OPINION COLUMNS

It ain’t over til it’s over, unless it is

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, May 13, 2017
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Earlier this month, Baltimore Oriole’s player Manny Machado went on an epic rant so filled with expletives that it’s little more than a series of bleeps. He was ranting because Red Sox’s Chris Sale threw behind him.

In a previous game, another Red Sox pitcher, Matt Barnes, had thrown behind his head. Earlier in that game, Eduardo Rodriguez, yet another Red Sox pitcher, had thrown three pitches at his knees, all of which did not hit him.

Joy Carrico

All this because Machado had made a bad slide into the Red Sox second baseman and injured him in the knee, taking him out of that game and landing him on the disabled list. Machado claimed the slide was not dirty, and the injury was an accident. The injured Red Sox player agreed. But a slight was perceived, and it must be answered.

At about the same time all this Red Sox/Orioles drama was unfolding, an Astros pitcher threw behind the Rangers’ Mike Napoli. He started walking toward the mound, obviously angry and the benches cleared. Someone threw a punch, mass chaos ensued, the bullpens came running from their outfield berths.

I got curious. What is going on with this throwing behind the batter thing? Why was it so upsetting?

All answers lie in the unwritten rules of baseball.

Throwing behind the batter seems to be coming up a lot this season. Maybe it was always there, but to me, it seems to be popping up with more frequency.

Throwing behind the batter is part of baseball’s code. It’s a form of retaliation called “purpose pitching.”

Purpose pitching is a ball thrown to send a message. There are several options for a purpose pitch.

The pitcher can throw at the player’s head, called “headhunting,” which is universally frowned upon and a grave violation of the unwritten rule itself. It also violates the written rules of baseball, although there’s no set punishment for it.

The pitcher can hit, or try to hit, the batter with his pitch – anywhere below the shoulders is fair game, but the ribs and back seem to be the favored areas. The pitcher can just miss the batter by whizzing the ball high and inside – “chin music.” This is most often done when a batter is crowding the plate, another of baseball’s rude behaviors.

Finally, there’s the option to throw behind the batter. Throwing behind the head is generally frowned upon, but anything below the shoulders is just baseball.

And yet batters are getting really mad about it. I’ve heard several quotes from batters who said they would rather be hit by a pitch than have a pitch thrown behind them. The pitch thrown at Napoli a few weeks ago went nowhere near hitting him, and yet he stated he would rather have been hit by a pitch.

I don’t really understand why being hit with a 92 mph projectile is preferable to being missed, but it might be that you have to be in it to understand it. To quote Ron Washington, “That’s the way baseball go.”

Baseball is full of unwritten rules around behavior and practices. The unwritten rules mostly center around the idea of respect: respect for team, respect for opponent and respect for the game. What this means varies with the ages and the cultural background of the players, but the general premise is the same.

In terms of respecting your teammates, rule No. 1 is “what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.” You don’t air your grievances with teammates in public, you don’t tell secrets. You keep all within the team. Even if you hate a particular teammate, you don’t show it outside the clubhouse. Not cool. You will be shunned or find yourself on a different team next season.

Pitchers who are pulled from the game are expected to remain in the dugout for at least the rest of that inning, no matter how crappy they may feel. This is a mark of respect for their fellow teammates who are all seeing the game through, win or lose.

Also, pitchers are not supposed to show up their fielders. If a fielder makes an error, it’s seriously bad form for a pitcher to act angry about it. Can you imagine what it would be like if all the fielders acted like their pitcher was an idiot every time someone hit a homerun?

Also in line with teammate respect is the code to protect your teammates. Not only must you protect them, but you must be seen as doing so. This explains why every member of a team runs out onto the field in a brawl, including the bullpen, who usually don’t get there until it’s mostly over. I guess that if a relief pitcher, seeing that a brawl was underway, chose to sit it out, he’d hear about his lack of fidelity later.

But, outside the brawl, the protection role is played primarily by the pitcher, via the purpose pitch.

Respecting the other team is also important, and generally, a breach in this area will be the starting point of the purpose pitch merry-go-round.

There are many ways to disrespect the opposing team. And there are many opportunities for the defense to take offense, whether or not the offense meant to give offense.

The No. 1 offender seems to be the showboating homerun hitter. Staring at your homerun as it flies into the stands a la Barry Bonds, flipping the bat, staring down the pitcher as you run the bases and/or taking a slow run around the bases are all very likely to anger the defense. You and/or your fellow teammates can expect some purpose pitches to come your way until the umpire puts the whole thing to rest by throwing out players or a bench-clearing brawl ensues.

You might also notice a very big increase in the hardness of future tags. Players can position that ball in their glove so that you feel it when they tag/pound you with it.

Other acts of disrespect include stealing bases when your team is way ahead, especially late in the game, stepping into the batter’s box while the pitcher is warming up, walking across the pitcher’s mound and walking in between the catcher and pitcher on the way to the batter’s box. This is rudeness and disrespect of the highest order!

It’s also bad form to bunt during a no-hitter and to swing at a first pitch after back-to-back homeruns.

Respecting the game is a more ambiguous category. Lots of what has already been discussed could also fall into this category, but there are many unwritten rules around the sanctity of baseball. For example, you are expected to obey the umpire’s code of conduct It’s OK to tell him that a call was bad, but it’s not OK to tell him he’s a bad umpire.

Relievers are expected to take it easy on other relievers at bat.

Also, rules around not prolonging a blowout fall into this category. If your team is ahead by many runs, you don’t run up the score. If you’re losing by many runs, you don’t steal bases, and you don’t run the count on the pitcher. Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” but apparently that’s only true when its a close game.

In a blowout, it’s over before it’s over. We apparently want this unequally matched game to end in dignity, and using these tactics that are otherwise perfectly acceptable, are “just bush league” (a grave baseball insult).

With more and more players from different cultures entering the major leagues, the unwritten rules are changing. Latino players in particular have a reputation for being much more emotional about the game, and they’re bringing that emotionality with them. As a result, it’s now far more acceptable to celebrate homeruns and other exciting plays.

The stoicism of baseball may be fading as these players continue to bring their cultural trends with them, but recent events show that teams are still very much operating under their own “street rules” of baseball.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. She would prefer a baseball miss her rather than hit her.

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