by Tim Muma
Every year, a handful of situations surface during the baseball season that brings into question the beliefs behind baseball's unwritten rules and their applications.
In my previous post, I touch on stealing bases with a 5-0 lead in the 8th inning as the Brewers' Carlos Gomez did on Saturday night.
Another interesting scenario played out on Monday evening in Boston. Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld needed only a single to hit for the cycle. Fuld lined a ball to left in the 9th, but instead of pulling up at first to complete the cycle, he raced into 2nd for a stand-up double. Players and coaches were yelling for him to stop, and a few players admitted they would have "settled" for the single.
In truth, what Fuld did showed true integrity and obedience to any unwritten rule out there. Stopping at 1st would have been intentionally changing his actions because the Rays were leading 14-4 in the 9th. Had the Rays been trailing by a run in the same situation, how would have his manager and teammates felt if he held himself to a single instead of taking 2nd?
Anyone who says Fuld should have taken the single (or done it themselves) would be breaking the only true unwritten rule of baseball: Play hard all the time, doing what it takes (legally) to help your team win, ignoring individual accolades. Always play the same.
With that in mind, let's examine some of baseball's unwritten rules I have a problem with. Again, I tend to play and coach with an old-school mentality, but to me that means helping your team win comes first.
1) Never bunt for a hit when an opposing pitcher has a no-hitter in the late innings.
--This is utter ridiculousness in many respects. For one, if my team is trailing by 1 or a few runs, I will do whatever it takes to help my team win. This may mean I bunt for a hit in the 8th inning to bring the tying run to the plate or start a rally down by 4. Trying to win trumps individual success.
--A batter's job is to reach base by hit, walk, error - any way possible. The pitcher's job is to retire the batter. If I feel I cannot get a hit off of you tonight by swinging the lumber, I may lay one down to reach base. What if I bunted for a hit in the 1st inning, then the pitcher retired the next 27 in a row? Did I do something wrong? Of course not - and I wouldn't be in the wrong in the 9th inning either.
2) A winning team should "let up" a bit when ahead by a lot of runs late in the game.
--This one is full of issues. For one, is there a formula which indicates how many runs is enough and in which inning this occurs? Is a 6-run lead in the 8th inning enough? A 5-run lead in the 9th? There is no answer to these, and in most cases, today's game has proven that only a 10-run lead in the 9th may be the point you start "playing soft."
--Most people will tell you that "playing soft" means you aren't taking extra bases, stealing or bunting. However, if my best base stealer is on base, he should be allowed to use his talents. Just like if my team is losing, I'm not going to tell your power hitters they should bunt because they might hit a home run. Play the game you normally play the game.
--Sure, a 5-run lead in the 9th seems rather safe, but it's not a lockdown situation. I'm not going to use my closer, but I might feel the need to use my best setup man to make sure we hang on to the lead. But he's been taxed the last few days, so I'd rather not use him. Perhaps, if I score one more run, I will feel comfortable enough to put in my least-used reliever and save my best arms for a tighter game. There are simply too many considerations for one's team success (present and future) to worry about hurting the other team's feelings.
--What happens if my team stops going all out and your team comes back to win? Are you going to forfeit the game because we weren't trying in the last two innings? Of course you are not, so unless this game is officially over, I may have to bunt runners to 2nd and 3rd with my pitcher batting.
--In many cases, "letting up" looks more like taunting or showing up the other team. If I'm losing by 10 runs late and your 3-hitter drills a ball to the wall in left-center, it's a huge slap in the face if he stops at 1st base. Coast into 2nd base like you normally would, you deserved it. Don't have pity on my team because we can't get you out. Again, play the game the "right way." That doesn't mean you should be foolishly running around the bases with wreckless abandon to try to complete the cycle, knowing that if you get thrown out it won't matter because of your huge lead.
3) In a lopsided game, don't take too many pitches and don't swing at a 3-0 pitch.
--Hitting a baseball (especially at the highest level) is an incredibly difficult thing to do on a consistent basis over the course of 6 months. A hitter should always stay within himself and treat each at-bat as a way to improve or stay on track. Conversely, if a hitter is struggling, it's his right to hack at a 3-0 fastball up by 9 - it just may break him out of his 1-for-28 slump and jump start a hot summer.
--At the same time, a hitter shouldn't be expected to start flailing away at pitches he wouldn't normally be swinging at. Again, this could create problems in mechanics or his mental approach, causing problems down the road. Whenever a hitter is in the box, it is his job to get on base in any way possible, regardless of the score. I agree the middle of order hitters shouldn't necessarily bunt for a hit with a huge lead, but they shouldn't change their approach at the dish either. Maybe the pitcher should - you know - pitch better.
Here are a two unwritten rules (sort of) that I tend to agree with.
1) Celebrating a home run or strikeout is fine - if it is important - but don't gesture, taunt or carry on.
--A fist pump; hands raised in the air; a tribal scream; briefly admiring a home run. All of these things are examples of what a pitcher or hitter should be allowed to do when coming up big in an important situation. So long as the player is excited for his own/team's success and not motioning or talking toward the opponent, there should be no issue.
--Problems are sparked in a handful of ways. Pitchers are gyrating on the mound after a 3rd-inning strikeout with no one on base. A hitter, upon hitting one out, takes the slowest jog around the bases and stares at the pitcher, perhaps even uttering some words. A pitcher gestures for a batter to sit down or yells something toward him. These types of things shouldn't be tolerated and instead should be dealt with by the players/manager, either immediately or with a "close shave" to an appropriate hitter.
2) Stealing signs is a part of the game, provided you are not using people in the stands or equipment of any kind.
--Teams do not have to flash signs from the dugout, behind the plate or in the third base coaching box. Because this is a form of communication, the opposition should have every right to try to crack the code. If your signs are being stolen, you have only yourself to blame. Teams I have coached and played on have always taken pride in trying to decipher what the other team will do. Again, you don't like it? Then don't give signs to your players.
--The only time I see it as tacky to try and steal signs is when a hitter, standing in the box, tries to peek back at the catcher flashing signals - that guy deserves some chin music. The base runners, however, are facing the catcher and should be encouraged to get a glimpse - obviously the reason catchers give multiple signs with a runner on 2nd. Using video equipment or "spies" in the stands is crossing the line. In fact, MLB has rules against such tactics.
Because it is best to keeps these articles to smaller chunks, I'll stop with just these few. Please, add your own to our comments section and spark a little debate...even if you don't agree with me.
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