Unwritten Rules Have Tainted More Games Than Cheating

What Are Rules?

What the heck ARE rules? Either written or unwritten? Last week I wrote the league and the umpires can override the rules to maintain the integrity of the game. But I stopped short of talking rules specifically. 

You need to understand that a sport is before one can understand the rules and, spoiler alert, unwritten rules have no place in sports.


What is Sport?


Bernard Suits’ “The Nature of Sport” essay sets out to define sport and by doing that, defines rules. In summary, Suits uses four elements to define sport:

  • It is a game of skill. For example, Jacks is still in the running, but dice games are not.
  • It is a game of physical skill, incorporating skillful strategic control on one’s body. Jacks is still in the running, but board games are out. 
  • A sport has to have a wide following.
  • A sport must have some institutional stability. There has to be something built up around a sport to regulate it and have it be a stable social practice. Sadly, Jacks is out. 


What is a Game?


Sports are very unique games. So, what are the games? In brief, a game is a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. Apparently Suits was a fan of four since that brief definition covers four elements:

  • A state of affairs one wishes to achieve. Crossing a finish line, going around the bases more times than your opponent, etc.
  • Things that are allowed and things that are not allowed in pursuit of what one wishes to achieve. These restrictions are a necessary condition for winning the game. You can’t win a 100-yard dash because you choose to ride a bike. Running sports have a restriction, you have to run. 
  • There need to be constructive rules that define conditions that must be fulfilled to be playing the game. Constructive rules need to make achieving the goal of the game harder by prohibiting things that make it easy. You can’t trip a player in a running event. One can’t tackle a runner on the bases. Unnecessary obstacles. 
  • Last, participants in games need to voluntarily accept and follow constructive rules. We choose to follow the rules, much like Kennedy said in his Go To The Moon speech, because they are hard. 

I like the definition of sport because it leaves ethics out of the definition. It saves some work when applying ethics to sports. 

So, before we tell folks to swing away at 3-0 fastballs with the bases loaded, regardless of the count, review the incidents from last week’s article.


George Brett’s home was reinstated because, in the view of the AL commissioner, the pine tar rule was not an unnecessary obstacle to overcome. The pine tar did not make Brett’s bat something against the goals of the game. 

When Wes Curry made up a rule, on the spot, he was specifically following the definition of the sport. By definition, baseball is not a tackling sport but lacked a constructive rule prohibiting the activity. So, he created one, using what is now Rule 9.01(c).

Using Dworkin and Suits MLB has some very critical tools to evaluate the rules and make changes to the game. Certainly, some rules can be changed, eliminated, and added. Sign stealing, despite a long history in baseball, is a violation of the spirit of the game. 


Unwritten Rules Are Anti-Sport


Now, what about unwritten rules? Do they follow along with the constructive rules of baseball? Do they contribute towards the goals of the game, but provide unnecessary impedance and everybody has voluntarily agreed to follow?

When Fernando Tatis Jr. was verbally spanked for having the audacity to, you know, play baseball, we got to hear about an unwritten rule. That rule is, I will paraphrase here, “When your team is winning, you should not play the game as hard so as not to make the losing team feel bad. You are allowed to try again if the losing team tightens the score enough or takes the lead.” 

This is not a rule that has anything to do in sports. Here the unwritten rules objectively tell the winning team to help remove restrictions on the losing team. Part of any game is overcoming physical and strategic obstacles. Requiring teams to ease those restrictions removes a fundamental element that makes the game a sport. No rule, written or unwritten should have this goal, taking the sport out of the game. 

Look at other unwritten rules. No bunting for the first hit of a no-hitter. Let’s look at one of the statements: 

Terrance Gore (Royals outfielder): “It was 3-0. Let the guy have his no-hitter.”

Let the guy have his no-hitter?

I wonder how many no-hitters are tainted because once again, players are expected to take the sport out of the game and ease the restrictions to achieving the goal. Note the diversity of the answers to the question. There is not a uniform voluntary acceptance of the rule. Since it appears that some people wish to attempt to win the game.

Lastly, let’s examine the practice of throw a baseball around 90 MPH at somebody to transgressions ranging from trying to place baseball (After Tatis’ grand slam, Manny Machado was thrown at) to celebrating too much after a home run or just watching the home run too long. Heck, a teammate of a pitcher might be hit because the pitcher, intentionally or not, hit a batter, creating a never-ending cycle of beanballs. 

