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Breaking the “Law”

In baseball there is an entire subculture of unwritten rules that have been passed down through generations of players, and range from the obvious to the respectful in nature.

John Tranchina
April 28, 2018

Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, with major league play having been around for almost 150 years now. And while the main rules of the sport are common knowledge to anyone who follows or plays it, there is also an entire subculture of unwritten rules — a code players follow that is a bit subtler.

Basically, just about all of the unwritten rules that make up the baseball code have to do with respect for your opponent.

When the unwritten rules are violated, the backlash usually comes in the form of the opposing pitcher purposely hitting a batter. One of the most memorable brawls ever was when Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox charged the mound against 46-year-old Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers in 1993. Before Ryan famously grabbed Ventura in a headlock and landed three or four punches to his face, there had been an escalating series of code violations that caused it.

Going against another one of these rules led to the more recent brawl between the Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays.

But the rules have evolved a bit. Back in the old days, a pitcher “plunking” a batter on purpose a lot of times came in the form of a “beaning,” or hitting the guy in the head. That is much less common nowadays because of how dangerous it is.

“I personally think the game has changed dramatically. It’s not nearly as aggressive as it used to be,” says Dennis Higgins, the Tulsa Drillers’ play-by-play radio broadcaster for the past 10 years. “I think it’s a lot more gentlemanly. I’m not sure that’s good for the overall game of baseball.”

Drillers manager Scott Hennessey agrees that the players need to be able to police themselves, but beaning can’t be a part of it.

“There’s no room in the game for throwing at somebody’s head,” says Hennessey, who played two years of minor league ball himself before becoming a baseball scout and then taking over as Drillers manager midway through last season. “Guys are throwing so hard now, you can kill somebody. If you have to hit them, that’s fine if it calls for that, but hit them in the back, hit them in the ribs, hit them in the butt.”

But old school “enforcement codes” are beginning to wear thin with some including Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who went as far as calling parts of the game “tired.”


Don’t crowd the plate
Pitchers want to be able to pitch inside to batters, and if the hitter crowds home plate, or leans too far into it, many pitchers will throw inside in order to back the batters off. That will then allow them more leeway to pitch across the whole plate in an effort to get them out.

This rule is the main genesis of the Ryan-Ventura fight, because Ryan especially liked to establish the inside of the plate as his territory and anyone crowding it would get a fastball inside, as intimidation to back off. It all started with Ryan hitting Chicago’s Craig Grebeck on two different occasions in 1990, supposedly due to him leaning inside. Ryan claimed he didn’t hit Grebeck on purpose, but hit him because Grebeck was leaning so far over the plate on an inside pitch.


If you hit us, we hit you
This rule, which doesn’t take into account pitchers supposedly hitting guys “by accident,” escalated the conflict between the Rangers and White Sox, ultimately leading to the Ryan-Ventura incident. In 1993, two days before the big brawl, Texas pitcher Roger Pavlik hit Chicago’s Ron Karkovice and Chicago responded by hitting three Rangers later in the game.

On the fateful day, Aug. 4, Chicago pitcher Alex Fernandez plunked Texas’ Juan González in the second inning, and then in the third, Ryan hit Ventura in the back, leading to Ventura bolting out to the mound and the benches emptying. The tussle was voted the top baseball brawl of all time by ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2012.

“A lot of it is, you’re sticking up for your teammate,” Higgins says. “‘If you hit our guy, we’re going to come back. Don Drysdale used to have a rule: ‘You hit one of our guys, I hit two of yours.’ That was his adage.”


Don’t pitch inside on the opposing pitcher when they are batting
Since pitchers aren’t typically good hitters, and only bat every four to five days in leagues where they bat at all, the old rule is that you shouldn’t pitch inside to them, or even throw breaking balls.

“I asked Mike Krukow [longtime San Francisco Giants broadcaster and a former pitcher], ‘Do pitchers pitch pitchers differently?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ Although, having said that, even at this level here, last year, I did see some times where pitchers would bear down and throw curve balls to opposing pitchers at the plate,” says Higgins. “And that would be, probably, because some of these guys are good hitters. And the word gets around. They know who can hit and who can’t.”


No talking about a no-hitter in progress
This one stems from the somewhat ridiculous superstition that if someone points it out, especially to the pitcher, it will somehow jinx the no-hitter and the next batter will break it up.

Hennessey recalls one of his first games with the Drillers, when Tulsa’s Tim Shibuya carried a no-hitter into the ninth before surrendering a hit with two outs.

“Yeah, that’s forbidden,” Hennessey confirms. “You don’t even go by a guy. We were in Texas last year and Shibuya had a no-hitter. He would walk in the dugout, and wherever he went, I went the opposite way. You don’t talk to him. You don’t say anything.”


Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter
This is usually not acceptable, particularly because the defense usually won’t be ready for it and some people don’t even consider a base-hit by bunt a legitimate hit.

“That’s a tough one, because depending on the score, if it’s 1-0, you could argue that a bunt is a way to get an inning started, get that runner on board,” Higgins says. “It’s about winning. I would hate to see a guy bunt to break up a no-hitter if there’s a substantial lead. But that’s a tough one. That would probably lead to the next batter getting drilled with a pitch.”


No show-boating after a home run
This is what sparked the big conflict between the Blue Jays and Rangers a couple of years ago. Remember the triumphant bat flip by Toronto’s José Bautista after his big home run in the seventh inning of the decisive Game 5 in the 2015 AL Division Series? Many Rangers considered that disrespectful and the following May, Texas pitcher Matt Bush plunked Bautista for it. 

That prompted Bautista to retaliate by doing another no-no in baseball —  the hard slide into second base, which then led to the fight with Rangers shortstop Rougned Odor and a bench-clearing brawl.

This was also cited as another reason that Ryan first hit Grebeck back in 1990, for celebrating a home run off him a little too enthusiastically.


No stealing bases when your team has a huge lead
This also falls into the “not embarrassing your opponent” category. If your team is ahead by 10 runs in the seventh inning, there’s no need to steal a base. That feels disrespectful.

“You don’t steal bases with a big lead, and I totally agree with that, because there is an unwritten rule and it’s a gentlemanly kind of agreement,” Higgins says. “A lot of times, you’ll see where a third base coach will hold up a runner. Let’s say the Drillers are ahead 10-0 and they got the bases loaded and a guy gets a base hit, the guy from second could score but a lot of times, the third base coach will hold the runner up. I think the players understand that. There’s no need for that guy to score.”


Don’t work the count with a big lead
This is also along the same lines as stealing bases with a big lead, but refers to batters continuing to try to get hits.

Hennessey lumps this and the previous rule together into one.

“You don’t swing at 3-0 pitches when you’re up eight or nine runs,” Hennessey says. “That’s a good way to get thrown at. Just play the game the right way. No one’s ever going to give up an at-bat, it doesn’t matter if it’s 100-0, but if the game’s out of hand, you’re not going to steal or you’re not going to take an extra base, you’re not going to score from first base on a double.

“Have some respect for the other team, because sooner or later, you’re going to be in that same situation.”


The Naughty List

While not spelled out directly in any rule book, other baseball lines that shouldn’t be crossed include:

  • Don’t step on the pitcher’s mound when running on and off the field.
  • Don’t stand and watch a ball fly out of the park.
  • While not as ironclad as it once was, avoid sliding into first base.
  • Avoid contact with the pitcher when he covers home or first.
  • Don’t make the last out at third base.
  • Base runners shouldn’t shout or distract a fielder getting under an infield fly.
  • Don’t help the opposition make a play.
  • Don’t step on a base or foul lines when coming on or off the field. It’s considered bad luck.
  • Don’t swing at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs.
  • If two opposing players end up getting aft it, the benches and bullpens must empty.
  • When at-bat, don’t look at the catcher’s hands to steal a sign.
  • Don’t slide with your spikes up.
  • Pitchers should never show up their fielders.
  • Pitchers pulled from a game stay in the dugout.
  • Don’t walk in front of a catcher or umpire when getting into the batter’s box.
  • Don’t stand on the dirt near home plate while the pitcher is warming up.
  • Don’t rub the mark after being hit by a pitch.