Unwritten rules or let the kids play? Baseball can't have it both ways

CHICAGO -- If you watch much baseball, you've no doubt seen the latest MLB promo so many times that it's probably receded into your subconscious. That's how much it's replayed. That's how much Major League Baseball wants you to get the message.

A podium is filled with many of baseball's current top players. At first, they answer unheard questions with the kinds of clichés that you know all too well. Then Alex Bregman goes into Alex Bregman mode, setting off a frenzy of bragging and trash talking. It's a good commercial.

The commercial is also scripted. The players recorded many lines, which were written for them, and the ad we see is what is left over after the editing process. After the bragging dies down, the player whom baseball desperately wants to be the face of its sport -- Mike Trout -- leans in so close to the camera that all you can see is, in fact, his face. How subtle is that? Trout says, "Just let the kids play."

This is the message baseball started circulating at the beginning of last year's postseason. That message was even more explicit in that it was a direct attack on the sport's unwritten rules, a note made all the more ringing because the commercial was narrated by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Let the kids play. It's the smartest, most savvy slogan baseball has come up with in a long time. It's a resonant message with real-world meaning on the field and off. And it's a message that apparently has not reached every clubhouse, nor has it filtered down to every umpire crew.

Speaking of scenes we've seen over and over: There was a benches-clearing incident at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago on Wednesday. Mostly, it was standard-issue stuff as far as this kind of thing goes.

It started when baseball's hottest hitter, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, was proffered a 3-2 fastball, belt high and down the middle of the plate, by Royals starter Brad Keller. In the trade, the pitch is what they call a meatball. Anderson did what talented, hot big league hitters do to meatballs -- he feasted on it. As the pitch soared toward the left-field bleachers, destined to land beyond the Chicago bullpen, Anderson fired his bat toward his own dugout. The bat landed near the on-deck circle. Anderson yelled -- at his teammates. He then began his trip around the bases, slapping hands with first-base coach Daryl Boston along the way.

Anderson has plenty of reason to be happy. At 26, the early part of the 2019 season gives every indication that he's a player putting it all together. He entered the day leading the majors with a .421 batting average. He has an OPS of 1.121. He still doesn't walk and soon he'll have to make some adjustments related to that. But he has become a legitimately dangerous hitter. Anderson is currently on pace to hit 38 homers and both score and drive in 114 runs, all while projecting to steal 50-plus bases.

Not for nothing: Before that home run, Anderson was 0-for-13 with five strikeouts and zero walks in his career against Keller.

That should have been that. Anderson didn't stare down Keller. He didn't look into the Royals' dugout. He didn't show up his opponent in any way. He simply hit a big home run for his team and celebrated. He did exactly what MLB -- through the voices of Mike Trout and Ken Griffey Jr. -- has told us it wants.

"I'm going to keep being me and keep having fun, man," Anderson said. "Our fans work hard and pay to come to the ballpark to come see a show. Why not give them one?"

Anderson's on-field fury contrasts noticeably with his clubhouse persona. He's not quiet or shy, exactly, but he is soft-spoken. He's family-oriented in his private life, and though he has been in the majors only a short time, he's admirably active in the Chicago community. In a sport desperate to recapture its reach in the African American community, he's exactly the right guy in the right city at the right time. That he's also becoming a fine player between the lines only amplifies the narrative he is creating for himself and his sport.

"I'm going to keep playing hard and playing for my team," Anderson said. "Keep playing for the South Side. I'm in the place where I want to be. I'm going to play hard and keep having fun."

Anderson likes to celebrate his home runs, and he has had lots of reason to celebrate against the Royals. "Sharing his joy" is how Anderson often puts it. And that's all it is. Anderson has no reason to dislike Brad Keller or the Kansas City Royals. It has nothing to do with them at all. The old rules, they also have nothing to do with him. At least they shouldn't.

On Aug. 11, 2017, Anderson homered off Kansas City's Peter Moylan, pumping his fist a few yards from home plate after he knew it was going out. Two days later, he took Jason Vargas deep, but he played that one cool. The White Sox were down 8-0 at the time.

Last season, Anderson homered at Kauffman Stadium off Danny Duffy in March, doing the same kind of hop and double fist pump he did on the Moylan homer. Later in the same game, he repeated the feat against Blaine Boyer, reacting in largely the same fashion.

Flash-forward to April 28 of last season. Leading off the game at The K, Anderson homered off Eric Skoglund. Not much of a reaction, perhaps because he wasn't sure at first that he'd gotten it. On Aug. 19, back at Sox Park, he got Heath Fillmyer, taking him out to the opposite field. Again, not much of a reaction. Finally, on Sept. 12, Anderson homered off Burch Smith, watching it for a bit before heading around the bases.

