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Mudville: April 14, 2024 6:16 am PDT

Unwritten

BY DEB SEYMOUR

Last week, a play at shortstop by Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays drew a lot of social media attention as being an example of “hot dogging” or “showboating” – or whatever your favorite expression is for showing off while making a baseball play, either at the plate or on the field.

Franco was making a fairly typical shortstop play on a hitter and instead of just throwing the ball to first base, he tossed it up in the air, a little like a juggler, before throwing out the runner. It looked a bit like something a fielder would do if he lost the ball on the transfer from the glove to the throwing hand and made a nice recovery – and then still managed to throw out the runner; except most viewers saw some intentionality in the juggling move and many disapproved.

When asked about it after the game, Franco said it was something he had been doing during practice and he must have unintentionally done it during an actual game, not meaning to showboat or embarrass the runner at all. But the following day he flipped his bat at the plate after a hit and made a joke of it, which didn’t help his case for sincerity the previous day.

Of course, you could ask, “Why was the runner not running hard enough to beat out the juggling move in a real game situation?” Yet fans and analysts alike didn’t seem focused on the runner; rather, they were more focused on Franco’s seeming antics on the field – and on whether or not those types of antics are good for the game.

For this generation of players, the post-home run bat flip is par for the course; although it’s pretty easy to recall a time when there was general disapproval of bat flipping unless it was in a game walk-off situation or a postseason game-winning situation or the like.

That’s not to say there isn’t footage out there of Mickey Mantle flipping his bat – because there is; but Mantle was a special kind of hitter and he didn’t bat flip after every home run he hit.

The Mick-flip.

Some of the social media commentary about the Wander Franco ball toss (or ball juggle) exclaimed that it was a violation of the unwritten rules of baseball. There have been bat flips, too, that have been called violations of the unwritten rules.

On Friday night, the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Yankees in the first meeting of the season of those two teams. Early in that game, Tampa’s Randy Arozarena hit a homerun – and then proceeded to incorporate a different kind of “celly,” or celebration, at each base (including home plate) as he rounded the bases to complete his homerun trot. Subsequently, Yandy Diaz homered for the Rays, as well; but that didn’t turn out to be germane to the rest of this story.

Two different Yankee pitchers hit Arozarena with a pitch after those homeruns, Jonny Brito and Albert Abreu.

Now, given the sad state of Yankee pitching this year, it was almost 99% the case that those hbp’s were entirely accidental; yet, nevertheless, warnings were issued to both dugouts. It seemed like Rays manager Kevin Cash wanted the second Yankee pitcher, Abreu, thrown out of the game, however – and instead ended up tossed himself, for arguing with the umpires.

To me, this situation encapsulated the violation of the unwritten rules of baseball far more than the juggle play by Franco two days earlier.

How many unwritten rules were violated? Let us count them, shall we?

For starters, Arozarena bat flipping and then celebrating at each base in the process of completing one homerun was definitely a violation of the unwritten rules. If the unwritten rules are mostly about not showing up the other team over the course of a game, Arozarena violated those rules five times after one swing of the bat.

Randy Arozarena #56 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates his home run against the New York Yankees as he rounds the bases during the first inning at Tropicana Field on May 5, 2023 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Then we have the retaliation pitch; and though the rules against throwing it eventually became codified, the situations in which you throw it certainly began as unwritten rules that were understood by players throughout the league. Expressions like “head hunting” and “pushing the hitter off the plate” and “getting thrown at” didn’t come about through the rule book. They came about through common baseball parlance amongst players, the media, and fans.

The rules that were eventually written are supposed to discriminate between intentional throwing at an opposing player, and unintentional hit by pitches. Unfortunately for the umpires, however, the situation generally necessitates a judgment call – and umpires, despite their virtues or lack thereof, cannot get inside a pitcher’s head to know whether he threw at a hitter on purpose.

So the decision is almost always made based on the game situation. How wild was the pitcher before throwing the pitch that hit the hitter? Was there anything he might be retaliating against? Etc.

And thus warnings were issued to both teams on Friday night, and neither Brito nor Abreu was tossed from the game – though they had both hit a Ray batter: the batter who had hit the homerun with the quintuple celly afterward.

Cash, on the other hand, didn’t see eye to eye with the umpires on this one – it turns out he thought the hbp’s were unintentional; this despite his hitter having been the one plunked (he was probably trying to protect his own pitchers in case they hit a Yankee).

Cash would still probably have been okay with Abreu being tossed, however.

Let’s face it: fans can’t usually tell exactly what was said between a manager and the umpires, and there are unwritten rules about what merits a manager being tossed from a game. And according to Friday’s night’s umpiring crew – specifically first base umpire and crew chief Lance Barksdale – Cash crossed the line. Whatever it was he said, it was deemed game ejection worthy. And he was thrown out.

Kevin Cash #16 of the Tampa Bay Rays argues with umpire Lance Barksdale #23 during the fifth inning of the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on May 5, 2023 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

That’s an awful lot of unwritten rule violations for five innings in one single game.

Yet, somehow, the Wander Franco ball juggle was the (alleged) unwritten rule violation getting all the attention last week.

Of course, the reason for this is all the unwritten rule violations occurring in the Yankees-Rays game were of the daily game routine kind of stuff; whereas what Wander Franco did by juggling the baseball – on one play, in one single game – wasn’t something you see every day.

Randy Arozarena celebrating at each base of a regular season homerun has become so much a part of the game that it doesn’t even bear mentioning anymore; whereas one baseball toss in the air by his teammate Franco saturated baseball Twitter for two full days.

So what, exactly, are the unwritten rules about – and why do people even care about them?

As we mentioned earlier, most of what people used to call “the unwritten rules” of baseball had to do with showing up, or embarrassing, the opposing team – or even the umpires. And somewhere along the way, showmanship just got rolled into those aspects of the game that were understood for decades.

Christian Bethancourt #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays react to his three-run home run against the New York Yankees during the sixth inning at Tropicana Field on May 7, 2023 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

When you’re up by 10 runs, you don’t attempt to steal a base. When you’re blowing out the other team, you don’t bunt for an extra run by moving a runner to second. When you’re in the process of winning a so-called laugher, you don’t head hunt or intentionally pitch inside to the other team. And so forth.

But guess what? In today’s game, these kinds of unwritten rules are violated daily. No number of runs is ever too many. No lead is safe. So stolen bases, bunting, and pitching inside can occur till the end of the game, no matter what the game situation, and it’s rarely complained about anymore. Because everyone understands by now that with the home run being king in baseball, one swing of the bat can turn a laugher into a cryer within mere seconds.

Hence at this point, therefore, it’s really just the showmanship aspects of the unwritten rules that remain on the table to be debated. And with players and teams annually becoming more and more creative with their cellies, I guess my question is this: why was what Wander Franco did at shortstop any worse than what Randy Arozarena did as a home run hitter two days later?

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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