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Baseball’s Unwritten Rules: Where Does It Say You Can’t Do That?

Earlier this week, Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres hit a grand slam, a seemingly exciting moment for player, fans and teammates.

But because he had done it when his team was leading by seven runs, the blast earned him a postgame rebuke from his manager.

Tatis, you see, had broken one of baseball’s unwritten rules. Those rules can be mystifying and arbitrary to the casual fan, and sometimes to the hard-core one as well. “Violations” of these “rules” cause controversies in the game more often than you would think.

Tatis’s offense was swinging at a 3-0 pitch when his team had a 10-3 lead in the eighth inning. “He’s young, a free spirit,” Padres Manager Jayce Tingler told reporters after the game late Monday night. “It’s a learning opportunity, and that’s it. He’ll grow from it.”

Could there really be a bad time to hit a grand slam?

“In this game in particular, we had a little bit of a comfortable lead,” Tingler said of what eventually became a 14-4 win over the Texas Rangers. “We’re not trying to run up the score or anything like that.”

That all came as a surprise to Tatis.

“I know a lot of unwritten rules,” he said. “I was kind of lost on this.

“Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”

If you find it baffling that a player should let a good pitch go by rather than, say, hit a grand slam, you are not alone. Even rival players came to Tatis’s defense.

“Keep swinging 3-0 if you want to, no matter what the game situation is,” Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer wrote on Twitter. “The only thing you did wrong was apologize. Stop that.”

“If you don’t like giving up 3-0 grand slams, pitch better,” said Colin Poche, a Tampa Bay Rays pitcher.

Even a Hall of Famer weighed in.

“Everyone should hit 3-0. Grand slams are a huge stat,” Johnny Bench said.

It’s hard to make a list of baseball’s unwritten rules because, well, they’re unwritten. But in many cases they revolve around not showing up the opposition and not running up the score, of playing the game “the right way,” though that standard is similarly undefined. (There are also superstitions, like not talking about no-hitters.)

For the uninitiated, here are a few other violations to be wary of.

Rickey Henderson stole a base, something he did more than anyone else in baseball. But because his Padres led the Brewers, 11-5, in that game in 2001, the opposing manager, Davey Lopes, took exception, charging onto the field and threatening to have a pitcher throw at Henderson the next time he was up. (He didn’t get the chance. Henderson was prudently pulled from the game.)

Henderson may have had a good excuse for breaking the rule, though: It was later reported that he had been asleep in the clubhouse and didn’t know the score when he was sent out as a pinch-runner.

Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks was five outs from a perfect game. Ben Davis of the Padres broke it up by beating out a bunt. The tactic drew the ire of the Arizona bench. But the Padres were just as mad.

“We’re all tied for first place and we’re trying to win the game and they’re up there screaming at him because he dropped a bunt down,” the Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn told The San Diego Union-Tribune after the 2001 game. “So what? Who cares? We’re trying to win the game. They’re all hooting like we ain’t supposed to try to win a game.”

Credit…Darren Calabrese/CP, via Associated Press

There’s nothing like a flamboyant bat flip to incense an opposing team. There have been many over the years, but the top prize still may go to Jose Bautista for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2015 division series.

After he connected, Bautista froze at the plate watching the ball, then sent his bat deep into foul territory with a muscular hurl.

“He’s doing stuff kids do in Wiffle ball games,” Rangers reliever Sam Dyson groused.

A first-inning home run by Max Muncy of the Dodgers in San Francisco last season left the park and landed in McCovey Cove. What irritated Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, though, was the few moments Muncy spent watching it leave the park.

The two exchanged words even as Muncy finally circled the bases. Muncy related afterward: “He said, ‘Don’t watch the ball, you run.’ I just responded back, ‘If you don’t want me to watch the ball, you can go get it out of the ocean.’”

The only thing a humbled pitcher dislikes more than a slow start out of the batter’s box, though, is a slow home run trot.

Rhys Hopkins of the Phillies took 34 seconds to get around the bags in a game against the Mets in 2019, the slowest time in five years, according to Statcast. Perhaps he was motivated by two brushback pitches the night before by the same pitcher, Jacob Rhame.

Rhame took the high road. “He got me,” he said. “If I make a better pitch, he doesn’t get to run the bases.”

Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Pitchers are protective of the mound.

During a game in 2010, Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees was returning to first from third after a foul ball when he took the direct round — over the pitching mound. His bigger unwritten-rules violation, though, was letting his feet touch the rubber. It was enough for pitcher Dallas Braden of the A’s to yell at him on the field, and then go on a seven-minute postgame tirade.

“If my grandmother ran across the mound, she would have heard the same thing he heard — period,” Braden said. “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.”

Braden’s complaints were “pretty funny, honestly,” said Rodriguez, adding he had no idea what he did wrong.

While the unwritten rules can seem foolish sometimes, the former major leaguer Doug Glanville sees some value in them.

“Our lives are enveloped in unwritten rules that cover safety, politeness, respect, etiquette, money and so on,” he once wrote in The New York Times. “These are ways to acculturate a new generation in tradition, and doing that empowers that generation to take ownership, invest and evolve them.”

He added: “As a former big leaguer, I roll my eyes in isolated cases and think baseball players’ ideas on unwritten rules are silly and uptight, or even culturally insensitive to baseball’s evolving diversity. But I also see behind the bravado.

“Veterans and rookies, retired players and coaches engage across team loyalties about how they want the culture of the game to move forward. Imperfect, but considerably better than rejecting all lessons of the past — or, worse, ignoring them completely.”

And how has Tatis assimilated the lessons of the past? Despite his contrition after the game in which he hit a late grand slam, he returned the next night and stole third. His team was up by six runs at the time.

Benjamin Hoffman contributed reporting.

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