Home Featured Brown: Reaction to Tatis Jr.’s breaking of ‘unwritten’ rule shows that despite holdouts, baseball is heading in the right direction

Brown: Reaction to Tatis Jr.’s breaking of ‘unwritten’ rule shows that despite holdouts, baseball is heading in the right direction

by Chris Brown

When Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. clubbed two home runs and drove in seven runs against the Rangers on Aug. 17, the next day’s big baseball storyline should have been about the incredible abilities of a player who at age 21 is already one of the game’s brightest stars.

After all, Tatis Jr. became the youngest player with a 7 RBI game in nearly 60 years. He became the fastest hitter in Padres history to reach 10 home runs — in 24 team games. His 11 longballs became the most by any player age 21 or younger in his team’s first 25 games of a season in MLB history. 

Entering play on Aug. 19, Tatis Jr. leads MLB in home runs (11), runs scored (23), RBI (28) and stolen bases (6, tied with three others). Did I mention he’s 21 years old?

But Tatis Jr.’s talent wasn’t the hot topic the next day. Instead of a discussion about an elite young talent, the baseball community was roped back into a discussion as old as the sport itself: its so-called “unwritten rules”, a set of norms passed down from generation to generation establishing a wide variety of behaviors deemed inappropriate in certain situations.

You see, the second of those two home runs — a grand slam — came in a 3-0 count with San Diego leading Texas by seven runs in the eighth inning, something Rangers manager Chris Woodward took exception to. 

“There’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” Woodward told reporters after the game. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

It wasn’t just in postgame comments that the Rangers expressed their displeasure with Tatis swinging in such a situation. The very next pitch from Texas reliever Ian Gibaut sailed behind Manny Machado, leading the game’s umpires to convene, but not to issue any warnings or ejections. 

This is the part of the story where I list all the ways in which Woodward’s line of thinking is absurd. Here’s just a few of the many reasons:

  • You play to win the game. Batters are taught from a young age to grind out every at-bat, because you never know what’s going to happen. Large deficits have been overcome plenty of times before. In 2016, the Padres lost a game they led by 10 runs. And just last year, San Diego won a game it trailed in by seven runs. It’s not over until the final out is recorded.
  • Why is it that we would expect MLB players to stop trying to score runs and succeed at the plate when their team’s lead gets to some unknown point at some unknown stage of the game? If the manager on the losing team in these scenarios thinks the other team’s players should stop trying to succeed because their team is getting knocked around, then perhaps baseball needs to implement some sort of white-flag rule where managers can prematurely end games they’ve given up on.
  • For what reason should these unwritten, unclear, norms be deemed more valuable than watching one of the best players in baseball play to the best of his ability? The last I checked, sports are supposed to be fun.

Those are just a few brief points. I could expand on them and many others, making this just like hundreds of other columns written about this situation.

But then I arrived at another question: Just how much of the baseball community am I — and so many others — actually arguing against here? 

Woodward is surely far from the only prominent figure in the sport with this type of view. But in the hours and days that have followed Tatis’ grand slam, countless individuals from the baseball community, from current players to legendary Hall of Famers, from today’s managers to widely-respected, retired skippers, from media members to countless fans, have expressed support for Tatis’ actions and disapproval of those citing unwritten rules as an argument against them. 

Here’s a sampling of some of those comments:

Current and former players:

Indians outfielder Delino DeShields Jr.: “”MLB, we had a slogan a couple years ago, ‘Let the kids play.’ We have to follow through with that. Let us do what we do. Have fun. If you get upset at players just enjoying the game, then I don’t know, maybe it’s not for you.”

Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez: “3-0 counts rule ?? you just have to pitch better if you don’t want that to happen I never see that rule and I take my self as an example because I’m the king????of 3-0 counts ??‍♂️??‍♂️”

Yankees starter Gerrit Cole: “It’s pretty hard to hit a grand slam. So whatever count you wanna try to hit one, go for it.”

White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson: “He shouldn’t have apologized. There’s no need for that. Apologize for what?”

Pirates starter Jameson Taillon: “Don’t be in a 3-0 count. As a pitcher, being behind in the count is called a hitters count for a reason. Make better pitches earlier in the count. A guy that has the tendency to swing 3-0 is an opportunity to make a good pitch and get a quick out.”

Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench: “So you take a pitch…now you’re 3-1. Then the pitcher comes back with a great setup pitch…3-2. Now you’re ready to groundout into a double play. Everyone should hit 3-0. Grand Slams are a huge stat.”

Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson: “Fernando Tatis keep playing hard and playing great,  it’s a pleasure to watch you play,  love your success and the Padres rise to be a winner. Keep leading the way. It ain’t easy to hit Hrs. Keep bringing energy you have to the game, we need players like you. An All Star”

Boston Red Sox pitcher Collin McHugh: “Swinging in a 3-0 count should not be against any rules, no matter the score. Before a game I would always look to see what % a guy swings 3-0. If it’s over 20%, it means I can’t just groove one. The guys who will never “give you a pitch” at the plate are the toughest AB’s.”

Current and former managers:

Longtime MLB manager Buck Showalter: “I can go back to the 50s and 60s and show those guys it was played different than the way you played in the 70s and 80s,” Showalter continued. “I think we all need to kind of take a pill and keep in mind, if it doesn’t upset the players or the fans, who are we to impose our will on how we were brought up to play the game. Does it make us right? Does it make us wrong? Not necessarily, but go by what the players are telling you.”

Cubs manager David Ross: “With a 7-run lead, I’m probably not even looking at my coach and telling the guys to take or not. I’m just letting the game play out at that point. If the guy wants to swing, I don’t have a problem with it. Especially when he’s one of the best players in the game.”

Phillies manager Joe Girardi: “”I’m OK with managers keeping their foot on the pedal. I’m OK with that. That doesn’t bother me. … I’m a fan of just letting the guys play. Because you never know.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker: “There are not many leads that are safe anymore… It’s just like us, we’re in a game the whole game… I don’t see it [as] that big a deal.”

Yankees manager Aaron Boone: “If you really break it down, guys aren’t and shouldn’t be offended by guys swinging at a 3-0 count like last night.”

Former MLB manager and current Mariners bench coach Manny Acta: “While coaching 3b in Montreal, I held up a runner at 3rd base out of “respect” for the other club. Frank Robinson almost grabbed me by the ear and said to me: “Listen son, you only have enough runs when you’re showering after a win” #unwrittenrules”

That’s a lot of comments, I know. But that’s the point. Players, coaches, media members and fans alike are more united on this issue than nearly any other I’ve seen in the sport in recent years. Even Major League Baseball itself made a statement of sorts, suspending Gibuat three games and Woodward one for the retaliation pitch behind Machado. 

Perhaps it’s just me being optimistic, but I view that partly as the league attempting to start minimizing the nonsense of unwritten rules. Regardless, MLB is, by suspending the pair, discouraging actions that lead to less exciting baseball. 

Despite so much unity on the issue, discussion of baseball’s unwritten rules will not be a thing of the past any time too soon. There will still be some prominent holdouts. And it’s also important to remember that all unwritten rules aren’t viewed equally by many within the game. So the next time, instead of swinging in the 3-0 count with a big lead, it could be bunting to break up a no-hitter, or a number of other perceived violations.

That said, the unity from the baseball community shows the sport is moving in the right direction. Perhaps the next time a player like Tatis breaks a supposed unwritten rule in trying to succeed or showing emotion, we can all focus on the enjoyment of watching the game’s most talented, exciting players on display. Because after all, I’m pretty sure sports are supposed to be fun.

Photo by Marshall Dunlap / Flickr

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