The Unwritten Canon, Revealed

Brooklyn Dodgers

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Wayne Gross hit a home run off reliever Ed Farmer, and took his time running around the bases. Farmer was furious, and immediately plotted revenge. But he didn't face Gross again until four years later, and by then they were teammates. On the first pitch of a batting practice session, Farmer hit Gross in the back with a 90 mph fastball.

"What was that for!" Gross screamed.

"That was for four years ago!" Farmer screamed back.

"OK," Gross said. "We're even!"

Welcome to the contentious, confusing, contradictory world of baseball's unwritten rules. There are so many of them, and they've existed for over 100 years, that it's hard to keep track of them, to process them.

Back in the 1960s, hard-throwing Stan Williams tracked them this way: He carried a list of names around in his cap.

"What are the names on the list?" Williams was asked.

"Those are the guys I have to get," Williams said.

"Why do you keep them in your cap?" Williams was asked.

"So I don't forget any of them," Williams said.

Yes, the game has changed a little since those days, and some of the responsibility for the enforcement of the unwritten rules has been taken away from the people who play it. Now, Major League Baseball polices the game, not the players. Now, umpires issue warnings after a questionable hit batsman, and often, the next pitcher to hit a batter gets ejected. And with the ejection often comes a suspension, sometimes for as many as 10 games.

Confusing? Contradictory? At least one veteran player insists baseball's unwritten rules are a thing of the past, with no present whatsoever.

"There is no fear of getting drilled anymore," the White Sox's Adam Dunn says. "A guy in front of me, who shouldn't be celebrating when he hits a home run, does, and I'm thinking, 'OK, they're coming after me now.' And it never comes. When you do something like that -- celebrate at home plate, or make a slow trip around the bases -- someone has to pay for that, preferably you. But the unwritten rules are dead. They are gone."

Make no mistake, though: Lines that aren't spelled out in any edition of the Official Baseball Rules still get crossed, and the players who cross them still face vigilante ramifications for their transgressions. The 2014 season is less than two months old, but it's already given us -- among other things -- a brawl in Pittsburgh over one unwritten rule, three ejections in St. Petersburg over another, a word war between the A's and the Astros over a third, and a tit-for-tat, by-the-(unwritten)-book reprisal in St. Louis over one more.

Dunn isn't wrong, exactly; it isn't as easy to retaliate as it once was. But he probably does over-state the situation. The unwritten rules are far from dead. And they still abide by one principle: This is a hard game played by hard men, vengeful men without remorse who have really long memories. If you disrespect them, their team or the game, you will pay, often with something in the ribs at 90 mph.

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