The Baseball Codes

January 01, 1970

(Pantheon Books)

 

www.pantheonbooks.com

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

I’m the father of a 2A Little Leaguer, and the other
afternoon he got his first hit of the new season; two batters later, he was
crossing home plate, and the grin that lit up his face when he spotted his
daddy waiting for him at the dugout was worthy of a Christmas morning. This,
coming from a naturally reticent kid who just a couple of years earlier had had
a near-meltdown upon learning I’d signed him up for his first round of Teeball
after he’d expressly told me that he “didn’t want to play baseball.” It’s a
horrible cliché to invoke the image of a dad living out his sports fantasies
through the eyes of his child, but speaking as someone whose own pop took him
down to the ballfield one fine spring day and told the coach for one of the
local youth leagues to put me, all of six years old, in the game, well… suffice
to say I suited up for the next nine summers, and even though girls and rock
‘n’ roll eventually intervened, I never lost my love for the game. Seeing a
similar love starting to unfold in my son is priceless.

 

The reason I bring up this sort of old-school notion is
because The Baseball Codes, by
veteran sportswriters Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, is a decidedly old-school
look at a sport whose traditions and ethics have become, if not specifically
eroded, at least diminished in the modern era. The book’s double subtitle
handily sums up its contents: “Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench-Clearing
Brawls: The unwritten rules of America’s
pastime.” It’s a free-wheeling – at times rambling, due to its
non-chronological structure, but always making very clear points – trek around
the basepaths, over to the bullpen and back, down into the dugout and
clubhouse, and sometimes even out to the area located directly behind the
scoreboard, in search of anecdotes that prove the existence of this so-called
Code. Which is very real; it’s just
veiled from public view, privy mainly to the practitioners of the game and
those who follow it passionately.

 

The Code involves, as suggested, an approach to baseball
that’s essentially a semi-porous set of ethics, passed down by word of mouth,
subject to generational tweaks of course, not to mention contemporary stresses
applied by Money and Media (more on that in a sec), but always there to some
degree, operating quietly in the background until some blatant infraction
occurs to yank it colorfully (and even violently) into the foreground. Learn the
Code and its subtleties and follow it, and you’ll earn the respect of your
teammates and the members of opposing teams; in the process you may avoid getting
drilled in the back by a deliberately aimed fastball or getting flattened by a
catcher at home plate. Ignore (or even be ignorant of) the Code, and watch out:
retaliation may come in the next inning or the next game, or it may not get meted
out until months or years from now; but it will come, one way or another. At
the same time, the Code is a grey area creature, with some strictures
considered inviolable and others prone to the vicissitudes of time (era,
certainly), place and personality.

 

The Baseball Codes offers a litany of examples guaranteed to raise eyebrows and draw more than a
few laughs from even the most seasoned sports fan. The book, though not ordered
like a history lesson starting in the game’s early years and proceeding to the
present, is arranged roughly thematically, starting with a section titled “On
The Field,” followed by “Retaliation,” “Cheating” and “Teammates.” The first
two sections are intertwined in classic cause/effect fashion. Take the
etiquette of base-stealing. It’s generally understood that if your team has
racked up, say, a 12-5 lead by the seventh inning, decorum and respect for the
other team means that you do not steal a base, as that would be tantamount to
attempting to run the scoreboard and embarrass your opponent. But that’s
exactly what San Diego Padres outfielder Rickey Henderson, one of the sport’s
all-time stolen base leaders, did during a 2001 game against the Milwaukee
Brewers. The Brewers’ manager went ballistic, storming onto the field and
informing Henderson
that “he had just become a target for the Brewers pitching staff.” After the
inning was over the Padres manager took Henderson out, effectively preventing
his star from getting “drilled” his next time at bat and also avoiding a potential
conflagration on the playing field (Henderson maintained that he’d been told to
steal, but not too many believed him). The funny thing, though, is that one
team’s “disrespect” is another’s “insurance”; the authors interviewed a number
of players about the Henderson incident and others similar to it, and opinions
were mixed, with some respondents coming down on the side of the Code and
others pointing out that they’re paid to win
games
and in the sometimes upside-down world of professional baseball, a
12-5 lead with three innings left to play isn’t necessarily a shoo-in.

