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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Love It Or Hate It...Baseball’s "Unspoken Code"


By Sarah Spain
Love of Sports Correspondent

None of my uncles or grandfathers or cousins ever played in the big leagues.

My parents aren't big baseball fans, so I didn't spend the summers of my childhood at the ballpark hearing stories about the history of the game.

I've seen movies and read books about past generations, but the baseball I know has been played in the last 15 or so years. Maybe that's why I have trouble understanding a few of the "unspoken rules" of "old school" baseball.

MLB analysts, players and managers all evaluate the game according to a sort of unwritten code of conduct. History and tradition have established a system of on-the-field justice. Players must know the rules of that system as well as they know the rules of the game itself.

However, in today's baseball landscape, the code can sometimes seem as outdated as scheduled doubleheaders.

Let's start with the basics. If an opposing pitcher pegs a player on your team, it's OK — even necessary — for your pitcher to retaliate. It's part of the code. Keep in mind, though, that a ball inside that skims an elbow is acceptable, but a rising fastball that races towards a batter's head is not.

And let's say you get plunked by a pitcher unnecessarily. You can charge the mound and punch the guy right in the face, but using your batter's helmet or your bat as a weapon is, as Richie Sexson put it, "chickensh*t."

If you do happen to start a fight, everyone — except perhaps the pimply 12-year-old bat boy — MUST leave your dugout to fight. It wouldn't be a "bench-clearing brawl" if the benches didn't, in fact, clear.

All right, so far so good. The intricacies of it all are a little confusing, but protecting your teammates while avoiding the use of potentially deadly weapons all sounds OK to me.

Here's where the code gets a little trickier. Let's say your team is losing 1-0 in the sixth and the opposing pitcher is throwing a perfect game. You're not allowed to bunt your way on and spoil the no-hitter. Even though the point of the game, and your job, is to win, you've gotta "earn your way" aboard with a hit, not a measly bunt single. The individual achievement of your opponent is deemed more important than the success of your team.

How about if your squad is ahead a couple runs and the two guys batting before you both hit jacks? You come out and on the first pitch you're swinging for the fences. It's perfectly acceptable for the pitcher to drill you in the upper thigh. You've done nothing wrong, but baseball's code says that pitcher is allowed to do anything to keep from giving up back-to-back-to-back homers.

If your team has a comfortable lead, you're not supposed to try to go yard on a 3-0 pitch even though the guy throwing at you is the one who got himself in trouble. Similarly, the code says you shouldn't steal a base if your team is up four or five runs. Truth is, a manager can't exactly reign in his horses with a five-run lead when today's offensive juggernauts can easily make up the difference in just one inning.

And the code continues with increasing obscurity. Sometimes it's OK to take a guy's legs out at second to stop a double play or barrel over a catcher on a play at the plate.

Sometimes, however, doing either of these things too hard or when you're up by too many runs means you've disrespected the code. Some of the most confounding and confusing aspects of baseball's self-policing system are the rules governing player celebrations.

Monday night, the Mets' Nelson Figueroa gave up six runs in five innings to the Nationals, the cellar dwellers of the NL East. After the game, Figueroa thought the Nats were too excited about the success they found at his expense.

"[The Nats] were cheerleading in the dugout like a bunch of softball girls … I take huge offense to that. If that's what a last-place team needs to do to fire themselves up, so be it. I think you need to show a little bit more class, a little bit more professionalism."

Earlier that day, Hall of Famer Goose Gossage publicly derided the fired-up antics of Yankees' pitcher Joba Chamberlain.

"There's no place for it in the game," Gossage said. "I will stand by that, and I love Joba Chamberlain … He's a great kid … but there's no one to pass the torch anymore, no one to teach the young kids how to act."

While I understand the difference between showboating and celebrating, I don't think everyone on the diamond always does. Figueroa just sounds like a sore loser. A struggling team like the Nats should be allowed to get excited about a win. They don't get many. Imagine if Kevin Garnett complained about a player from the Milwaukee Bucks celebrating a sick dunk?

Yes, Chamberlain sometimes gets a little too excited. At the same time, is it really fair to expect a young guy facing a 3-2 count with the bases loaded and two outs to calmly walk off the field after a strikeout saves his butt? The passion and intensity that build in the moments before a play must be released along with the pitch, whether it's in the form of a glove thrown into the dirt or a fist pumped in the air.

Some say the code is supposed to protect players from being embarrassed out on the field. I say these millionaire professional athletes could use a little showing-up every once in a while.

I love Chad Johnson's end zone dances. I got fired up when I saw Michael Jordan wagging his finger in Dikembe Mutombo's face after a nasty jam. I don't even mind "Manny being Manny" after a homer.

Celebration is part of sport. The same baseball code that promotes throwing a 95 mile-an-hour fastball directly at a guy can't claim to be protecting players when it condemns rounding the bases slowly and triumphantly.

Reconciling good sportsmanship with competitiveness is tough in any sport. In baseball, it seems downright impossible. The unwritten rules of the sport are as well known as the rules printed in black and white, but not as easily supported or explained.

In today's era of multi-million dollar contracts, is it fair to expect players to sacrifice success for the code? Does the "game within a game" truly protect baseball's integrity or is it an outdated concept that holds the game back?

Do you Love or Hate attempts to maintain "the code"?


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