to do. But last Saturday night, Arizona's Curt Schilling had a perfect game in the eighth when Padres catcher Ben Davis bunted for a hit in a 2-0 game. Schilling, who had paralyzing stuff that Davis could barely see let alone hit, finished with a three-hitter. D-Backs manager Bob Brenly, always a smart, reasonable voice, called Davis' play "chicken (----)."
It wasn't. Ask any manager, including the Tigers' Phil Garner, and they'll tell you there was nothing wrong with what Davis did. Late in any 2-0 game, not just no-hitters, good hitters are occasionally given the take sign on 2-0 just to get someone on and get something going. That's what Davis and the Padres were trying to do -- they're in a pennant race and they were trying to win an important game. Since when is an opponent's personal achievement more important than trying to win a game? And what's wrong with asking a pitcher to field his position?
Don't steal a base when your team is comfortably ahead or behind. Another confusing code. Someone please define "comfortably." In this era of unconscious offense, what is it? Five runs, six runs, seven runs? What about at Coors Field, where every game is always close -- is it 10 runs? 15 runs? Granted, stealing a base when your team is ahead 15-0 is excessive. But last year, Colorado's Tom Goodwin stole a base when his team was ahead 9-1 at Coors, then got two pitches thrown over his head. The Rockies won that game 12-10.
Also, when a team is behind by, say, 10 runs, it often stops holding on the runner at first base. That is basically inviting the runner to steal, but he almost never does because that would be rubbing it in -- when a team does that, they're guaranteed to get someone hit. Yet by playing behind the runner, the first baseman can cover more ground, take away holes and take away hits.
This happened last season to the Rockies. Todd Hollandsworth came to the plate in what appeared to be a certain blowout win for Colorado. The opposition didn't hold the runner at first, Hollandsworth hit what would have been a run-scoring single had the first baseman been holding the runner. Instead, the first baseman made the play, preventing a run. The Rockies won that game 10-9. You cannot not hold a runner, then get upset if he steals. You can't have it both ways, but with the unwritten code, teams want it both ways.
In a fight, everyone must leave the bench and the bullpen. Actually, we have no problem with this. No teammates are closer than they are in baseball because there are so many games and players spend so much time with one another. As corny as sounds, they become family, and when a family member is in a fight, everyone joins in. If a player doesn't run on the field, even if it's just to dance with the enemy, he might get fined and certainly will be ostracized by his teammates.
"He might get beat up," says one NL player. Indians manager Charlie Manuel was recently suspended for two games for running on the field during a fight -- he had earlier been ejected from the game, and wasn't allowed to go on the field. But he did anyway, saying that there's no way he wasn't going to stay in the clubhouse while his team fought.
Don't show up the pitcher after hitting a home run. This code gets broken every night. Now, players flip their bat after a home run, they stand at home plate and gaze at the ball's flight, they take three minutes to circle the bases. If anyone had ever done that to Bob Gibson, he would have drilled the next guy, then he'd have drilled the hitter the next time he came to the plate, too.
Two weeks ago, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins homered off Cardinals reliever Steve Kline. Rollins flipped the bat, but then put his head down and ran to first base, and all around the bases. It was only a slight showing up of Kline, who took it as much more. He cussed Rollins all the way around the bases, later claiming that had it been a veteran player who'd hit that homer and flipped that bat, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but Rollins is a rookie. Thankfully, the Cardinals didn't retaliate against Rollins or the Phillies in that series.
Here's how bad it has gotten. The Dodgers' Paul LoDuca thought he had been pitched too closely by the Rockies' Pedro Astacio on Memorial Day, a 6-for-6 day by LoDuca (the first six-hit game by a catcher since Walker Cooper in 1949). After one of his singles, he ran to first base yelling at Astacio. We have too much of that today. Sadly, there aren't many Mike Kinkade's left. The Orioles' utility man recently homered about 20 rows into the left-field seats -- no question it was gone -- at Camden Yards, never watched the flight, and sprinted until he was halfway to second, then only slowed down slightly the rest of the way around the bases. Maybe he ran too fast, but better too fast than too slow.
Break up a double play with a good, clean, hard slide. Anything beyond that is unacceptable. No roll blocks. No spikes in the air. No sliding 10 feet to the outside part of the bag. Nothing that could destroy a middle infielder's career. Those guys' knees and legs are exposed, they often can't see the runner coming, they deserve and expect contact, but nothing that could bust a knee in half. Pudge Rodriguez rolled Omar Vizquel a few years ago, knocking him out for a couple months: we've never seen then-Indians manager Mike Hargrove madder than he was that night. There is also no reason to kill middle infielders when it's obvious that there will be no throw to first on the play. Yet that still happens.
Don't show up an umpire on balls and strikes. Umpires are, on the whole, very good at what they do. If they miss a call, a hitter can tell them, but do it without looking at him, or gesturing. That gets everyone in the ballpark on the umpire. As a pitcher, if an ump misses a pitch down the middle, do what Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins used to do: don't even flinch, just keep on pitching. As good as umpires are, they're human. If you embarrass them, they'll embarrass you. They'll call you out on a bad pitch if you make them look bad.
As a hitter, don't peek at the catcher's signs, or where he's setting up. The Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo did this earlier in the season. That's why he got hit in the back by St. Louis' Matt Morris on April 27.
In a blowout game, never swing as hard as you can at a 3-0 pitch. Again, this is about showing up an opponent, a point we certainly understand. Yet at times, we show too much pity for the losing team. These are professionals, the best in the world, they're making $2 million a year on average; if they can't take getting embarrassed once in a while, that's tough. The idea is always to play every play, every out. There should be no giving up in baseball.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.