Whose Rules Are They Anyway?

It's not Tatis Jr.'s grand slam that deserves criticism.

I have no right to claim I know what the unwritten rules of baseball are.

As a kid, I played exclusively in a small house league in Rockwall, Texas that seemed set just to give a local travel team a few home games every year. I wasn’t particularly good — I spent most of my time watching the game from right field — but if there’s one thing I do remember, it’s watching a kid on that travel team look humiliated as his dad made him quit.

My team was losing badly, and the opposing coach was giving the bunt sign to his players so that they could practice it against live pitching. But that dad wasn’t having it. After screaming curse words at the coach and his son for a couple of minutes, he walked into the dugout from the stands and pulled his kid off the team without letting him finish the at-bat.

We didn’t feel disrespected by them bunting. We didn’t feel disrespected when opposing batters swung at 3-0 pitches while we were losing by ten runs in the top of the 4th inning. But that dad felt disrespected because he thought his kid was too good to bunt. And so we all got to watch him throw an adult temper tantrum all because he felt slighted from the stands.

And so, when I saw Padres’ Manager Jayce Tingler, Rangers’ manager Chris Woodward, Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer, and prominent members of the baseball press complaining about Fernando Tatis Jr. breaking unwritten rules after hitting a grand slam, the only one that came to mind was the most important rule of youth baseball: look cool in front of the other dads.

Let’s not complicate this. Juan Nicasio served up a 3-0 fastball to Tatis Jr., who placed it in the seats. Woodward pulled Nicasio and then instructed Ian Gibaut to throw behind Manny Machado. And after the game, both managers decided that the former was the action that was wrong.

After the game, Woodward told reporters that “there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game” (he has himself swung at and doubled on a 3-0 pitch when his team was leading). Tingler, for his part, said that Tatis Jr. had missed a “take” sign and called it a “learning opportunity,” seemingly placing the blame directly on his own player’s shoulders. And Hosmer was caught on camera jawing at Tatis Jr. immediately after the at-bat, despite having previous telling USA Today reporter last July that he has “no problem” with swinging at a 3-0, citing the Padres’ seven-run comeback against the Rockies. Tatis Jr., though, seemed to think he’d nothing wrong.

“I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this,” he said.

Today, the MLB did the right thing and suspended Woodward and Gibaut for their actions.

It very well might be the case that Tatis Jr. did something that players consider wrong in the MLB, but we’re not going to establish that on the back of a juicy pull quote or tweet. But because I feel obliged to get a voice that has some sway, I’m partial to what Johnny Bench had to say:

It’s almost overdone less than 24 later to say that players aren’t all playing by the same unwritten rules. This isn’t anything new — a 2015 USA Today study of five years of data found that 87% of brawls centered on conflicts between players of different ethnic backgrounds. When Rangers manager Chris Woodward appeals to “the way we were all raised in the game” to justify his actions, he’s ignoring that the culture of the game isn’t the same stateside as it is in the Dominican Republic, or in Puerto Rico, or in South Korea. And yes, Fernando Tatis Jr. might be the son of a former MLB player, but he was still born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and never played American high school or college baseball.

But as long as we’re focusing on whether or not he knew, we’re asking the wrong question. Woodward, Tingler, and those backing them are all pretty straightforwardly arguing that it’s disrespectful to play the game in a way that makes their opponents look bad. Woodward was the screaming little-league dad, but instead of throwing a fit full of f-bombs, he told his pitchers to throw at the other team. And for some reason, the other team went along with it.

What needs asking is whether they get what it means to respect other people. Respecting other people means recognizing their inherent value as a person, thinking about how your actions affect them, and all of those other things that we teach five-year-olds to do. Respect isn’t going out of your way to avoid embarrassing someone.

Complaining about Fernando Tatis Jr. hitting his home runs against your teams isn’t about respect. It’s just smarmy nonsense.

If you’re not familiar with what I mean by smarmy — and you are, you just don’t know it —  I strongly recommend Tom Scocca’s excellent-if-PG-13 piece on it from 2013. As he explains it, “Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.”