There was nothing excessive in any of it. Anderson never glared at a Royals pitcher, nor the Royals' dugout. He celebrated some, was a little slow to start his home run trot a couple of times. The only history between Anderson and the Royals that matters is this: Anderson has hit eight homers against Kansas City in his young career, two more than he has hit against any other team.

Anderson celebrates when he's happy. He's human. In baseball, circa 2019, players are supposed to be able to express happiness and they are supposed to be allowed to display their humanity.

"The old rules don't bother me," Anderson said. "They don't bother me. I don't have any rules. I play to have fun and play with a lot of energy. I'm going to continue to do that."

Well, even if you haven't seen it, you can probably guess what happened the next time Anderson came to the plate after Wednesday's home run. With the first pitch in the bottom of the sixth, Keller's 92 mph two-seamer resulted in what Forrest Gump would call a "million-dollar wound" -- Anderson took the pitch directly in the buttocks.

"Everybody has those unwritten rules," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "Everybody has their own, I guess. Timmy wasn't showing their pitcher up. He was looking to our dugout."

Anderson took a couple of steps toward the mound, but Royals catcher Martin Maldonado quickly jumped into his path. Anderson spoke to him while glaring at Keller, who glared back. Anderson didn't charge, or give any indication that he was going to. But soon, Chicago's Jose Abreu hopped out of the dugout, followed by several of his teammates, and then the Royals spilled out of their side, and suddenly there were baseball men all over the field.

"I get it. I get it," Anderson insisted. "I just wanted to let them know how I feel."

It took about seven minutes to sort it all out. For his part, Anderson never really got into the middle of the melee, as Abreu and others made sure he stayed off to the side. Renteria kept trying to urge Kansas City personnel back to their dwellings, both in the dugout and the bullpen. Royals coach Dale Sveum, like Renteria a former Cubs manager, was particularly hot, and at one point, he and Renteria ended up lightly engaged off to the side.

"It was just a misunderstanding," Renteria said. "They let me know that they can handle their guys. But then they were still chirping at [Anderson]. I just wanted them to get off [the field]. They had already done everything they wanted to do."

The two central figures in the incident -- Anderson and Keller -- remained mostly outside of the fray. More than anything, it was the coaches yelling at one another. Renteria eventually made his way over to the first-base line and started yelling toward the Royals' dugout, and Kansas City manager Ned Yost took exception to that.

"What happened was [umpire] Joe West was trying to get everybody back to the dugouts," Yost said. "I turned around to get my team back and Rick started yelling and screaming at my guys. He was pretty upset. He wanted them back in the dugout. But nobody is going to yell at my team. We've got no issues, but I'm not going to allow anybody to yell at my team. Just give me a second and I'll get them back."

It was all a lot of posturing. No punches. No wrestling on the ground. The presence of both rosters on the field held up proceedings for a bit, which was the worst thing you could say about it. As the teams filtered back to where they were supposed to be, the umpires, led by their well-known crew chief, gathered around the infield to sort things out.

"Cowboy" Joe West has been a big league umpire since he debuted on Sept. 14, 1976, when he watched over third base in a game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium between the Braves and Astros. Dale Murphy played in that game when he was still a catcher. The Toy Cannon -- Jim Wynn -- played in the game. In other words, it was a long time ago. It was before the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays or Washington Nationals existed.

West has ejected players or managers from every current franchise except two -- Oakland and Arizona -- as well as the gone-but-not-forgotten Montreal Expos. His first ejection was actually two ejections. According to retrosheet.org, West kicked out Mets manager Joe Torre and outfielder Steve Henderson for arguing balls and strikes in 1977. He went on to toss Torre two more times in his career, the last in 1992 when Torre was with the Cardinals. He never ejected Henderson again. But West has done a lot of ejecting. By Retrosheet's count, he entered Wednesday's game with 183 notches on his ejection belt.

What the heck: Here are some factoids from Retrosheet's log of Joe West ejections:

• Most frequently ejected: Bobby Cox, Chuck Tanner and Ron Gardenhire (four each).

• Most frequently ejected team: St. Louis Cardinals (15).

• Most frequently ejected city: Chicago (28, 14 each from White Sox and Cubs, including Wednesday).

• Most frequent reason for ejection: balls and strikes (25 times).

• Three best descriptions of reasons for ejecting someone: 1. Delay to turn on field lights (Bobby Cox); 2. Disparaging remarks about Harry Wendelstedt (Von Hayes); 3. Defending Brian McCann (Cox).

Some of those ejections might not have been solely West's doing, but 183 is a lot. This Wikipedia page is up-to-date only through 2013, but it purports to be based on Retrosheet data. According to that page, West would now rank third on the all-time ejection leaderboard. In fact, if the data is correct, he leapfrogged Hall of Famer Hank O'Day on Wednesday.

