Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2020

Unwritten, But Not Unimportant

The pitch was probably meant to be more toward the outer edge of the strike zone, “on the black” as pitchers say, referring to the rubber edge of the otherwise white home plate. But the delivery from Juan Nicasio of the Texas Rangers wandered a bit too far over the plate, and Fernando Tatis Jr. swung. As soon as his bat met the ball, the outcome of this trip to the plate for the dynamic 21-year-old San Diego Padres star was clear. His blast sailed into the Texas night, bound for the right field seats at Globe Life Field, where several rows of cardboard cutouts of fans silently waited. It was a grand slam for Tatis, his second homer of the night, and it padded an already substantial Padres lead in a game San Diego would win 14-4.

But what Tatis didn’t know as he rounded the bases after slugging the first grand slam of his major league career, was that the Great Game was about to lose its collective mind. For the pitch that he swung at was the fourth of the at-bat, and the first three from Nicasio all missed the strike zone. Tatis’s Padres were already leading 10-3, and the game was in the top of the 8th inning. Because of that very specific set of facts, Tatis broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules, which were it reduced to print would read “don’t pile on late in a game when your team already has a big lead by swinging on a 3-0 count.” Or words to that effect.

Every sport has some number of so-called unwritten rules, which by their very nature are learned through experience. But the Great Game seems to stand apart in the tendency of those involved in it – players, coaches, fans, and pundits – to eagerly engage in passionate debate about them. The widespread derangement that followed hard on the heels of Tatis’s homer is just the latest example. In this instance the managers of the Rangers and Padres, Chris Woodward and Jayce Tingler, were quickly cast as antediluvian defenders of the status quo, intent on sucking the joy out of the sport like ravenous mosquitoes descending on a family picnic. Each was assigned his role based on comments after the game, when Woodward said that he didn’t much care for Tatis swinging in that situation, and Tingler called it “a learning opportunity” for the second-year major leaguer.

The context of the statements from both managers was, of course, ignored. Woodward was speaking shortly after his team had given up double-digit runs for the second game in a row, and Tingler’s quote was referring to the fact that Tatis had either missed or ignored a “take” sign from the third base coach. The pair are also two of the younger managers in the big leagues, and from all accounts both are well regarded by their players. All facts swept aside by a tsunami of social media scorn that engulfed Woodward and Tingler, with posts that ranged from expressing disdain for the very idea of unwritten rules to condemnations of their supposed desire to suppress the natural competitive nature of all athletes.

The ranting was decidedly one-sided, in part because this unwritten rule is extraordinarily subjective. First, of course, it is violated not truly by the act of swinging at a pitch, but by the result. Had Tatis missed for strike one, or grounded into an inning-ending double play, the furor would never have ensued. Then there is the question of when exactly the rule applies. If the lead had been five runs rather than seven, or if it had been the 6th inning instead of the 8th, or for that matter, if Tatis were a 12-year veteran player well-known for swinging at anything near the strike zone regardless of the count, would taking the bat off his shoulder been okay? And it’s obvious – or it should be – that neither manager wanted his team to stop trying. The best reminder of that came two nights later, when the Phillies led the Buffalo Blue Jays 7-0 after half an inning of play, and 7-2 with the Jays down to their final six outs. Philadelphia finished on the short end of a 9-8 final score.

While this supposed debate was an entirely one-sided free-for-all based on a profound misreading of two good baseball men, the piling on obscured an important aspect of the Great Game’s unwritten rules. They are, by and large, about respect. Whether it’s a slugger not showboating during his home run trot, or a base runner not stepping on the mound when crossing the infield to return to first after a foul ball (here’s looking at you A-Rod), or a batter not bunting to break up a no-hitter, these “rules” – norms, really – are reminders that while every player on every team wants to win, in the end it’s just a game, and the players on the other side, who are trying equally hard, are opponents, not mortal enemies. Besides, on every day of the season but the last, there is another game tomorrow, when roles might be reversed.

The need for respect both on the field and off was made clear just a couple of days after Tatis’s home run landed among the cardboard cutouts, when Cincinnati Reds play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman, not realizing the broadcast of a game between the Reds and Royals had returned from a commercial break and that his microphone was live, used an anti-gay slur on the air, referring to an unknown location as “one of the ___ capitals of the world.” There’s no FCC ban against uttering the word on the air, but decent people don’t need a written rule to understand it shouldn’t be used in any setting. Brennaman later offered an apology before being pulled from the broadcast, saying in part “that’s not who I am.” Such phrasing is common in these situations, as absurd as that may seem, since it was in the unguarded moment when Brennaman didn’t believe he was performing that he had uttered the slur, making it obvious that he is exactly the kind of person who would do so.

Still it is possible that he believes his statement, thinking that intentionally speaking the term with malice is harmful, while casually dropping it into a sentence is not. In that case Brennaman is not disingenuous, only stupid. But stupid people can learn, and one hopes that Brennaman’s stated desire to do so is sincere. That seems less likely with hockey broadcaster Mike Milbury, who “stepped away” from NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage after making a disparaging comment about women during Thursday night’s broadcast. Milbury is a serial offender in this regard, which is why redemption seems improbable. The only certainty from this week’s events is that in sports, as in life, we sadly aren’t ready to do away with all the unwritten rules.

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