Wednesday, August 04, 2010

#158: Rules of the Game

---Weight of an Unwritten Code---

We're gonna have a nice, long discussion about this on my radio show this Saturday morning.

During the radio broadcast of Cincinnati Reds @ Pittsburgh Pirates Tuesday night, Greg Brown and Steve Blass engaged in some call-in banter during a rain delay. Toward the end of the delay, they had a call from a Reds fan (listening on the despicable XM) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana who made the comment that he's tired of seeing all these players in baseball being all buddy-buddy.

He specifically cited an instance where Jason Heyward of the Atlanta Braves hit the go-ahead double on Friday night to lift his team over Cincy in extra innings. Then, TV broadcasts covering the pregame the following day showed Heyward and the Reds' Brandon Phillips sharing a laugh or something.

Blass said that there was a thing called professionalism and that, during a game, a player's sole purpose is to contribute to a winning effort for his team. Essentially, he agreed that you have no friends wearing different uniforms. He also said that umpires used to sit in the stands during warmups and were supposed to notice "breaches" of some unwritten code that went against that business-only approach.

That started my wheels turning.

What got them smoking happened in the bottom of the second inning.

Reds' rookie starting pitcher Mike Leake hit Pirate center fielder Andrew McCutchen in the back of the head/neck with a pitch that put him out of the game with a contusion.

While Brown and Blass were talking that "intent" was usually difficult to discern, especially after only one pitch, there must be an equalizer in the next half-inning, especially with Leake due up second. Brown harkened back to a game earlier in the season in Los Angeles where McCutchen took two pitches very close. While neither hit him, he said that the intent had been clear, and the Pirates had failed to send a message in the subsequent half inning.

Flash forward to the top of the third inning in this ballgame: after one out and the Pirates leading 6-0, Pirate starter Paul Maholm puts a 1-0 pitch into Leake's leg. Home plate umpire Dana DeMuth warned both benches (meaning the next pitch determined to be closer than necessary to a batter was going to result in the ejection of the offending pitcher).

The broadcasters, particularly Blass, said that Reds manager Dusty Baker probably told Leake that he was going to get hit by a pitch, to just take it, put the bat down, and go to first.

At that point, Blass said that matter was over and done with, the sides were even, and everyone could move on.

Thus goes baseball's Unwritten Code.

You don't throw biting curveballs to opposing pitchers.

You don't yell when you're a runner on the basepaths, trying to confuse the infielders getting ready to field a pop-up.

You don't let it slide when one of your players gets hit, even if it wasn't intentional.

Of course, I may be a poor judge of "intent". I'm one of about five people who doesn't think Roger Clemens intended to bean Mike Piazza with a pitch back in 2000. This probably appears even more foolish today as Clemens has given us reasons to doubt his benevolence.

Still, in the case of a game involving a division leader and a league-wide laughing stock, it's pretty clear that the plunking was not Leake's intent.

There were two men on with two outs, and the Pirates were already leading 2-0. The last thing a pitcher would want to do is load the bases while trailing on the road.

Nevertheless, Leake will probably have a welt to show for his mistake tomorrow.

I've got a number of issues here. How is this "even up?" How much leave do we give "macho" before "intelligence" takes over? Or maybe that second question is backwards.

I hate mound-charging. I hate fighting in hockey. I hate fans of opposing teams getting involved in brawls. This does not equate to "fun" for me. Nor does it set a good example for the kids who grow up idolizing these sports figures.

The "message" that Brown might have been referring to, could relatively easily escalate to that old line from "The Untouchables" - "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!"

And sending such a message also could jeopardize the outcome of the game. A team's primary objective is to win the game on the scoreboard. Not to show up the other team using some silent "guy" understanding.

In this case, Maholm had a six-run lead with no one on base. Had the Reds managed to put the kibosh on the Bucs with just two runs on the board, Maholm would have been allowing the tying run to come to the plate (and in the form of Pirate-killer Brandon Phillips, no less).

The Pirates barely hung on, eventually winning 7-6. When you're the Pirates, you need every run you can get and as few opposing baserunners as possible. If the rest of the game had played out the same way, except that Phillips homered in his at bat, the Bucs are on the losing end of an 8-7 victory. Is hitting the pitcher still worth it?

Phillips ended up flying out in the at-bat following Leake's HBP, but, according to the broadcasters, Phillips gave Maholm a steely glare all the way back to the dugout.

Imagine if Leake had, instead, managed to hit the first pitch on the field of play and made an out before Maholm could have "settled the score" with him. According to this "code", then, Maholm would have had to have drilled Phillips instead. Considering the ill feelings Phillips displayed after his at bat, I can only imagine Phillips would have taken a trip to the mound to "talk it over" with Maholm. You can bet ejections would have ensued then.

Speaking of which, DeMuth (the umpire) could have ejected Maholm simply for his second pitch to Leake, because his intent was far more clear. Fortunately for Maholm and the Pirates, DeMuth was complicit with the Code, allowed it to play out, then warned the benches. He didn't have to do it that way.

Am I making sense here? The Unwritten Code allows for the all-important sportsmanship to be thrown into the backseat.

Worse, the fans eat it up.

When doing high school sports broadcasts for the MSA Sports Network, I make it a point to give credit to any athlete I see showing good sportsmanship. When a football player from Team A helps a player from Team B to his feet, I praise that act. And I do it specifically because other folks have no problem pointing out the crass and disrespectful acts that others display while ignoring the noble ones.

I'm not sure which is the greater tragedy: That the Code trumps sportsmanship, or that those watching believe it should.

Join me this Saturday morning, August 7, 2010 from 9:15-10AM Eastern on 590 AM on your radio dial (or online) on the next installment of "Steeltown Sports: Live!"


Post a Comment

<< Home