Recently at a funeral for a catcher dead too young at the age of 55, his college teammates recalled his showboating antics. One game, they recalled, the catcher homered his first time up. Watching the ball sail off into the distance, he tossed the bat away dramatically, embarked on an emphatic trot, and for the coup de grace sang out loud in his Boston accent, “Goodnight, Irene!”
The catcher’s next time up, an enormous din erupted, loud whistles and a call arising in unison for the pitcher to enforce one of baseball’s unwritten rules, stipulating that hitters shouldn’t show up pitchers after going yard. The cry to “stick it in his ear,” as one now middle-aged former infielder mourning a friend fondly remembered, came not from the gods of baseball, nor even from the adversaries that the catcher’s hot-doggery had no doubt affronted, but from his own dugout.
At ESPN, Tim Kurkjian has interviewed a number of big-league ballplayers to assemble a compendium of baseball’s unwritten rules.
“Thirty-five years ago,” Kurkjian writes in “The Unwritten Canon, Revealed,”
Wayne Gross hit a home run off reliever Ed Farmer, and took his time running around the bases. Farmer was furious, and immediately plotted revenge. But he didn't face Gross again until four years later, and by then they were teammates. On the first pitch of a batting practice session, Farmer hit Gross in the back with a 90 mph fastball.
"What was that for!" Gross screamed.
"That was for four years ago!" Farmer screamed back.
"OK," Gross said. "We're even!"
Rule number one, writes Kurkjian, is “Do not cross the home run pimp line.” Sure, Babe Ruth liked to admire his handiwork, but he was one of the game’s gods. For mere mortals, it’s another matter. As Nationals infielder Greg Dobbs explains, "When you pimp a home run, or flip a bat egregiously ... I'm not saying you have to put your personality in the shadows, but how far do you take it? When you do that, act selfishly, you are disrespecting the founders of the game, the guys that came before you. When you hit a homer, flip your bat, walk 10 feet toward first base and stare at the pitcher, showing bravado, you are disrespecting the other team, your team and the name on the front of jersey. That's the worst thing you can do."
Not according to Kurkjian’s list. Other violations of baseball honor include stealing when your side is winning by a large margin (rule #3), bunting for a hit to break up a no-hitter (rule #4), and taking a big swing on a 3-0 count (rule #5). Rule #2 describes the cost of violating any of these rules: retaliation.
Rangers southpaw C.J. Wilson recalls a game against the Tampa Bay Rays several years ago. "One of their relievers hit Gary Matthews Jr. in the neck at about 96,” Wilson told Kurkjian.
It was intentional. I was pitching in relief. It was the fourth inning of a 12-5 game. I know I have to hit someone. I know it has to be Carl Crawford because he is the equal guy. One of our veterans got in my face and screamed at me -- not because he didn't think I was going to do it, he just wanted to make sure that I did.
"He said, 'You hit him in the ribs as hard as you can!' I said, 'Yes, sir.' First pitch slider; then the next pitch, I threw behind him. Crawford yelled at me. I yelled back, 'Did you not see that our guy got hit in the neck? Are you watching the game? You're lucky, I could have hit you in the face.'"
There probably is a certain justice to hitting one of the other team’s hitters when your guys are targeted. It’s baseball deterrence. But a lot of what happens in the game is just athletes letting their youthful exuberance getting the better of them. It turns out that the same often holds for former athletes, like Don Zimmer, the baseball lifer who passed away yesterday, when as the Yankees’ 72-year-old bench coach he mixed it up with Pedro Martinez during the 2003 American League Championship Series. If there was such a thing as cosmic baseball justice, both of them probably should’ve been plunked for the silliness of the spectacle—instead, they just patched things up. That was the right thing to do, but baseball’s version of cosmic justice, requires blood for any supposed infraction. Even for stealing “third base when you're up 10 runs,” says Wilson, “there will be retribution.”
The bloodlust is all a little too much for Dirk Hayhurst, a former big-league pitcher, broadcaster, and author of four books on baseball. “I've heard all this stuff before, all throughout my playing days,” Hayhurst writes at Deadspin:
None of the players passing along their wisdom seemed to realize that it was all completely arbitrary. No one came close to acknowledging, "You know, it's stupid and none of us know where it came from, and before we go fracturing some poor rookie's wrist because he looked too happy about going yard on a vet, we should really sit down and ask ourselves if the punishment fits the crime."
From Hayhurst’s perspective, it doesn’t.
This kind of thinking illustrates a point you see again and again in the unwritten code—that baseball, and the way you behave while playing it, is more important than the laws we ask society to abide by. How else can you rationalize breaking someone's wrist, hand, or skull with a beanball as an acceptable form of punishment? How else can you justify committing assault and battery as a learning tool? By that logic, the next time someone cuts me off in traffic, I should send my car barreling into the offender's because that's the only way they're going to learn.
Cubs catcher John Baker said baseball's frontier justice is OK because, unlike in other sports, you can't physically retaliate in-play. As if baseball would be a better sport, and a superior example to the youth it's ruining by its flagrant display of exuberance, if you could simply call time out and beat the s--- out the player doing it.
Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes, writes Hayhurst “likened baseball service time to ranks in the military, saying—and this highlights a real misunderstanding of how the military works—‘the more you move up the ranks, the less the unwritten rules apply to you.’ As if a four-star general can unilaterally bomb a country he's not at war with, or rush in from left field to smash Yunel Escobar in the back during an argument that has nothing to do with him.”
If being a humble servant of the game means holding on to grudges for years until the chance to exact revenge presents itself, then my moral compass is off. If being a selfless, I'm only hitting you with this 95 mph fastball because I love you guy is how you play the game the right way, I was happy to play it wrong. I gave up plenty of home runs, far more than I'd care to remember. More than a few of those dingers received the pimp treatment. It sucked, it was frustrating, and sometimes it pissed me off. But at no point did I think the proper response was to put another player's career or health in jeopardy because I made a mistake and the hitter did what he'd trained all his life to do.
“Baseball's unwritten rules,” writes Hayhurst, “justify hypocrisy, stupidity, and injury.” The answer, he argues, is to kill the unwritten rules, and instead celebrate enthusiasm and eccentricity—in short, relish the hot dog.
When I was young, looking for a role model, I liked guys like Ken Griffey Jr. I liked him because he was talented, but there were lots of talented players. What made him stand out to me was that he had the audacity to turn his hat backwards. He showed his personality. He had fun.
Naturally, coach after coach after coach screamed at us for turning our caps around. "It's not how you're supposed to wear the cap. It's not respecting the uniform. It's not how a ballplayer should look." And yet, it's what we liked. We thought it was cool. It made the game more enjoyable for us without affecting anyone else. It made us want to be baseball players.
Hayhurst is right. What makes kids want to be ball players, from childhood to the grave, isn’t some arbitrary and contradictory set of rules to be enforced lest one’s manhood suffer some unconscionable indignity. Baseball is supposed to be fun and thanks to players from Ruth to Griffey, and Puig to my late friend the catcher it is. And so—Goodnight, Irene!