I know an 11-year-old who plays a game at school that he and his friends inaccurately call handball. Two players, one wall and one big, red ball. One player hits the ball against the wall, and before it bounces twice the next player must hit the ball to the wall, and so on. Fail to hit the ball to the wall, and you’re out. The next challenger in line then gets to play.
This 11-year-old’s mom was worried because her son was getting into a lot of loud, drawn-out arguments playing this game. Indeed, every time it was his turn, his opponent would say he’d made an illegal hit, he would protest, all the kids waiting in line would agree the hit was illegal, he would refuse to leave the court, and the argument would last until the bell rang. Another day of play.
So let’s talk about Minnesota Twins star Brian Dozier, who took Stupid Unwritten Rules to a new level this weekend. Dozier is, in his words, “getting hammered” for his complaint against the Baltimore Orioles, which he should be if you consider the point of “unwritten rules” to be enforcing a rational code of play that exists for the good of the sport. Dozier’s claims, in that interpretation, do not stand up, not even a little bit.
But that’s the wrong way to think about unwritten rules. Unwritten rules are a scam that players run on each other to trick their opponents into acting against their own self-interests. They are stupid, of course, but more than that they’re brilliant, on multiple levels, and they seem to work, and ever since I realized this I’ve been a lot less annoyed.
To recap: Orioles rookie Chance Sisco batted in the ninth inning Sunday, with Baltimore trailing the Twins by seven. The Twins shifted their infield against him, he bunted against the shift, he got a hit and he found out a half-hour later that by trying hard at baseball in a seven-run game he’d violated something sacrosanct.
“When they didn’t hold our runner on [earlier in the blowout], they conceded to the fact they didn’t want us to steal, so we didn’t steal,” Dozier explained. “We could have very easily stolen and put up more runs, so therefore in return you don’t bunt. That’s what everybody is missing in this whole thing.” In other words: We weren’t trying, so he shouldn’t have tried.
Of course, Dozier’s logic prima facie was bad: The Twins kept throwing breaking balls, they kept positioning their defenders in elaborate shifts, and so on, so they were still trying. Intuiting some fluid and ambiguous code about how much to try is a lot to ask of players who are merely attempting to play baseball well, for money, in front of a large audience. Complaining about this — as other Twins did, as well — is comically sensitive. So most will hammer Dozier.
But Dozier’s goal isn’t, I’d argue, to get Chance Sisco to respect the game. It’s to get Sisco — and other Twins opponents — to go easy on the Twins. It’s to get them to not try extra hard to come back when they’re trailing by seven runs. It’s to get them to not force Dozier and his teammates to run any harder than they have to. It’s to get them to be afraid of offending, embarrassing or tricking the Twins. (Or, alternately, to get them to be afraid of offending, embarrassing or tricking veterans, such as Dozier, who use their clout and seniority to steer young players toward certain types of non-threatening behavior.) It’s to weaken their opponents, or to cause their opponents to weaken themselves, more complicated than but otherwise consistent with every other baseball strategy.
Run down the unwritten rules that are most often enforced, and almost all of them hit these themes: “Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter because we want to throw a no-hitter.” Brilliant! “Don’t yell ‘HA!’ right when we’re about to catch a pop-up because that would startle us and we might drop it.” I’m sure it would! “Don’t bunt 10 times at our pitcher who has the yips because he’ll probably mess up and you’ll get on base. Don’t pimp home runs, because it makes us feel lousy (and you feel pumped up). Don’t quick pitch — I’m not ready! Don’t throw changeups in hitters’ counts during a blowout because I’m trying to have a high batting average. Also don’t steal bases in a blowout because then we have to keep trying to make sure you don’t. And no hustle doubles in blowouts. Take it eaaaasy.” I’ve seen teams complain that the opposing pitcher was throwing too many breaking balls. I’ve seen teams complain the opposing hitters wouldn’t swing enough. Lawyer ball.
There is one unwritten rule where ballplayers admit that this is the game: The one about not hitting batters with pitches lest ye too be hit by pitches. “I’ve got news for you. In this game, there are unwritten rules,” Terry Collins once said. “You hit my guy, I’m hitting your guy. They’re not hitting my guy tonight.” Another way of saying “not hitting my guy” is “not throwing inside as much.” Another way of saying it is “not making me feel uncomfortable.”