 

Speaking of getting drilled by pitchers: those aren’t always
wild throws you see sending batters sprawling. The book is rife with examples
of pitchers, either acting on orders or out of sheer intimidation, taking aim
at the batter’s back, arm, leg and shoulder – per the Code, deliberate
headshots are a no-no; a 96-mph fastball can cause brain damage – in an attempt
to send a message to the hitter while avoiding censure (or ejection) from the umpire.
The intimidation factor seems logical enough. Poster child for this was hurler
Nolan Ryan, whose dominance of the game was a combination of natural-born skill
and a keen ability to mess with the minds of his opponents via brushback and duster
pitches; “crowd my plate,” he seemed to be saying, “and you’ll be picking your
ass up out of the dirt,” and those who didn’t take the hint would receive the
proverbial and painful free trip to first base with his next pitch. Sometimes,
however, a pitcher is simply delivering due process. It may take the form of
simple tit-for-tat; one of Team A’s batters gets drilled, and when Team B is
up, one of theirs will in turn get drilled (typically, the first man at bat, or
the Team B player having the equivalent field position of the Team A batter).
Or it may be a direct response to a specific infraction; say Team A’s guy is
judged to be an overzealous baserunner when he knocks down Team B’s second
baseman – next time he bats, he’s gonna get drilled. Or it may be an incredibly
arcane transaction, as in the delightfully bizarre case of pitcher Tommy
Lasorda knocking down slugger Buster Mayfield three times in a single game.
Mayfield’s offense? Years earlier, he’d refused to give a teenage Lasorda an
autograph, and when Lasorda became a major league baseball player he set his
sights on eventual revenge for the slight.

 

The book devotes a good number of pages to stories like
these, including the complexities of team rivalries that lead to, more often
than not, those “bench clearing brawls” the subtitle advertises. Among those
that have passed into lore: an August 12, 1984 game between the Atlanta Braves
and the San Diego Padres described as “the Desert Storm of baseball fights.”
Write the authors, “Total damage: six brushback pitches, three hit batters,
four bench-clearing incidents, two full-on brawls that nearly spiraled out of
control when fans rushed the field, nineteen ejections, five arrests, and a
nearly unprecedented clearing of the benches by the umpires.” (Somewhere on
YouTube, we can only pray, an enterprising fan has posted clips of all this.)

 

The section on Cheating, though less colorful, has its share
of juicy anecdotes, from tales of pitchers legendary for their prowess at
hurling spitballs (or balls doctored with other substances, like K-Y Jelly or
pine tar) and their ingenuity at hiding the substances in their gloves or on their
persons; to sign-stealing and all its variants, which over the years have
involved batters sneaking a peek at the catchers, a second-base runner with a
clear view of the catcher picking up on the signals and transmitting it to the
batter, and a team member positioning himself behind a gap in the scoreboard,
armed with military grade binoculars aimed at home plate, and subsequently
triggering a prearranged code via buzzer to the dugout so the manager himself
can let the batter know what’s about to be thrown. The question of steroid use
in the modern era really isn’t dealt with much in the book – probably a wise
editing decision, since that’s a huge can of worms all in itself. But the
general consensus is that, while cheating is indeed cheating, there are
gradations of it, and some forms such as sign stealing are even accepted as
part of doing daily business in baseball. “If you’re not cheating, you’re not
trying,” goes the mantra, along with the dictum, “If you do get caught
cheating, there probably won’t be any retribution meted out as long as you
stop” (for that game, at least). As with the base stealing/acceptable lead
scenario above, opinions can diverge wildly. One fascinating tale involved a player
who, due to his Christian-forged morals and ethics, absolutely refused to take
part in any activity he deemed untoward, particularly cheating but also
including retaliation, and he wound up getting traded after barely a single
season because his personal Code didn’t jibe with his team’s. (The fourth section
of the book delves into how franchises have their own unwritten rules, how they
enforce them, and how rookies have to master them quickly if they want to
survive.)

 

In conclusion, though, Turbow and Duca admit that the Code no
longer wields the power it once did in baseball. “The unwritten rules,” they
writer, “are under a multi-pronged attack from forces that have become
inextricably intertwined with the fabric of the game.” Those forces include money (playing for the “love of the
game” has been replaced by love of multimillion dollar salaries, which tends to
relegate respect for the past and for tradition to the backburner); media (it’s hard for unwritten rules to
be self-policed away from the public eye when you have a hungry 24/7 news cycle
that needs to be fed); and fundamentals (league expansions mean more and more young players never privy to a sit-down
from a veteran who can pass along his accumulated knowledge).

 

Just the same, Turbow and Duca express optimism that as long
as there is baseball, there will be some version of the Code existing to
motivate and guide players. They quote player David Bell, who notes, “The name
of the game is trying to win, but you have to keep it in perspective. Show
people respect. You want to walk away from a game or a career saying, ‘I feel
good about the way I treated people, about the way I competed.’ It’s nice to
say you won, but I think, in the long run, those are the things that you are
going to feel best about.”

 

Funny – that’s exactly what I was trying to get across to my
son the other day when, after letting him excitedly blow off steam over his
team winning their first game, I offered him the old saw about “it’s not
whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game.” That may seem impossibly
corny, but it’s true. At least I
still believe it.

 

And in a couple of years, I plan to pass along to the kid my
copy of The Baseball Codes just to
remind him of it.

 

 

Read an excerpt from
the book here.

 

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