A look at baseball's 'unwritten rule book'

August 19th, 2020

The problem with unwritten rules is they’re unwritten. That leads to misuse, mis-translations and general misunderstanding. And because the game is changing all the time, an unwritten rule followed to the (imaginary) letter by one generation might be brushed aside by the next. As we saw the other day after irked the Rangers with a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch with his team up seven runs, the unwritten rules are a moving target.

Here, though, is an attempt to write down the unwritten rules that, for better or worse, have stood the test of time.

Some of them are silly.

OK, many of them are silly.

But them’s the rules. Kinda.

Don’t steal bases, swing at 3-0 pitches or otherwise run up the score when ahead by a large margin.

The objective here is respecting your opponent.

And yet, there is an inherent disrespect in assuming your opponent cannot overcome a deficit of X runs. But there is no clear definition of what that “X” is or what inning the cutoff point is to stop trying to score. In 2001, Cleveland trailed Seattle by 12 runs during the seventh-inning stretch, by nine runs going into the eighth, and by five runs going into the ninth but wound up winning anyway. The Mariners probably wish they had “run up the score.”

Don’t steal bases or strut after home runs when behind by a large margin.

The converse of the above is that if your team is way behind late and you’re out there trying really hard or looking like you’re enjoying yourself, somebody’s going to be upset with you. Possibly even your own teammates.

Don’t swing at the first pitch after the pitcher has allowed back-to-back home runs.

If that sounds hyper-specific and overly deferential to a struggling pitcher, that’s because it is.

Don’t show up your opponent.

This takes the previous three rules and adds in other perceived demonstrations of disrespect, such as bat flips and slow homer trots and screams of delight after strikeouts. The game has loosened up considerably in this area in recent years, but this “rule” still exists in the hearts and minds of many.

Another term for this is playing the game “the right way.” Again, what that means is very much open to interpretation. But most would agree that running the bases clockwise is not “the right way.”

Don’t show up your fielders.

Errors happen. It is the pitcher’s job to swallow the sins of his so-called supporting cast and focus on making the next pitch, rather than whining or yelling or otherwise gesticulating in ways that express their displeasure with the defense.

Throwing at hitters is the conventional retaliation.

This is how bad blood is exhibited or violations of the unwritten rules are punished -- with premeditated plunks (or, depending on the pitcher’s anger level or aim, tosses behind a batter’s back).

It’s barbaric … but it’s been baked into the game for a long time.

Pitchers relieved mid-inning must stay in the dugout until the end of the inning.

Even though you couldn’t finish what you started, you are expected to watch your replacement finish the job.

Don’t step on the pitcher’s mound.

Pitchers are a persnickety species and they don’t take kindly to opponents messing with their mound by walking across it.

Don’t walk in front of the catcher.

Another matter of etiquette: The imaginary line connecting batterymates must not be broken by an opposing batter. It is customary to walk behind the catcher and umpire from the on-deck circle to the opposite batter’s box.

Don’t talk about a no-hitter in progress.

In the dugout, it is customary for teammates to essentially ignore a starting pitcher who is chasing perfection or a no-no, so as not to mess with his mojo. Some believe this approach should be extended off the field, to include broadcasters who are doing their job by mentioning to the audience what is happening. The power a person unassociated with the actual game has to influence the game result has not (yet) been scientifically proven.

Don’t bunt during a no-hitter.

The rationale here is that, the deeper a pitcher goes with a no-hitter intact, the more the opponent must “earn” that first hit. If a player bunts for a hit in the first inning, nobody bats an eyelash. But if that hitter waits until the ninth inning of a no-hitter to do it, it’s a baseball felony.

Never make the first or third out of the inning at third base.

This is perhaps the chief strategic unwritten rule.

The runner at second is already considered to be in “scoring position.” With no outs, there are still ample opportunities to move him over with productive outs. With two outs, he will be hard-charging on contact, so trying to steal third is considered needlessly risky.

Don’t use your closer in a tie game on the road.

The logic behind this is that you should save your best reliever for a potential save situation. But attitudes toward reliever usage have evolved over the years, and some managers would prefer to use their best reliever in the highest-leverage spot, whenever it arises. Orioles manager Buck Showalter infamously did not use closer Zack Britton in the 2016 American League Wild Card Game on the road in Toronto (and ended up losing in 11 innings), and this unwritten rule has been eroding since.

Don’t yell anything when an opposing fielder is trying to catch a ball.

Alex Rodriguez once famously yelled “I got it!” when a Blue Jays player was trying to catch a ball. Don’t be that guy.

The center fielder gets the ball.

Well, not every ball, of course. But when a fly ball is within range of the center fielder and a corner outfielder, the center fielder gets priority.

Never rub the area where you were hit by a pitch.

It’s a macho thing, OK?

For adult fans: If you catch a foul ball, give it to a nearby kid.

That is, unless you have a kid at home that you would like to give it to. But good luck explaining that to your entire section and everybody watching at home.

The rule for home run balls is less rigid.