MissChatter: Unwritten Rules

MissChatter: Unwritten Rules
September 29, 2010, 12:39 pm
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010 8:33 am

By Miss Chatter
CSNwashington.com

More ink has been spilled in writing about the Book of Unwritten Rules than in writing the book itself. And half that ink was spilled in the last month in articles criticizing Nyjer Morgan for breaking those rules. After Nyjer Morgan was thrown behind in that fateful Marlins game on September 1st leading up to the "clotheslined" brawl and Morgan's eight game suspension, the Marlins players were quoted as saying Morgan broke "unwritten rules". Hmmm, maybe somebody should write these down, right? Well, it turns out many somebodies have and most have been compiled in a book aptly named The Unwritten Rules of Baseball. So I hit the book to find out what rules the Marlins believed Nyjer broke and learn more about these superstitions, rituals and mysterious guiding laws not found in the official rule book.

"Don't steal a base or bunt when your team has a big lead late in a game."

The Marlins had insinuated his act of stealing second and third while the Nats were down eleven runs had broken an unwritten rule after his punishment hit-by-pitch for barreling over their catcher the previous night. Really? A team that's down can't try to manufacture a run? To many fans, that didn't make sense. The Nats were well behind, not ahead, and it was the 4th inning. Yet according to Baseball Alamanc's website, "6. Never steal when you're two or more runs down." Eh? So which rule is the accepted rule? Or are both true? When I asked Collin Balester to relay some of these unwritten rules, he offered, "Obviously stuff like when you're up by a lot or down by a lot, you're not supposed to steal and do that kind of stuff." Really? Even when you're down by a lot? "Or maybe not down by a lot, but up by a lot definitely. You're up by a lot, you don't want to rub it in."

Not rubbing it in is just one of the many recurring themes in the Unwritten Rules. Rubbing it in equates to disrespecting the game and opposing team, a serious taboo. So does Nyjer Morgan think he broke any unwritten rules? "I got nothing! I plead the fifth. I got enough heat right now. I want to plead my case." Turning to Willie Harris lying on the floor stretching nearby, laughing and watching this interaction closely, Morgan asked, "Should I plead my case?" Then apparently changed his mind and stepped away from the brink of spilling his thoughts, "My wires are tapped. The government's on me. Hell yeah, everybody's on me right now." I disagree. Since he served his suspension and returned to the field, the storm seems to have passed. Yet Morgan still feels he's in "a microwave."

If only analyzing the stolen bases portion of Morgan's 'offenses', and the act that apparently ticked off the Marlins enough to incite the pitch-behind leading up to the brawl, there are two principles in play on the Nats side. The virtual ink spilled above on stealing when up or down and strategy. Players should never make the 1st or 3rd out at 3rd base according to Weaver on Strategy, an accurate strategy based on scoring probabilities intended to avoid eliminating scoring opportunities. The 'rule' came about after years and years of play and seeing what works and what doesn't. A player shouldn't steal 3rd with no outs or two outs and risk making the first or final out at third. Morgan may have made the last out at third in other games this season, however, when he stole 2nd and then 3rd in the top of the 4th inning on September 1st after being hit by a pitch, there was already one out and the Nationals were down 14-3.
"Do not try to pick off a base runner when your team has a big lead."

Plus, the Marlins had been holding him on base, breaking a rule themselves. After I relayed these unwritten (yet written) rules to Morgan, his only response was, "You just answered it right there." He says he's keeping quiet the next couple days (coincidentally, the season ends in the next couple days) and will pipe up next year.

The funny thing about rules is they have to adapt and change over time. Storen, who was voted as the player representative for the team but had nothing to do with Morgan's disciplinary hearing, acknowledged, "Baseball is very self-policing," and believes the Unwritten Rules are there for a reason while admitting, "sometimes they're needed and sometimes they're not. Things change, they evolve." Parts of the game have changed since trading players became so prevalent. Nowadays, players know and are friends with many of their opponents, having been on the same team before. While there are rules forbidding fraternizing with the opponent (never ever enter the opposing team's clubhouse), Storen thinks the friendliness among players actually helps prevent brawls in current-day baseball, or at least limits the damage.

Did you know that throwing punches in a brawl is also against the rules? Baseball wants to present an image of a civilized sport while also preventing players from getting injured in a scuffle.

From the book:

There is a practical purpose to everybody going on the field, which is that it actually reduces the chance of anyone actually getting hurt. Writer Patrick Hruby has called "Basebrawl Etiquette" a code of conduct "as rigidly mannered as one of the dutiful, repressed English butlers in a Merchant-Ivory film." One of the reasons that everyone is so willing to get into the faux battle is that everyone knows that when the dust settles, nothing much will really have happened, and it is rare that anyone will have been hurt. Players who don't join brawl can be fined.

"Batters should never charge the mound for a ball thrown below the neck."

Everyone who witnessed the MarlinsNats brawl knows much did happen, and that particular pitch sailed behind Morgan's backside. Morgan gave Volstad a black eye after launching himself at the pitcher's mound before Gaby Sanchez clotheslined him. The pig pile is supposed to protect players, thus the actions of third base coach Pat Listach. Storen wasn't sure of the brawl protocol, "Honestly, I have no idea - I didn't really know because this was my first one. I just kind of ran out there like, well, hopefully I don't get hit. That's kind of what I was going for. It was a new experience."

"After the last out in an inning that has been made by an outfielder, always toss the ball to the fans, but never ever pretend that you will toss it to a fan and then not do so."

While all of the above is open to loose interpretation, the only rule I found that Morgan definitely broke occurred in Philly during the game where he threw the ball in the stands, inadvertently hitting a fan. He treated the fan to a clubhouse visit and Nats at Phillies game to make amends and MLB eventually rescinded the initial suspension from the incident. However, prior to the ball tossing incident, Morgan faked a throw into the stands. But that was in Philly and after the Phillies clinched against the Nats in seemingly CBP South part 2, I can't get up in arms over it at the moment.

Along the lines of the game and unwritten rules changing over time, in today's big bopper era, Balester agrees, "there's no lead that's really safe anymore. Some of these high powered offensives -- once you start letting your guard down, I think is when it starts coming back to bite you." So it seems the "roll over and play dead when down by a lot" rule should probably go by the wayside.

The evidence is inconclusive based on various interpretations, although it appears there were violations on both sides. Morgan says it's been a learning experience and reading the Unwritten Rules has been for me as well! As someone who didn't grow up in baseball and learn the unwritten rules by rote over a lifetime of playing the game from Little League on up (yes, the rules apply there too), some of this still seems rather fuzzy. MLB's disciplinary arm of the Commissioner's office has to mete out suspensions and punishments based on interpretations of the real letter of the law, so to speak, but I would imagine also takes unwritten rules under serious consideration so the game isn't disrespected. And it looks like no more ink will be spilled on the topic, at least regarding the Nationals, until next season.