That's because after West conferred with his crew, he ejected Anderson, Keller, Renteria and Sveum. Renteria and Sveum? Sure. There was all that manager and coach yelling on the field, and those two seemed to be in the middle of a lot of it. Keller? Well, there was no warning issued or anything, but the intent seemed clear. Throwing him out was debatable but defensible.

But Anderson? For what? Hitting a home run and being happy about it? For taking a blur of a projectile in the ass? For looking annoyed at the person who hit him with the ball? For standing off to the side and occasionally yelling while both teams milled about on the infield?

Or perhaps this has something to do with it: On that long list of Joe West ejections, there are two names familiar from Wednesday's game. On Sept. 22 of last season, he tossed Renteria and Anderson for what Retrosheet labels "arguing non-call of slide interference." After that game, Anderson said this: "I don't have much to say about him. Everybody knows he's terrible. But I didn't say much. He threw me out. It's OK."

When asked if that bit of history might have played into Wednesday's ejection, Anderson didn't take the bait.

"I don't think about that," Anderson said. "I take it day by day. The past is in the past. We move forward."

So what was really behind Wednesday's ejection of Anderson? Renteria said he didn't get into the subject with West on the field. He was then asked if he had ever seen a player be ejected in a similar situation in which the batter didn't charge the mound.

"I have not," Renteria said. "You'd have to ask them what their thinking was behind it."

The media on hand attempted to do just that by following standard protocol, which is to send a pool reporter to the umpires' dressing room to clarify a matter with the crew chief, West in this case. As it turned out, it was a White Sox media relations employee who made the overture. Luckily, West and his crew clarified matters for all of us.

"Because of the language that was used on the field, the umpires declined comment" was the response that was circulated.

Look, we can't know for certain who did what and why on Wednesday. Yost was tight-lipped but emphatic that Keller's plunk was simply a bad pitch, and it's certainly true that his top starter struggled with command, walking four during his outing. In his postgame media conference, Yost was asked about the pitch that hit Anderson.

"What, the pitch got away from him?" Yost said. "That's as far as I know."

Keller didn't call out Anderson afterward, either.

"I was just upset with the pitch I made," Keller said about the home run ball. "I battled back from a 3-0 pitch and got to a 3-2 count and left a ball over the middle of the plate. He put a good swing on it."

Keller was asked: So you didn't have a problem with Anderson?

"No," Keller said. "After the fuss, I didn't really know what to expect. I just tried to focus on the next guy. I didn't hear anything from [Anderson]. Everybody just started running out."

As for the White Sox, there was little doubt in their minds that what had transpired was spurred by Anderson's post-homer enthusiasm.

"Obviously they didn't take kindly to it," Renteria said. "They took the retaliatory position. He took his base. You go ahead and drill the guy, why not just leave it? You've already done your piece. You don't need to run guys out there chirping at him as well. Quite frankly, that's the only thing I took offense to."

We can't know what was in people's hearts and minds. We can only point out the events that happened, and the sequence in which they occurred. None of this is particularly unusual. We've seen similar situations play out countless times over the decades, with the latest high-profile example occurring not long ago, when Pittsburgh's Chris Archer threw behind Cincinnati's Derek Dietrich, who had admired a homer earlier in the game, and Yasiel Puig then decided to fight the entire city of Pittsburgh.

What we can say is that Tim Anderson is one of baseball's hottest hitters and the White Sox could have used him in the later innings of a game they eventually lost 4-3 in 10 innings. There was no apparent reason to throw him out. But there was also no reason to throw a baseball at him, if in fact that's what happened, which no one on the Kansas City side is about to admit.

The thing is, if Anderson had just been allowed to take his base, there was no indication that things would have escalated between him and Keller. After Royals catcher Martin Maldonado cut him off, Anderson patted the catcher on the shoulder and, for all we know, that would have been the end of it. It became a kerfuffle when the dugouts emptied, and that's the aspect the league can tighten up. The NBA has long had almost over-the-top restrictions against teams leaving the bench areas, and maybe it's time for baseball to follow suit.

Still, there's a bigger conflict in play here, one that sees the time-honored codes of on-field conduct in the game butting heads with the direction the league wants to go, and for good reasons, which can be summed up in the phrase "age-related demographics." Let's forget about this Anderson-Keller incident, which is done and will soon be forgotten. Instead, let's circle back around to where we started, with that MLB-sanctioned advertisement and the marketable kisser of the game's best player. Baseball, and Trout, has it exactly right in that ad. Let the kids play.

Most of us are ready to do just that. Now the league needs to figure out how to make sure its teams and its umpires have truly received the message. It would help if we stopped throwing at players who are celebrating the fact that they've done something that is very hard to do. It would help if umpires didn't throw out players for getting hit by a pitch.

And it would help if teams remained in the dugout where they belong, instead of trying to uphold old rules that no longer have any efficacy in a game that doesn't want to remain old forever.