Hayes: Baseball’s unwritten rules hold it back


Bob Hayes, Columnist

In the past week, Major League Baseball players, managers and analysts have made a fuss about the sport’s “unwritten rules.” It seems that every year we have a discussion about the merits and purposes of these rules. The fact that these rules are inherently “unwritten,” however, makes it difficult for us to truly discuss them.

Baseball Digest published a list of 30 unwritten rules in 1986, which sounds like a long time ago, but every one of these rules lives on today. Though some of these rules maintain a purpose for the sake of sportsmanship or strategic values, the rigidity of baseball and its etiquette hold the game back.

To provide a more specific context, we will take a look at last week’s three key incidents in which the concept of unwritten rules has come into play. First, the Houston Astros chastised and threw at Oakland A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie after bunting with his team up 7-0. Critics berated Lowrie for attempting to raise his personal statistics when his team was winning by so much, yet many are ignoring the fact that the Astros had a strategic shift to Lowrie. Why criticize Lowrie for making a strategic move when the opposition is doing the exact same thing? Showing a reasonable amount of competitiveness even during a blowout shows respect to opponents.

On Saturday, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams benched young star Bryce Harper for reportedly not hustling out a ground ball. This is totally fair. A fine line runs between a dumb belief and the fact that Harper is paid millions to give his all every day. This is less an unwritten rule than Harper not doing what he should be doing.

Finally, fans at PNC Park on Easter Sunday saw benches clear and punches thrown when Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole hostilely exchanged words with Milwaukee Brewers star Carlos Gomez. The Brewers centerfielder jogged out of the batters’ box as if he had hit a home run — or an out, as Gomez claims he had believed — despite the ball staying in the park. Though Gomez was foolish to not initially run out his hit, the drama repeatedly induced by opposing pitchers is both unproductive and infuriating.

A similar situation happened during last year’s National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers. Controversial rookie star Yasiel Puig smacked a massive triple and, upon reaching third base, fist pumped and gesticulated to the screaming crowd. How dare he display such excitement?

“In hockey, you can pump your fist when you score a goal,” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky said. “In basketball, you can scream after a dunk. In football, you can dance after a touchdown. In baseball, you’re supposed to put your head down and jog. No emotion, no joy, and absolutely no fun allowed.”

Baseball’s stigma over the last few years has been that the sport bores fans. Critics point to the length and deliberate pace of games, but everyone’s beloved football is really no better in that regard. A key problem with baseball is the lack of lovable stars and game-by-game excitement. The sport’s traditionalist attitude stands in the way of expansion toward a wider share of fans, particularly children. Why would kids want to watch a sport in which competition ends if the scoring margin exceeds two runs? More importantly, why would kids want to watch a sport in which passion is frowned upon?

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].