The most infamous example of this was on August 4th, 1993. But the history from that event started in spring training 1990. Craig Grebeck of the White Sox hit a home run and later hit one off Ryan during the 1990 regular season. Grebeck was pronounced guilty of admiring the home run a bit too much by Ryan. 

The teams traded beanballs for three years. During the game in 1993, with the White Sox up 1-0, Alex Fernandez hit Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers. The next inning, Robin Ventura was due up, and since he had hit an RBI single in his previous at-bat, he told his teammate that he was going to charge the mound when he got plunked. Ventura also knew there was no way he was going to win even if he wanted to. You just don’t kick 46-year-old Nolan Ryan’s butt even if you are a 26-year-old All-Star. 

While it can be fun to watch the brawl, the unwritten rules involved did nothing to add the integrity or spirit of the game. The purpose of those unwritten rules and to keep a hierarchy in place. 

Fun note on the game. The US Junior Olympic Baseball team was there. Robin Ventura gave a small pep talk to the team, which included a young Paul Konerko, about? Sportsmanship. 

There are specific formal rules in baseball prohibiting hitting a batter. Retaliation and beanballs are not part of what defines the sport of baseball. Unwritten rules are an attempt to place a hierarchy in the game that is not based on performance, skill, and achievement. In the words of somebody at the pub, about Tatis, “those rules are in place to keep people like him from getting uppity”. Unwritten rules are anti-ethical, remove the sport from the game, and have probably tainted more games that cheating ever will.

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

3 responses to “Unwritten Rules Have Tainted More Games Than Cheating”

  1. Dave says:

    My daughter’s soccer coach had an unwritten rule of not permitting his players to score when the team had a 5-goal lead (just play keep away and practice passing skills). While I understand he didn’t want to humiliate the opponent, I would have much preferred he just flip the defenders and forwards. This would have developed the girls more and provide the team more depth in case of injuries or other obligations. Since my daughter played center defender for the team, it would have been great to see her play forward once in a while like she did when she was younger. The coach did flip them once and my daughter scored a goal shortly thereafter (yes, I’m bragging). He flipped them back and never did it again.

  2. Rocket says:

    Unfortunately, I think you convinced me more of the opposite is true of your premise. “Unwritten rules are anti-ethical, remove the sport from the game, and have probably tainted more games that cheating ever will.”

    Unwritten rules exist in sports for a variety of reasons to include etiquette, safety, and sportsmanship to name only a few. Your article covers sports in general so I will give you a few easy scenarios to contemplate that you might agree with before I get into baseball which is much more nuanced than most sports. Have you ever been on a golf course on a Saturday afternoon? The entire course can become log jammed by one slow foursome. Many times there is no Marshal around to ensure pace of play. The only way things work and you avoid a six hour round is if golfers understand the unwritten rule of letting faster players through. Even on the PGA tour golfers determine their own pace of play unless they are put on the clock. Another golf unwritten rule, do not hit into the group in front of you and make sure they have cleared the green or fairway before playing your shot. If you have ever taken a golf ball in flight off the side of your head you would wish all golfers knew this unwritten rule. It hurts. The reason many of the rules are not written down is because they are simply common sense.

    Now to baseball. The “game within the game” is one of the beautiful aspects of baseball. If I am a runner on second base in a close game in the late innings. I want to put as much stress as I can on the pitcher to get him out of his groove and make a mistake. There are no written rules about trying to steal the sign from the catcher, it is expected. It is an unwritten rule that the catcher needs to use an indicator and multiple signs in this scenario. Should we have a written rule about this? I know, what about the Fernando Tatis Jr. 3-0 grand slam? I watched this live and had zero problem with him swinging away. Texas was still trying to win the game. They had not thrown up the white flag or brought a positional player into pitch or made wholesale lineup changes. MLB teams can score 7 or 8 runs in an inning. No problem from me trying to go yard. But, at the time what I did not know was Tatis was given the take sign and either disregarded the sign or missed it. This is probably why Eric Hosmer was not to pleased with his teammate when he returned to the dugout. His skipper was not to pleased afterward either. Unwritten rule #1 for any player, do not p-off your skipper. What were they upset about? Probably much of it was the issue with why the sign was missed or disregarded. The take sign is not one that is easily missed. In a team game everyone needs to be on the same page. The manger gets to make the game plan and players follow it. Otherwise, we get 28 game plans and teams can not function this way.

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