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.