Relishing the Hot Dog
Former big-league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst tears apart baseball’s unwritten rules.
12:05 PM, Jun 6, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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,”
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.
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:
From Hayhurst’s perspective, it doesn’t.
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.”
“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.
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!
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