It helps to consider the Mafia — not the real Mafia, which I don’t know much about, but the fictional TV Mafia we all understand. The TV Mafia is notably disdainful of written rules — the laws of the state — but strictly, violently defensive of unwritten rules. In particular:
• Don’t rat
• Wives and children are off limits
Why, in a culture that ignores virtually every law and moral code, are these principles so strong? Not because they represent some deeper morality about the sanctity of innocent life or group loyalty or the value of hierarchy, but because these are where TV Mafia bosses are the most vulnerable. There’s not an easy defense against an enemy who wants to hurt you by hurting your children, or who knows your secrets and might use them against you. So TV bosses use peer pressure to construct an ethical code, and the most powerful weapons against their most exposed vulnerabilities get neutralized.
The Around the Horn crew explains why Chance Sisco’s ninth-inning bunt was not a violation of baseball’s unwritten rules.
The unwritten rules of baseball are not as, shall we say, high stakes, but they almost all fall under some version of this: Where we are exposed, we ask nicely that you don’t take advantage. If you do, we will shame you. (Note that a lot of unwritten rules have to do with convincing the opponent not to hustle. Note also that most unwritten rules are policed by veterans, who are tired and don’t want to get in a hustle-off with a bunch of youngsters.) They can’t get away with it for everything, of course. They can’t say “home runs are snakes, no hitting homers.” That would expose the bad faith of these claims. For this to work, everybody has to believe that Brian Dozier is truly, genuinely upset by this lack of decorum, and his opponents have to be concerned he really means it. Which, after arguing long enough, he eventually might.
Here’s why this is all so awesome: Screaming “unwritten rules” in bad faith is exactly the sort of annoying, but effective, try-hard behavior that unwritten rules purport to prohibit. It’s taking advantage of the vague boundaries of the rulebook to claim a small edge, and it’s pursuing victory even at the expense of honor and decorum. Dozier claimed to be annoyed by Sisco, but Sisco was just trying to win. Meanwhile, we’re all annoyed by Dozier right now, but he doesn’t care because he’s just trying to win. In a 7-0 game, Chance Sisco bunted. That’s hustle. But in a 7-0 game, Brian Dozier was running a long con. That’s a lifestyle commitment. Everybody else is playing baseball, but he’s playing baseball players.
Back to the 11-year-old playing handball: Upon further investigation, his mother and I discovered that he was not an anomaly. Almost every match between any two kids went the same way: two or three hits, a claim of something done illegally, an argument, the kids in line agreeing that it was illegal, a loud, drawn-out fight. This negotiation over legal/illegal was the game. It wasn’t about handball, but about who could win the argument.
Calling “illegal” first was one skill. Defending yourself and refusing to give in was another. And, of course, standing in line and agreeing that it was illegal was a third, because everybody in line wanted you to lose so it would be their turn. This game doesn’t sound like it’s very fun to play, but it’s the game those kids have chosen, and danged if they aren’t playing to win. It does sound like a lot of fun to watch.
I think we all agree that Dozier and the Twins were acting like 11-year-olds. But my interpretation is that they’re acting like 11-year-olds who are fully invested in winning their game, and who are taking advantage of not just the rules but the unwritten rules to do it. There’s a pure competitive brilliance to it. I respect that.
The other interpretation is that they’re way too sensitive and snitty, like … well, like children. I would never assume so little of a classy group like the Twins.
‘Lot of emotions’ in possible Wrigley farewell
CHICAGO — An emotional Jon Lester took the mound Wednesday night for what could have been his final start at Wrigley Field as a Cub.
Lester, 36, will be a free agent after this season unless the team picks up a $25 million option on him for 2021.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” Lester said after the Cubs‘ 3-2, 10-inning win over the Cleveland Indians. “A lot of emotions going into tonight. Trying to make tonight go well. … Maybe the effort was a little too much.”
Lester threw only 62 pitches, giving up two runs over five innings. With a road trip to finish the season looming and the possibility that he’ll be the third starter in the postseason, Wednesday could have been his last outing at home in a Cubs uniform. The first round of the playoffs is best-of-three, and then all remaining postseason games will be played outside of Chicago.
“A lot of things on my mind,” Lester said. “This year hasn’t been easy for a lot of reasons. I’m not sitting here saying ‘woe is me’ because there’s a lot of people worse off than me. A lot of emotions coming into this. Don’t really know what to say, how to take it. A lot of uncertainties going forward.”
Lester signed a six-year, $155 million contract with the team before the 2015 season and then helped the Cubs to four consecutive playoff berths and the 2016 World Series title. In Chicago, Lester is known as one of the best free-agent signings ever.
