Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 21, 2021

The Annual Descent Into Unwritten Madness

For all the talk about the new rules implemented by Major League Baseball the last two seasons, from seven inning games for doubleheaders to the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, it’s apparent there is a big one that we could all really do without.  That’s the requirement – and it must be mandated, because why else would sane people do this – that a portion of each season’s calendar be set aside for passionate argument among fans, players, and sportswriters, about the Great Game’s unwritten rules.  Although the dates are not listed on any franchise’s schedule, they arrived this week as regular as clockwork.

Last year, even as the normal ebb and flow of the longest season was reduced to a sixty-game dash to the playoffs, this rule was still enforced, thanks to Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres deciding to swing at a pitch that floated over the heart of the plate.  The immediate result was a grand slam home run that landed amid the cardboard cutouts occupying the seats beyond the right field fence in Globe Life Park.  But since Tatis took his cut at an offering from Texas Rangers’ pitcher Juan Nicasio when the game was in the 8th inning, the Padres were leading 10-3, and the count was 3-0, the greater impact was day after day of widespread and often angry debate about whether the homer symbolized a passionate commitment to winning or a debased lack of respect for the sport.

Flip the calendar forward just nine months, and here we go again.  Monday night it was Yermin Mercedes of the White Sox who came to bat in the final frame of a game Chicago appeared to have well in hand, leading Minnesota 15-4.  Mercedes, who in his first full big league season at the relatively advanced age of 28 currently leads the majors with a .358 batting average, looked at three straight balls.  But the fourth pitch, a 47-mile-per-hour toss from Willians Astudillo, a first baseman called upon for mop-up duty on the mound, floated over the heart of the plate.  If that description sounds familiar, so was the result, as Mercedes crushed the pitch over the fence at Target Field for a home run. 

For the most part, reaction to the Mercedes blast fell along the same predictable lines as fans saw last season after Tatis’s long ball.  But there were a couple of important differences.  The first had to do with the circumstances.  When Tatis came to the plate, though the game was in its final innings and the score was one-sided, he was facing a major league pitcher.  But when Mercedes stepped into the right-handed batter’s box, he was looking at a corner infielder standing sixty feet six inches away on the mound.  While it is no longer unusual for teams on the wrong end of a big margin to conserve bullpen arms by sending a position player to the hill in the last inning or two, doing so does not exactly cry “respect for the game.”  It was a distinction significant enough to cause several commentators normally in the traditionalist camp to cut Mercedes some slack.  Among them was Harold Reynolds, the two-time All Star and three-time Gold Glove winning second baseman turned MLB TV analyst, who admitted his initial reaction was to condemn the White Sox rookie until he learned the Twins had asked a first baseman to pitch, which Reynolds felt opened the door to any possible result.

Of course, that reaction just highlights the fundamental difficulty with the very idea of unwritten rules.  No matter the sport, the broad intent of respect for the game and one’s opponent is worthy, but exactly how many unwritten rules are there, and what exactly do they say?  For both Tatis and Mercedes, the purported sin was swinging at a 3-0 pitch when their team was way ahead, and the game was nearing its end.  But in truth, the real problem was not that they swung, but that they connected.  If Tatis had missed entirely before eventually grounding into an inning-ending double play, and Mercedes had hit a weak popup to an infielder for Chicago’s final out, they might both have been sought out by their respective manager for a reminder about following the third base coach’s “take” sign, but there would have been no larger story.

Then again, perhaps that would not have been true this week, for the other massive difference from last August is that White Sox manager Tony La Russa made himself the center of attention.  After Tatis’s home run, Padres manager Jayce Tingler talked about the importance of batters following the signs during every at-bat but kept any further discussion with his young star private.  In contrast, La Russa, who was called out of retirement this season by his friend, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, condemned Mercedes at length in his postgame press conference Monday night, publicly calling his own player “clueless.”  Then, when the Twins chose to throw behind Mercedes in his first at-bat in Tuesday’s game, a bit of retribution that earned Minnesota pitcher Tyler Duffy and manager Rocco Baldelli suspensions, La Russa said he was perfectly fine with the Twins payback, as long as the headhunting wasn’t literally aimed at Mercedes’s head. 

One day after the Mets’ Kevin Pillar took a 97-mile-per-hour fastball to the face, this bit of old-school wisdom on unwritten rules came from a manager who earlier this month had to have MLB’s procedures for extra innings explained to him by reporters, and who tried to get out of a DUI last February by telling the arresting officer he was “a Hall of Famer.”  Safe to say that on or off the field, written rules are not Tony La Russa’s strong suit.  But he has the unwritten ones down pat.  Except for the one about managers standing up for their players.

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