Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 21: Bat-flippers win battle over unwritten rules 

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
6 Comments

We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 21 — The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules

 

One of the bigger, and dumber, stories of early 2010 arose out of one of the dumber things to happen in a baseball game. It was an April getaway day game between the Yankees and Athletics in Oakland, not notable in almost any respect apart from its quickness: a cool two hours and seven minutes.

Somewhere along the line Alex Rodriguez was on first base and the batter hit a foul ball. Rodriguez’s path back to first base took him near the pitcher’s mound, where A’s pitcher Dallas Braden was working that afternoon. In fact, A-Rod strolled across the corner of it, touching the dirt. When the inning ended, Braden freaked the hell out, yelling at Rodriguez to get off his mound, throwing his glove into the dugout, kicking things and the whole deal. What on Earth was that about?

Braden explained after the game, saying it was a breach of baseball etiquette for an opposing player to walk on the mound while the pitcher was there. Braden:

“The long and short of it is it’s pretty much baseball etiquette. He should probably take a note from his captain over there, because you don’t run across the pitcher’s mound in between an inning or during the game. I was just dumbfounded that he would let that slip his mind . . . If my grandmother ran across the mound, she would have heard the same thing he heard — period. That’s the way I handle the game and the way I handle myself on my workday. That’s just the way it is. I would never disrespect anybody like that.”

A-Rod tried to act surprised, as if he didn’t know what the heck Braden was talking about, but he couldn’t resist mentioning the fact that Braden’s relatively short and until then undistinguished career disqualified him from lodging such objections. In the days that followed, reporters consulted old-timers like Tim McCarver and Pete Rose who suggested that, yeah, it was some sort of breach of etiquette but that since A-Rod was a superstar and Braden wasn’t, there may be some gray area involved. Others said they had never heard of such a thing.

Which pretty much set the tone for every unwritten rules debate for the next ten years. In essence, these debates are:

(a) arguments over rules of on-field deportment that;

(b) no one can quite spell out with any degree of specificity; which

(c) shift depending on whose deportment is in question;

(d) shift back depending on who is taking offense;

(e) often hinge on the seniority of the player taking offense compared to the player whose deportment is at issue; and

(f) nevertheless aggressively refuse to adhere to any sense of coherence.

Sometimes they’re old rules everyone generally knows. Sometimes they’re rules no one who wasn’t playing in 1962 or whatever has ever heard of. The only common thread is that someone got mad about something and rather than just admit that they got a case of the red ass, they tried to justify it by appeal to some greater baseball authority.

Baseball’s unwritten rules prohibit running too slowly and casually around the bases after a homer. But they also prohibit  celebrating around the bases as well. Unless it was a big hit, but no one defines “big.” Please do not bring up Babe Ruth waving his cap at people as he rounded the bases or Jeffrey Leonard doing his one-flap-down thing in the 80s, because those were different. For reasons.

Flipping one’s bat and admiring a home run is a no-no. So is bunting to break up a no-hitter, unless you’re on the team of the guy who flipped his bat or bunted, in which case it was justified exuberance or basic competitiveness.

A pitcher using pine tar is against written rules, but it’s an unwritten rule that pitchers can and should do it because everybody does it. But don’t be obvious about it, because if you’re obvious about it, you’re breaking an unwritten rule and therefore deserve punishment pursuant to the written rule. Get it?

Nah, me neither, and I’ve been covering this crap for years.

As the decade wore on, the primary battle in the unwritten rules wars increasingly centered on the bat flip and other post-home run behavior. My God, were there fights about that.

One of the more memorable ones involved the late José Fernández who, back in 2013, after hitting his first career home run, took his time circling the bases. The Marlins were playing the Braves and, as Fernández passed third base, Braves third baseman Chris Johnson chirped at him. That caused catcher Brian McCann to confront him at the plate, getting in Fernández’s face and, I guess, explaining to him that that was disrespectful. Then both benches emptied:

On that score, a lot of folks inside baseball took McCann’s side, calling Fernández a showboat for acting like that in a meaningless September game. They were far more accepting, however, of José Bautista’s epic batflip following his tie-breaking three-run homer in Game 5 of the 2015 American League division series against the Texas Rangers:

 

That was OK, see, because it was a big moment in a big game and thus it would be wrong to be upset at Bautista for flipping his bat like that, and no anger would linger over it after the fact.

Um, wait:

 

We could write a whole entry about Madison Bumgarner‘s feud with Yasiel Puig which seems to be 100% about Bumgarner’s displeasure with Puig’s deportment.

