Generally speaking, when someone expects a rule to be followed, it is written down. Whether it be in a school, office, you name it, there is probably a set list of rules and guidelines. It is all across the world of sports, as well. Each professional league (and little league, for that matter) has a set of outlined rules and guidelines that are universally accepted and followed.
So what happens when there are “unwritten” rules? Well, it can be inferred that if there are rules of this kind, since they are unwritten, not everyone will be aware of them. They also might be misinterpreted, or not accepted by all.
When your team is winning, have you ever been taught to take your foot off the gas and ease up? Hopefully not. The whole point of sports is to play until the final whistle, out, etc. If you don’t, you risk providing a window for the opponent to creep back into the game and possibly gain the confidence they need to mount a comeback.
The San Diego Padres were winning by seven runs Monday night in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers. With a 3-0 count and the bases loaded, Fernando Tatis Jr. launched a grand slam after getting a very favorable pitch. In the following hours of the game, he was criticized not only by Rangers manager Chris Woodward, but also his own manager Jayce Tingler. His own manager. Why? Apparently, he broke an unwritten rule of baseball that says to not swing at a 3-0 pitch when leading by a large margin, in order to not run up the score.
With 8:31 remaining in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons were dominating the New England Patriots by a score of 28-3. In the moment of the game, considering all of the momentum Atlanta had and the way New England was playing, it seemed impossible that the Patriots would win. Yet, they orchestrated the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, winning 34-28 in overtime. Decision-making was among the critiques of how the Falcons handled the second half, but it never appeared that they actively stopped trying to score. Ever since, Atlanta has turned into the prime example of why you can never ease up or count out your opponent, no matter the time or score.
Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous late comeback attempts from teams who were behind by a large margin. The Phillies, who have notoriously experienced bullpen missteps with leads, saw a 12-run lead shrink to five in the ninth inning of a game versus the Braves on August 10. Three outs is all they needed, but they let in so many runs that their closer had to start warming up. This has happened twice with the Padres in the past month as well, except they were on the losing side. In a game on August 2, the Rockies were up 9-1 going into the eighth inning, and the Padres collected five runs over the final six outs to make the final score 9-6. Roughly two weeks later, the Diamondbacks were winning 7-1 going into the eighth and edged out what became a nail-biting final score of 7-6.
The Padres were no stranger to this, clearly having mounted valiant comebacks down by six or more runs. So what was preventing the Rangers, in the eighth inning and down seven, to replicate what the Padres did?
Throughout the history of sports, it has been proven time and time again that anything can happen at any moment, therefore theoretically instilling the mindset to not ease up before the game ends. There are respectful ways to run up the score, and pretty much every team in every sport abides by that respectful way.
Baseball has a lot of these unwritten rules, as detailed by Anthony Castrovince. For example, one of the more well-known unwritten rules is to not bunt during a no-hitter. If your team is struggling to get a hit, wouldn’t you want to find a way to manufacture a base runner instead of being embarrassed for nine innings? There is a difference from being cheap and bunting and bunting to generate some form of offense.
Unwritten rules have been thrust into the national spotlight in recent years. Most notably, bat flips have come under scrutiny ever since José Bautista’s series-changing three-run home run in the 2015 ALDS. White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson provided one of the most memorable bat flips last season after a home run against the Royals in mid-April. Brad Keller, who gave up that home run, was offended by it and hit Anderson with a pitch during his next plate appearance, which generated both benches and bullpens to clear.
The difference between this and the Tatis story this week was how Anderson’s manager, Rick Renteria, reacted to it. “He’s our guy,” Renteria said after the game. “I want him to have fun, and he’s going to continue to have fun.”
Tingler, in response to the home run Monday night, had a much different message to send. “He’s young, a free spirit and focused and all those things,” he said. “That’s the last thing that we’ll ever take away. It’s a learning opportunity and that’s it. He’ll grow from it. Just so you know, a lot of our guys have green light 3-0. But in this game particular, we had a little bit of a comfortable lead. We’re not trying to run up the score or anything like that.”
It is understandable how many questioned this response. The idea that it’s a learning opportunity to not try to produce more runs because the team is winning by a lot is a flawed one. If kids in little league are taught to always play their hardest, Major League players should be able to as well.
It should also be noted that statistics often influence contracts. While it might seem minuscule in the moment, any statistic a player can accumulate can help them earn more money when it comes time to negotiate their next contract. Tatis has become one of the most exciting players in baseball, and has the statistics to back it up. He currently leads the league in offensive WAR (1.7), home runs (12), runs batted in (29), and multiple other categories that focus around run creation. While he isn’t eligible for free agency for a few years, everything he does between now and then will influence how much money he can get at the negotiating table. That is why every run he can create or home run he can hit matters.
Monday night brought out some of the old-school thinking that still presides in the sport today, despite the influx of young and exciting talent that does not necessarily abide by the same mindset. For the most part it seems like the league is shedding a lot of these unwritten rules as the game gets younger, faster, and more exciting, but the events from this week prove there is still room to grow into the more modern version of what baseball is.
(Cover Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)