The recently-completed three-game series between the Phillies and Mets had some intrigue. There was a chance that Wednesday night’s contest could have featured a beanball war, stemming from Mets reliever Jacob Rhame throwing a fastball up and in to Rhys Hoskins at the end of a 9-0 game. Thankfully, the game went off without a hitch, save for Hoskins homering off of Rhame and taking his sweet time jogging around the bases.
It turns out that all of the animosity had to do with unwritten rules and unmet expectations. The Athletic’s Tim Britton and Matt Gelb report that the Mets felt the Phillies broke an unwritten rule in the top of the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game. They were trailing by eight runs, so the Mets decided not to have first baseman Pete Alonso hold catcher J.T. Realmuto at first base. Realmuto bolted for second base on the first pitch to Hoskins, who fouled the pitch off. Some believe an unwritten rule is that you don’t run when a team chooses not to hold a runner on first base in a blowout game.
The Phillies felt the Mets broke an unwritten rule in the bottom of the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game. With the same score, a runner on second base and two outs, the Phillies chose not to hold Juan Lagares at first base, instead playing Hoskins behind the runner. Lagares ran on the pitch and advanced to third base on a single by Robinson Canó.
A member of the Mets said, “They did it first. They broke the unwritten rule.” Another Met said, “If you’re still playing, we’re still playing.”
Like a souring romantic relationship between husband and wife, the Phillies’ and Mets’ problems lie in unmet expectations and an inability to communicate. Because these particular rules are unwritten, anyone can have their own version of the rules and get mad at any infraction. Then, because baseball encourages stoicism and other toxic male behavior in its players, no one can communicate effectively about these perceived infractions. Everyone responds passive-aggressively. Players believe they have to “send a message” in the form of weaponized baseballs. Hoskins chose baseball’s slowest celebratory home run trot, which was at least harmless though petty.
How arbitrary are the unwritten rules, anyway? The Phillies felt the Mets were still trying too hard in the sixth inning of an 8-0 game not even 10 days after the club hung a 10-spot on Mets pitching in the first inning. The Phillies’ offense, though currently hobbled, is plenty capable of an offensive outburst to get back in the game. The Mets saw the Phillies still putting in effort, so they figured they would continue to try as well. Seems quite reasonable.
Interestingly, baseball is anomalous in expecting early concessions. A football team leading in a blowout may put in second- and third-stringers, but they still play legitimate football. It makes sense, too — a good showing by one of the back-ups in this situation could help him later, either by being moved up the depth chart or going to another team that values him more. In competitive video games, not trying while leading (by a considerable amount) is known as “sandbagging.” It’s perceived as, “I’m so much better than you, I can win without even trying.” In a different culture, the behavior baseball players yearn for is vilified.
That’s why “unwritten rules” as a concept is so pointless. It may have worked somewhat when baseball players were largely a homogenous group (and the league worked to keep it that way). But baseball players now come from all kinds of backgrounds and value specific behaviors differently. For example, some players think bat flips are awesome. Others think they’re disrespectful. That’s why it’s helpful to codify behaviors we don’t like (such as “the Chase Utley rule”) and communicate like adults when feelings get hurt.
If nothing else, though, we may be seeing the revival of the Phillies-Mets rivalry, which will make for an interesting NL East race this year. So we have that going for us, which is nice.