Should Baseball's Unwritten Rules Be Written Out Of The Game?

Saying “that’s just the way it is” has no longer become an acceptable form of explanation in the sports world, particularly in the game of baseball. America’s favorite pastime is ripe with age-old traditions and superstitions as well as a plethora of unwritten rules, because, well, that’s just the way it has always been.

For example, the first rule of a possible no-hitter is you don’t talk about the possible no-hitter.

Players live within the confines of “respecting the game,” which amounts to playing baseball the "right" way. But disrespect is a funny thing, in that it is subjective and often personal. Of course there are universal respectful rules like the mercy rule, not bunting during a no-hitter or even the “Gaylord Perry law,” which prohibits pitchers from griping at their teammates on the field.

But there are also unwritten rules that fans secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy watching their favorite players violate, like pimping a home run or stealing bases when they are leading by a lot.

So how do we decide which unwritten rules can stay while others are retired?

A recent incident at a San Francisco Giants game re-ignited the debate concerning unwritten rules in baseball and how they are making the game more difficult (and dangerous) than it needs to be.

Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland settled a three-year-old score with Bryce Harper, drilling the Nationals right fielder in the thigh with a 98-mile per hour fastball.

Chaos ensued.

The thing is, I don’t fault Harper for charging the mound instead of walking it off down the line and taking his base.

It had to come as a surprise to the five-tool player that Strickland still harbored a grudge after all those years.

But then again, baseball does have an extraordinarily long memory.

Harper probably could have done without the failed helmet toss, but no harm, no foul, right? Major League Baseball didn’t feel that way, suspending Harper for four games and Strickland for six as the 6-foot-4 pitcher was considered the catalyst for the bench-clearing brawl following the “wild pitch.” Both players are appealing their respective suspensions, with Harper's ban already being reduced by a game.

But is baseball better off without this not-so-secret, often hard to understand code of ethics? I think so.

Here’s what we do know. If not for the unwritten retaliation rule:

  • Giants outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse would not be on the seven-day concussion DL after his collision during the fight with teammate Jeff Samardzija.
  • Giants catcher Buster Posey wouldn’t be facing criticism for effectively staying out of the melee, preserving his health and condemning the behavior on the field but raising eyebrows at his possible lack of "team" mentality.
  • The 33-19 Nationals, who sit on top of the NL East by 10 games, keep their most productive hitter (team-leading 15 home runs, 41 RBI and 44 runs scored) for those three games.
  • Washington manager Dusty Baker called Strickland “selfish” because of the act itself but also because “he’ll probably never get to come to the plate where there would be any kind of retaliation.” Being called selfish by Dusty Baker just feels wrong.

Other casualties of unwritten rules include but are not limited to: Zack Greinke’s broken collarbone in 2013, Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney’s first career ejection in 2001, the pride of the late Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer after being pushed by Pedro Martinez in 2003 (Zimmer was 72 years old at the time), the garbage thrown by Mets fans at Pete Rose in 1973, Jason Varitek’s glove in 2004, 13 players and two managers ejected in Atlanta in 1984 and just about anything involving Jose Bautista.

Jason Varitek's glove vs. Alex Rodriguez's face (Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated)

At the end of the day, rules, even unwritten ones, were meant to be broken, and if that means players don’t get to settle scores within the game or certain team’s feelings get hurt by emotional displays or run-up scores, then so be it. If players were free from the customary shackles, then I see only jollification on the game’s horizon. And Bryce Harper could go back to making baseball fun again.

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