He said he wanted to walk off the mound to a stadium full of Cubs fans in his last start, but it wasn’t meant to be this year.
“That’s the most frustrating part,” he said. “Going back to 2014, I didn’t get to walk off the field like I wanted to at Fenway. Having an empty stadium [is] not how I envisioned my last start here.”
The door isn’t closed on Lester as a Cub, but with so much uncertainty, the team wanted to recognize a player who will go down as one of the all-time greats in the organization.
“You just have to absolutely acknowledge that it could be,” teammate Jason Heyward said of this being Lester’s last outing. “He’s earned that and some. It really, really is unfortunate we don’t have fans here this year to help be a part of that. This is something he’s earned. This dude has been a rock here.”
Lester’s career ERA is 3.59, but it’s a run lower in the postseason. He has 192 career wins but just two this year. He’d like to win No. 200 as a Cub, but he’s unsure what the future holds.
“A lot of uncertainties going forward,” Lester said. “I didn’t think six years would go this fast.”
Jacob deGrom exits start for New York Mets with hamstring spasm
He exited after a surprisingly rough two innings that could put a wrinkle in his bid for a third straight NL Cy Young Award.
The right-hander, who struck out 12 Phillies on Sept. 6, was pulled after only 40 pitches and one strikeout. He allowed three runs, pushing his ERA back over 2.00 at 2.09, and appeared to spike a water bottle in frustration in the dugout after a brief chat with pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and trainer Brian Chicklo.
Hefner visited deGrom on the mound in the second inning when he allowed all his runs. It was the first time this season he gave up three earned runs.
Los Angeles Dodgers heading to playoffs for eighth straight season
SAN DIEGO — The Los Angeles Dodgers became the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the pandemic-shortened Major League Baseball season, beating the San Diego Padres 7-5 on Wednesday behind Dustin May‘s gutty effort out of the bullpen and home runs from A.J. Pollock and Chris Taylor.
The Dodgers are heading to the postseason for the eighth straight year, the longest active streak and the third longest in MLB history, behind only the 1991-2005 Braves (14) and 1995-2007 Yankees (13).
Will Smith drove in three runs for the seven-time defending NL West champion Dodgers, who opened a 3 1/2-game lead in the division by winning two of three in the matchup of the NL’s two best teams.
Mookie Betts tied his career high with three stolen bases, had two hits and scored a run.
At 35-15, the Dodgers breezed into the expanded 16-team postseason field. Los Angeles is seeking its first World Series title since 1988.
San Diego, quieted by Dodgers pitching a second straight game even as it heads for its first playoff berth since winning the division in 2006, has lost two straight for the first time since mid-August.
San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr., who had been considered the NL MVP front-runner recently, went 0 for 4 to extend his slump to 2 for 27 over eight games. His average has dropped from .314 to .281.
May, who had been scheduled to start before manager Dave Roberts decided to go with a bullpen day, was the Dodgers’ third pitcher of the game. He went 5 1/3 innings and was in control until Jurickson Profar homered to right field with two outs in the seventh to pull the Padres to within 7-3. Mitch Moreland reached on an error by second baseman Gavin Lux to open the inning.
After Profar’s homer, May struck out Trent Grisham and blew off some steam by yelling a few profanities that could be heard around empty Petco Park. Grisham angered the Dodgers by briefly posing at the plate after homering off Clayton Kershaw in the Padres’ 7-2 win Monday night.
May gave up Manny Machado‘s solo homer with one out in the eighth, his 14th, and was removed from the game by Roberts.
Until the seventh, May had breezed through four innings by giving up only a single and a walk. May struck out six.
Pedro Baez got the final two outs for his second save.
San Diego used nine pitchers.
Pollock homered past the palm trees to the right of the batter’s eye in straightaway center field off rookie Adrian Morejon (2-1) with two outs in the second. It was his 11th. Taylor greeted Garrett Richards with a leadoff shot into the second deck in left-center in the sixth inning for a 7-1 lead. It was Taylor’s sixth home run of the season.
The Dodgers regained the lead in the third against Joey Lucchesi, who opened the season in the rotation before being sent to the alternate training site after two starts. Making his first big league relief appearance, he gave up Max Muncy‘s two-run double and Smith’s RBI infield single in the third. Lucchesi slipped trying to field Smith’s checked-swing dribbler and the catcher beat it out for a hit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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