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Baseball's Unwritten Rules

Carlos Gomez and Brian McCann

Carlos Gomez and Brian McCann

When Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez finally broke from a strut to admire his home run and into a trot around the bases, his showboat pace was slowed by the history he dragged alongside.

Last June, Atlanta lefty Paul Maholm hit Gomez’s knee with a pitch and left a bruise Gomez remembered long after the welt’s mosaic faded. Gomez got his payback on Sept. 25 by catapulting Maholm’s pitch deep into Turner Field’s seats. Gomez spat spite at Maholm as he rounded the bases and headed home, focusing his glare so intently on the lefty that he didn’t see who came to greet him. Because Gomez wouldn’t walk the line, Braves catcher Brian McCann met him on the basepath. About 10 feet from the plate, McCann made a stand against Gomez. Baseball’s sacred, though shifty, code of conduct had been breached, and McCann was there to make sure the Brewers’ center fielder didn’t sidestep justice.

“I did what I felt any catcher would do in that situation,” McCann told reporters the next day. “I stand by what I did. I’m sticking up for this team. That’s part of baseball.”

Described by players and managers as a necessary part of the game, a revealing part of the game within the game, and also a “macho” part of the game, baseball’s unwritten code can also be a nebulous part of the game, as hard for fans to interpret as it is for players to articulate. The code governs how to play and how to police, as McCann did. Transgressions vary. Players know one when they see one.

The 2013 season offered a range of examples, from conflicts to comeuppance to the chlorinated. An exchange of beanballs led to a dugout-clearing brawl between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers. L.A. later celebrated a playoff berth by plunging and romping, uninvited, in Chase Field’s pool, irking Arizona. Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig rankled opponents (and some teammates) with his exuberance, typified by his finger-pointing tribute to a triple in the playoffs. Boston pitcher Ryan Dempster captured a communal acrimony when he hit the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez (below) in August with a purpose pitch. Rodriguez read the pitch as a vigilante response to his appeal of a 211-game PED suspension. There were 28 batters hit in just 19 games between rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. In the weeks before McCann blocked Gomez, Atlanta had two dugout-clearing brouhahas sparked by opponents’ homer-watching etiquette. McCann jawed with Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez about admiring his first career home run, educating the kid on the code in his self-deputized roles:

Judge. Jury. Catcher.

“The showing up part is one that’s really interesting to me because everybody’s got their own perception of what ‘showing up’ is,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon says. “For me, a lot of that has to do with the manager and maybe the leaders within that team. If they feel somebody has gone overboard (they) call them on it. … But it’s just a part of the culture in all sports. It’s generational. Hey, afros and high socks and everything changes, man, so just live with it.”

“It’s a macho game,” says Dirk Hayhurst, a former big-league pitcher who is now a bestselling author of The Bullpen Gospels and Bigger Than the Game. “It can be hard to explain. … It’s like, ‘I don’t want people to think that we can be messed with, so we’ll do this frontier justice thing. That will show them we’re men, just in case the 25 other men over there didn’t realize they were playing men. We’re not going to stand for it.’ It does sound kind of ludicrous.”

The Dodgers dealt with the nuances of the code as Puig tested patience with his polarizing, pyrotechnic displays. During the playoffs, veteran Carlos Beltran, then with the opposing Cardinals, said Puig “must think he’s still playing somewhere else” and had yet to learn “to act with more calm.” Displays like Puig’s proved cultural as much as generational. One player’s celebration is another’s affront. Some see joy where others see immaturity. Tolerance is different from age group to age group, culture to culture, and even franchise to franchise. The line, several players say, is crossed when a player’s showmanship “shows up” the opposing team.

Puig’s theatrics toed the line.

Gomez chiding Maholm crossed it.

“Absolutely there’s an ESPN factor,” says Gary Bennett, a former catcher who spent 13 years in the majors. “Getting the highlights. Dressing things up. It has changed how you police things. On a 3-0 pitch, if a young player tried to kill the ball (20 years ago), a veteran might put a pitch in his ribs. Now they can swing out of their shoes. The thing I learned is you had to find that line between enthusiasm and ‘showing someone up.’ That can be personal. You let them have their moment, but you don’t let them embarrass your pitcher.”

On June 11, Arizona righty Ian Kennedy popped Puig’s nose with a questionable pitch. L.A. starter Zack Greinke hit catcher Miguel Montero in what was later described as “an apple for apple” answer. Kennedy responded by pelting Greinke.

The code ran amok. Both teams stormed the field. A fracas ensued.

“Somebody knocks you on your fanny, you get a good clean lick, you take your number and get them back cleanly,” Arizona manager Kirk Gibson says. “Nobody is trying to hurt anybody, ever. It’s just good competition. They lick me, I lick them. And in the end sometimes it just comes down to who is standing, whether that’s physical or mental. Last year, we weren’t standing at the end.”

Utilityman Skip Schumaker saw how the beanbrawl galvanized the Dodgers. L.A. won 55 of its next 74 games, climbing from 7.5 games back in the NL West to 13.5 ahead.

“When we cleared with Arizona that was the start of our serious run,” Schumaker says. “It does a lot for bringing a team together. You’re fighting for one another; you see who wants to fight with you.

“Not everyone gets it. But if you know how to do it right, you can show a lot about the kind of teammate you are.”

Initial penalties from the brawl included suspensions of eight players or coaches for a combined 24 games, 10 for Kennedy.

The game’s increased likelihood of suspension has influenced the code, sometimes as a deterrent and sometimes by prolonging bitterness until a suspension doesn’t sting. Monitoring strike zones has caused a more subtle change. Two former catchers say years ago umpires would have schooled a young player like Puig. They describe how an irritated ump could expand the strike zone to send a message. QuesTec ended that. Advances in technology, suspensions, and salaries have turned the code from a binary decision — take a lick, give a lick — into calculus.

It’s foolish “to enforce morality with a 91 mph fastball,” Hayhurst says.

Tony La Russa, a National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 2014, always said such decisions made him queasy, but he had firm policies. La Russa insists that he never fired first. Any retaliation was going to be below the shoulders and be signaled by the manager. He didn’t want pitchers freelancing, and he’d rather have hitters furious at the manager than distrustful of a teammate. And, the target would be the best player. Big apple for apple. During the Cardinals’ frisky exchanges with Milwaukee in the La Russa era, Ryan Braun came to know the drill, literally. “That would stop everything. Tony wanted to end it,” a Cardinals player says. Other teams that respond similarly shift the onus from an individual to an entire club and “put that concern in their dugout, not ours,” Bennett says.

The code can be complex and contradictory. Hayhurst explains: “If you get caught stealing signs, you get drilled. If you peek back at the signs, you get drilled. If you figure out signs from the dugout, that’s good detective work.” Hard slides can earn a plunk, or praise. Context matters. The score does, too. Admonishing a player for celebrating a homer is far different than retaliating for a teammate getting hit, but both illustrate tenets of the code: A club will do what it takes to show it will not be embarrassed and that it cannot be intimidated.

“There (are) rules that we all understand,” Gibson says. “Situations call for it, and you want to do the right thing. You want to be a good teammate and a solid player. And the ones who don’t (understand it) don’t stay around.”

In the days after his run-in with McCann, Gomez apologized, expressing on Twitter that he “should have done better to control myself.” He acknowledged his code break and sought to avoid further injury or insult. The code’s cascade effect had McCann protect his pitcher, Gomez’s teammates protect him, and the Braves rush to protect their catcher. Yelling became pushing — and Gomez never did touch home plate.

By rule, the run counted.

By code, so did McCann’s point.

—Written by Derrick Goold for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!