Facing Baseball’s Unwritten Rules

After a play turned into a punch, it’s time for the game to think seriously about the best way to police itself.

The Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre holds onto Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista during a fight in the eighth inning of a baseball game in Arlington, Texas. (LM Otero / AP)

It was the punch that reverberated throughout the baseball world, adding another chapter to the game’s book of untranslatable and ever-evolving unwritten rules. On Sunday afternoon, playing at home, the Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor took exception to a late and hard slide by the Toronto Blue Jays’ power hitter Jose Bautista. Odor was trying to turn a double play when Bautista slid hard into the base (and in turn, through Odor).

In their ensuing exchange, and before Bautista could exhale from puffing out his chest in a dare, Odor punched him in the jaw, inciting a melee that carried on for the next 10 minutes.

It’s important to note that, in baseball, these moments don’t happen in a vacuum, or out of some collective penchant for violence. This was the result of a brew of resentment that had been simmering since Bautista tossed his bat away after hitting a series-changing home run against those same Texas Rangers during last year’s playoffs. In that October game, Bautista hit the ball, scoffed, stared, then discarded the bat as carelessly as if he was throwing something in the trash. This was illegal, according to the Rangers’ interpretation of the unwritten rules. Bat flips show the pitcher up, even though players are typically granted more latitude in the post-season because the stakes are that much higher.

Responding to a violation isn’t time-sensitive in most cases. There’s no statute of limitations in baseball. No case is closed until it is resolved, and more specifically, until it’s evened out. There’s a finely tuned sense of balance—of justice—that organizes the great book of unwritten rules. If you give your youngest daughter a lollipop, you’d better be prepared to give the eldest one too, or some equivalent. And you’d better keep your word, since equity among children (as among baseball players) holds almost divine significance.

The Rangers waited patiently for their response to Bautista’s irreverence—almost too long, since the scrum happened in the final game in which these two teams met in the regular season. On Sunday afternoon, their pitcher hit Bautista with a pitch, causing Bautista to do his express (no stops) run into second base, and Odor. The Blue Jays say the Rangers took too long to retaliate, citing another unwritten rule that trumps the time-sensitivity clause. The Rangers have invoked their right not to self-incriminate, calling on yet another unwritten rule: Public denial need not match whatever is acknowledged in the privacy of a team-only locker room.

If you’re confused, you should be.

Thankfully, the league clarified things, suspending and/or fining the 14 players and staff members involved in the brawl. The greatest punishment was given to Odor, who was banned for eight games.

Nevertheless, baseball is facing an opportunity that, as a former player and current analyst of the game, I hope it will use to truly assess its ongoing underground tradition of retribution and redemption. The current regime running the shop has been aggressive in forging a modern game. The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, has done everything in his power to make baseball a non-contact sport—to make it gentlemanly and not petty; to make it rise above an eye for an eye, for the benefit of players and fans alike.

This has been primarily a legislative effort. MLB outlawed running over a catcher at home plate after one star catcher, Buster Posey, broke his leg (and much more) on a play at home. Then it instituted the slide rule, after a player, Ruben Tejada, broke his leg being “taken out” at second base by the Dodgers second baseman, Chase Utley, a fellow middle infielder, during the playoffs last year. Both changes were screeching reversals of time-honored traditions.

Yet with these rules changes, the elephant in the room was that they didn’t account for the creative license teams and players have always taken to apply justice on the field in real time. It takes less contact now with the new rules to invoke wrath in response to a perceived slight. It’s much easier to be offended, especially in this case, where the Rangers were looking to even the score and the Jays were looking for it to happen.

Bautista’s slide, outside of any other factors, was late and aggressive, and (maybe most importantly) expected, after he seethed from being hit by the pitch. His slide was directly over the base, a choice he claimed to have consciously made to send a message, as opposed to hurting Odor (and I agree that he could have really hurt him if he wanted to do so). It’s important to keep in mind that on a normal baseball day without such bitter history, the slide would have raised eyebrows, but not sparked a furious reaction. Since Bautista barely clipped Odor, it probably would have been overlooked altogether. But with a new rule mandating that a runner must get down early on his slide while avoiding all targeted contact, defenders now expect to avoid contact altogether. The two rules changes make players see any contact whatsoever as a threat.

There’s a thin line between creating more safety in the game and forcing unreasonable expectations of contact-free play. This uncertainty, combined with an existing history of citable offenses, meant that contact led to retaliation—swift, and in this case, physical.

In time, maybe the rules changes will follow the trajectory of the instant replay. The replay system has led to players virtually ignoring umpires when it comes to questionable calls in the field. Instead, they point to the dugout, asking the replay team to see if the call was right. The players let the rules play out, often without argument.

The effort to continue moving forward in regards to safety is positive, even if the struggle to impose peace among hyper-competitive athletes is perhaps quixotic. But if MLB wants a true culture shift, someone has to brave the book of unwritten rules, not just write new ones for public consumption that are ultimately superseded by a code. Otherwise, players will simply revert to their comfortable biases and habits of reading between the lines.

Complicating matters are the many factors in play. Baseball has uniforms and fans, home teams, deeply rooted loyalties, committed historians, and Twitter accounts. We can’t expect the Blue Jays or the Rangers to be objective when it comes to evaluating the big picture here, at least in the short-term. The players are too invested in their teams, and in having the back of their teammates, to see things the same way. In baseball, you support your teammate, regardless of how poor their choices might be. If Odor were a Blue Jay and Bautista a Ranger, it’s easy to imagine that their team’s opinions would be completely flipped with regards to how the unwritten rules should be applied to the situation.

The league can live with the invisible ink in the rulebook as along as retaliation isn’t violent. Punching a fellow ballplayer for fairness turns gifted athletes into  unskilled boxers. You can chalk it up to self-defense or simple fire, but you also have to remember that baseball fights have historically been a chest-beating tango. No one wants to jeopardize their livelihood by breaking their hands on someone else’s skull. No one wants to risk the tool of their trade—their body—to enforce a rule that no one else can read, and therefore judge.

But with the Odor punch front and center, we can see that if players decide to police themselves and punch each other in the heat of an in-progress play, things can go badly. Once you land a punch, the teammates of the player who got punched are now non-negotiably chasing you down with their fists out. There isn’t a lot of room for gentlemanly solutions.

The limited-government crowd, arguing in favor of self-policing, say that players know the limits, and how to regulate punishment. Bautista said that he wanted to send a message of dissatisfaction within the confines of the game, and he mistakenly expected Odor to respond in kind. A little push, a little jawing, a pitch close to hitting someone. Instead, Bautista had a bad scouting report, and Odor punched first and talked later. To Bautista, it all comes down to Odor’s lack of understanding how to read invisible ink.

The pro-rules crowd will want the league to definitively quash this uprising, this affront to the lines of retribution and retaliation. Kids are watching, and with punches landing, people can get seriously hurt. This isn’t the movies, after all, and one punch can lead to many when it comes to a mob of two teams.

But regardless of what might be required in this moment, if we truly want to change the culture of baseball as it pertains to these issues, a heart-to-heart across generations of players is warranted to unravel the art of fairness and how to right a wrong. Baseball needs to tackle the unwritten rule book if it wants to manage the art of restorative justice. Contracting out to do so runs counter to how I learned to play the game in the mid ’90s to ’00s, but then again, no one ever punched me in the face.