There’s absolutely no substance to Woodward’s complaint. The game doesn’t get any more exciting, or even shorter if Tatis Jr. takes a 3-0 fastball. Woodward isn’t hurt by it other than by choosing to be. Tingler and Hosmer have nothing to do with it. They’re all siding against fun, competitive baseball in the name of not upsetting the person who ranks above them. But because it’s all transparently nonsense, smarm in baseball melts away pretty quickly if you have the backbone to question it.

When people like the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson say that swinging at 3-0 when leading “has traditionally been baseball no-no and a sign of disrespect toward the trailing team,” ask them to cite his sources.

When people like Chris Woodward claim that Tatis Jr. is breaking unwritten rules, ask him if it’s acceptable to throw at opposing players.

When people like Jayce Tingler decide that not angering his former team is more important than calling them out for throwing at his current players, ask him what his priorities are.

Baseball should be more fun than ever right now. We should be preparing for a decade of Tatis Jr. fighting Ronald Acuña and Juan Soto for NL MVP titles, not arguing about whether they’re dominating the league in an acceptable way.

But in the interim, it’s not the kids who need to grow up.


(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

Alexander Chase

When he's not writing about baseball (and sometimes when he is), Alexander Chase teaches test prep and elementary through high school math. He loves Shohei Ohtani, Camden Yards, and the extra-innings ghost runner rule. Don't you?

4 responses to “Whose Rules Are They Anyway?”

  1. Rocket says:

    I watched the game live last night. At first glance, I did not see any disrespect swinging 3-0 with a big lead late in the game. Thank you for presenting a well rounded and balanced narrative because it shed some light on a few things I did not no about the subject. You did a nice job of highlighting the relevant facts and not stepping too far into the opinion side of the debate.

    First, the fact that Hosmer was none too pleased with Tatis is a really important fact. Coupled with the fact that Tatis missed a sign is information that has been left out of a lot of discussions. The take sign or swing sign are signs a hitter is probably not missing. If the Coach puts down a sign and you miss it or disregard it thats a problem. Tatis to his credit had some positive comments following the game saying he will use it as a learning moment.

    So after some reflection. I think I am still in the camp where although, the Padres had a big lead late in the game, the game was not over. The Rangers had not thrown up the white flag yet. If they had brought in a positional player to pitch or made wholesale changes to their line up, etc. It is an intense season this year with each game meaning a great deal more than in the past. 1 or 2 games in the W or L column will make a difference when it comes to seeding or possibly even making the postseason. All for swinging away 3-0 even with a big lead late in the game but you can not miss or disregard a coaches instructions. I think it is a lesson learned for a great young player.

  2. Duntroon68 says:

    I once took a team of rec softball players to a travel tournament. It was to expose them to a level of play they were unfamiliar with and we knew we were outclassed. We improbably won a game and then were beaten 35-0 in a playoff game. The other team’s coach apologized after the game for not restraining his team better. I was young and honestly perplexed by his sentiment. I told him that if we hadn’t wanted them to score 35 runs than we should have done something to stop them. Grown men are often whiny, sometimes more so than 14 year old girls.

  3. Chucky says:

    As a paying customer to MLB games, I’m offended. I expect ball players, be it starters or scrubs, to play the game to the maximum of their abilities….for all 9 innings or as many innings as the game lasts. When I see a hitter take a 3-0 cripple pitch because his team is ahead by some undetermined amount of runs, I feel cheated. The trailing teams hitters are not held to this standard, only the leading team’s. When I see a leading teams players not steal a base, because they’re ahead by this same undetermined amount of runs, yet players from the trailing team’s can run with reckless abandon, I feel cheated. One set of rules for the leading team, one set for the trailing team. At what point in the game, and by how many runs are the teams supposed to enact this stupid courtesy rule? If the game is considered out of reach, then enact a ‘mercy rule’. Time for players, coaches and MLB to put aside this archaic rule and put the fans first.

  4. Travis Brown says:

    To me, the greatest respect is treating the pitcher as the pro he is, and taking the at-bat seriously the whole way through. Seems like all these unwritten rules are to protect the pitchers small egos, and the batters have to tiptoe around everything so they don’t get chirped at.

    How about you show Tatis the respect he deserves, and don’t float a strike in there and expect the “favor” of him letting it float by so you can feel better about your inning. His contract is based off of his stats, not the pitchers feelings. I don’t get how him getting a free strike is something he’s “earned”, or something that’ll help the pace of play at all.

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