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Breaking the Code

In the age of the $100 million athlete, will Major League Baseball continue to allow ballplayers to police themselves?

Author Jason Turbow Illustration Elliot Stokes

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For some studious observers of the Code—the array of unwritten rules dictating in-game conduct and baseball etiquette—the 2013 season will be remembered more for what didn’t happen than for what did.

It was June 4 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. San Diego Padre Carlos Quentin stepped up to the plate to a chorus of boos, as it was the first time the slugger had faced the Dodgers since April 11, when he body-checked star pitcher Zack Greinke onto the disabled list with a broken collarbone, after taking umbrage at being hit by a pitch.

As the Code had dictated for more than a century, starting pitcher Ted Lilly owed  Quentin a fastball right in the numbers,  to show the Padres that the Dodgers  protect their own. Instead, Lilly threw  five changeups before Quentin connected with a fastball for a line-drive single to  left field. He would wind up 3 for 5 with a home run in a Dodgers victory.

The fact that Lilly didn’t retaliate raises the question: Did the six-year, $147 million contract that Greinke inked in April have something to do with the incident being swept under the AstroTurf? Never before had a player with so mammoth a contract been so seriously injured as the result of an on-field brawl. With Greinke earning considerably more than $700,000 per start, his one-month stay on the disabled list cost the Dodgers some $3.5 million. When that much money ends up on the sideline, pointed questions tend to be raised at corporate headquarters. Put another way: When a bit of on-field vigilantism can throw the financials of a billion-dollar franchise into disarray, it’s easy to envision team brass wanting to tamp things down, tradition be damned.

Harold Reynolds, a two-time All Star who is now a studio analyst for the MLB Network, doesn’t think so. “Guys would rather face the wrath of management than their own teammates,” he says. “One constant through the history of baseball, whether you’re talking about old school or new school, has been players protecting their teammates. That’s not going to change.”

Even so, there is no escaping the impression that the Code is mellowing with age. For example, 40 years ago a batter was expected to watch the first pitch he saw following back-to-back home runs. This was viewed as a measure of respect, allowing the opposing pitcher to regain his equilibrium. “Get in the box loosely to let him know, ‘Okay, I’m not swinging,’” says Hal McRae, who followed a 19-year career from the late 1960s through the mid-’80s with six seasons as a manager. “I know you’re out there trying to do a job, but you’ve just given up back-to-back home runs. So I take the first pitch.”

Today, a player in a contract year who could be leaving millions on the table if he finishes the season just shy of 40 home runs is likely to try and send that first pitch into the seats, despite the Code’s most prominent tenet, which discourages aggressive play when one’s team holds a big lead late in a game. Running up the score, after all, is disrespectful.

Take Andruw Jones, who, with designs on a 30-steal campaign during his 1998 season with the Atlanta Braves, swiped his 25th base against the Florida Marlins. His mistake was doing so when his team held a five-run lead in the eighth inning. (It didn’t help that he then took third and scored on two wild pitches.) The following day, Jones was hit by the first pitch he saw from Marlins pitcher Liván Hernández, because the team felt disrespected. Hernández made it clear that Jones’ display had been noticed, and had not been appreciated.

It is a familiar dance, one that separates baseball from other major American sports. There is little room within the Code for showy displays like LeBron James’ pre-game powder toss, or the NFL running back wildly celebrating a three-yard run on second-and-two. And players understand this. After Hernández drilled him, Jones trotted to first base without so much as a peep of protest.

Similar issues surround such topics as properly approaching bases (slide before reaching the base and never go in spikes high); not showing players up (watching one’s home run and flipping one’s bat while running toward first base are frowned upon); appropriate times to bunt (never to break up a no-hitter unless the score is extremely close); and sign stealing (perfectly appropriate if undertaken without aid from spyglasses and the like, so long as activities cease once the practitioner is caught). Enforcing it all is the pitcher, whose tool in trade is the inside fastball.

Of course, if the powers that be were to take action after the Greinke incident, it wouldn’t be the first time.

In the 1990s, the spectacle of angry batters racing to physically confront pitchers was becoming so frequent and dramatic that the late Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bruce Keidan wrote, “It is a rare week in Major League Baseball when a hitter does not charge the mound in search of revenge.” In the year 2000, the number of hit-by-pitches had spun out of control, soaring to 1,573, compared to just 657 in 1980. Prior to the 2001 season, MLB was motivated to intervene, and issued a directive to umpires encouraging immediate ejection for a pitcher who deliberately throws at somebody’s head. The memo, sent by then–executive VP Sandy Alderson, instructed umpires to “be mindful that, given the skill level of most major league pitchers, a pitch that is thrown at the head of a hitter more likely than not was thrown there intentionally.”

With the Code now subjected to the scrutiny of big-money investors, we’ll see if the MLB brass takes similar action during the offseason. But if you ask the players, they’ll tell you they’re perfectly capable of policing themselves.
“I don’t think they need to change anything when it comes to the rulebook,” says San Francisco Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt, a teammate of Greinke’s for three seasons in Kansas City. “Look at the aftermath of what took place in San Diego—Quentin still found a way to walk over and talk to Greinke later. If it were really that bad a situation, nobody would try to communicate or talk it out. And that’s the thing—if you let players take care of it themselves, they always do.”  
Jason Turbow is the author of The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime.

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