Every time Alex Rodriguez does anything — poses in Details Magazine, slaps a ball out of a glove, shouts to distract a fielder from a pop-up, admits to taking banned drugs, runs across the pitcher’s mound — it gets analyzed to death. In this case, though, it’s Rodriguez’s latest detractor, A’s pitcher Dallas Braden (who called Alex out for running across the pitcher’s mound on his way back to the dugout), who won’t let it drop. In an interview yesterday with Comcast’s Mychael Urban, Braden said that he hoped that Rodriguez had “garnered a new respect for the unwritten rules, and people who hold them close to their game.” He also said that he didn’t like Rodriguez before it happened, either: “I’m not a fan of his antics… [this] wasn’t the first display of his lack of respect for the game or those playing it.”
But are those unwritten rules really all that meaningful? Braden isn’t the only player to assert that rule’s existence, as Bert Blyleven and Goose Gossage both agreed with Braden’s action in an ESPN interview. However, Joe Posnanski argues that Alex Rodriguez is so universally despised that he tends to get dinged for actions for which other players would get a free pass: “If that was Albert Pujols running across the mound, and that was a pitcher who has accomplished as much as Dallas Braden griping about it — say Anibal Sanchez or someone — it seems to me there would be a whole lot of ‘Shut your fat face, kid,’ talk going on across the country.”
Braden was incensed because Rodriguez had violated the rules of baseball’s unwritten code, a collection of ethical bylaws as deeply ingrained, and often as unchallenged, as the “book” that mandates exactly when you should bunt. Thanks to Tom Tango, Andy Dolphin, and Mitchel Lichtman, we’ve revisited the first Book quite a bit over here. The Code, however, is even more sacrosanct, because it’s less to do with wins and more to do with respect, even to the point of easing off the throttle when you’re way ahead, not stealing bases or working the count with a huge lead, or swinging at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs.
Jason Turbow and Michael Duca’s new book, The Baseball Codes, details all the things that, by tradition, players aren’t supposed to do, and they recently published an excerpt on Yahoo. And it’s good to have them on paper, because some of them are a lot less defensible than others. Some of the rules are both widely known and sensible, like the stricture against standing at home plate to admire a home run: it’s disrespectful to the pitcher, and it’s also really embarrassing if you’re wrong about the distance, as Alfonso Soriano ought to know by now. But other rules seem a little bit more dubious. What’s so bad about trying to increase a lead, whether you’re stealing bases or working a count? The deadball era is long gone; leads are never truly safe. Why would you voluntarily forgo offensive weapons in your arsenal? And, for that matter, should we really care about who steps on a pitcher’s mound?
Eno Sarris noted that Braden’s “moxie” has shown up not just in his willingness to confront Rodriguez, but in his willingness to throw his good changeup more often. He’s having a decent year so far, but he’s a lefty with a high-80s fastball who basically gets by on control and handedness. He doesn’t make too many headlines with his results on the field, which was Alex Rodriguez and Joe Posnanski’s point: it’s a silly rule, and anyway Braden doesn’t have the stature to enforce it. The latter is a bit ad hominem, but the former seems reasonable. It probably is a silly rule.
Then again, it’s a silly league, in which grown men put on matching shirts, pants and shoes and get paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game. So, to some extent, all the rules are arbitrary. I’m all in favor of scrapping the mercy rules which legislate against running up the score: if you can push runs across, I think you owe it to your fans to do so. Moreover, the rules about respect and retaliation have been drastically changed in the last few years, as retaliatory plunking has effectively been regulated out of the game through multigame suspensions. (That notwithstanding, Zach Duke recently had to apologize for not hitting any Dodgers after two of his own teammates were beaned.) Baseball’s ethics are mutable, after all, and changes in player’s rules and incentives tend to influence behavior far more effectively than any unwritten code ever could.
But should moundrunning become standard practice? I don’t think so. Certainly, I hope, this whole episode will help remove the “unwritten” status of much of baseball’s Byzantine ethics code. Baseball’s basic unit of respect — the fundamental importance of not “showing up” your teammates or opponents — remains, and ought to remain. Rodriguez may have finally acclimated himself to the role of a heel, so he may find that moundrunning suits him. The rest of the league should probably take heed.
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