  • In May of 2014, Puig hit a homer off of Bumgarner and then Bumgarner decided to bark at him, Brian-McCann vs. José Fernández-style;
  • Five months later, Bumgarner hit Puig with a pitch in the first inning of a Dodgers-Giants game for . . . apparently no reason whatsoever;
  • In September 2016 Puig grounded out to Bumgarner and the two exchanged words. Bumgarner appeared to be angry that Puig looked at him. Really. He yelled “don’t look at me!” at Puig, as if he were a preschooler, and the benches cleared once again; and
  • This past season Puig, then a member of the Reds, hit a homer off of Bumgarner. Nothing happened in the game, but afterwards Bumgarner made a point to take a dig at Puig, sarcastically saying “he’s a quick study. It only took him seven years to learn how to hit that pitch.”

There are tons of other examples — it seems like we get a good bat-flip or home run trot or taunting controversy every couple of months in the season — but I’m less interested in the individual flareups as I am in the general dynamic of them. Because the fights over bat flips and exuberance on the one hand and Playing The Game The Right Way on the other is a cultural and generational conflict, not a player vs. player concept.

You have to work hard not to see that, while not all unwritten rules controversies involve fights between white American ballplayers and Latin American players, a hefty number of them do. This is no coincidence. Unwritten rules are about norms of behavior which developed in a game when it was dominated by taciturn and undemonstrative white American guys but which now prominently features Latin American players who come from a baseball culture in which celebration and exuberance are closer to the norm. Baseball’s customs of deportment from the 1950s or before held steadily when Latin players were fewer in number and when they could be subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) coerced into assimilation. But eventually — as is the case in any setting where a once dominant culture begins to lose its numbers or its desire to coerce such assimilation — there is an assertion of identity by the minority culture. That is often followed by a reactionary backlash by the prevalent culture. An occasional bat flip or celebration may have seemed amusing in 1975 because it posed no perceived threat to baseball’s cultural order. In 2014, say, those who were uncomfortable with the changing of baseball culture saw it as a threat and lashed out, giving us these battles over bat flips.

As anyone who has noticed Bryce Harper get dragged into these kinds of battles, you realize that it’s not just race and ethnicity at play, however. It’s a generational dispute too.

There was a time when young players knew their place. And it was easy for them to know their place because they weren’t super important for the most part. A bonus baby was a rare thing and giving key roles to or expecting leadership from guys in their teens or early 20s was extraordinarily rare as well. If a kid did standard kid stuff, acted in a way that upset older people or engaged in what was perceived to be immaturity, he was laughed off or quickly and effectively corrected. In recent years, however, older veterans have become less important to an organization and “kids” are more prominent. Now if an alleged punk like Harper acts in a certain way or says a certain thing about baseball culture  he’s not an amusing anomaly nor is there any one veteran prominent enough on his club to correct him. He’s a threat to the longstanding baseball order in which seniority means everything, older players set the terms of deportment and young players don’t offer their opinion. Like a Latin player flipping a bat, he has to be shouted down — Harper was literally told to “shut up” by the Giants’ Sergio Romo a couple of years ago for something he said in a magazine article about this stuff — lest the old veteran orthodoxy be threatened. And make no mistake, with Bryce Harper it was ALL about him being seen as a punk kid. He was loathed by veterans before he even debuted in 2012 because of his arguably over-sold status as a teenage phenom. In the end, these battles over “playing the game the right way” are no different than the reactions to the empowerment and increased visibility of youth and minority cultures in society at large.

I started thinking about all of that stuff several years ago and it took me a while to figure it out. But then something funny happened. The whole analysis began not to really matter all that much because the young kids, the Latin players, and all of those who flouted the unwritten rules began to win the battle.

When the decade began it was pretty novel to argue that, no, bat-flipping and showboating were good things that are exciting and which can help MLB better-market its personalities. As the decade wore on, however, that became far less of a contrary view. Indeed, it’s now the established view, and the opposite — arguing for the importance of adherence to the old school rules and behavior — is a minority view. It’s limited to some cranky old announcers, a certain contingent of retired ballplayers who answer the phone when reporters call looking to stir up controversy, an increasingly shrinking number of old school ballplayers in the Bumgarner mode who stick out far more than they used to, and a segment of fans of a certain age and demographic profile. We still get controversies over bat flips and celebrations and things because we’re all programmed to look for controversies to talk about between ballgames even if they, actually, don’t really matter, but, really, the bat-flippers and showboaters won.

If there is any doubt about that, note that for the past two seasons Major League Baseball has centered its postseason marketing campaign around players doing the things that tick off the Brian McCanns and Madison Bumgarners of the world. Here was the 2018 promo:

And here was the 2019 promo:

 

If A-Rod and Dallas Braden’s little dustup happened in 2020 instead of 2010 MLB would be making commercials out of it within three days.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal