Baseball’s old-fashioned unwritten rules are stunting the modern game

Brendan Hail

Placeholder while article actions load Dave Martinez seemed to be lamenting the end of something sacred. There were no clouds inside the Washington Nationals’ media room Saturday afternoon, so Martinez wasn’t yelling at them. He didn’t take a sip of prune juice before starting a back in my day rant […]

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Dave Martinez seemed to be lamenting the end of something sacred. There were no clouds inside the Washington Nationals’ media room Saturday afternoon, so Martinez wasn’t yelling at them. He didn’t take a sip of prune juice before starting a back in my day rant and never warned fellow manager Gabe Kapler and the San Francisco Giants to get off his lawn.

But when he was asked for his thoughts about competing in baseball, Martinez ended with something that sounded like matter-of-fact resignation. The big leagues no longer fully resemble the game that he broke into decades ago, when Martinez was praised by mentor Joe Maddon for playing the right way.

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time, but the game’s changed. So obviously [the Giants] do things differently,” Martinez said.

He was referring to the way San Francisco recently flouted baseball’s unspoken rules. Sigh, those rules.

Next to grandpa’s hooch and a Bing Crosby record rest the leather-bound volumes of baseball’s imaginary rules: hit a home run, then run robotically around the bases. If your team is up big late in the game and you get a pitch to hit on a 3-0 count, you better keep that bat on your shoulder. And as an additional article to that last rule, once the lead swells past the eighth inning, just stop competing all together.

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The strange thing about these books that govern a game so rigidly and can fill shelves upon shelves? The pages are blank. No one has taken the time to write down these rules. If you know, you know. And yet if teams or players decide to play by their own rules — as the Giants did in the ninth inning Friday night when infielder Thairo Estrada aggressively tried to add another run to their 7-1 lead — the offended parties have the right to fuss and howl and act as if they just dissed their mama.

That particular rule is somewhere in the empty book, too.

Martinez knows the game is changing. But because these rules live on, it’s not changing quickly enough. Even as baseball tries to tap one foot in 2022 by marketing shape-shifting stars such as Shohei Ohtani or future MVPs such as Juan Soto, the game has firmly planted the other in the ’90s — the 1890s.

Ever watch ballplayers before a game? Beyond the ropes and seemingly a fantasy world away, their leisure is enviable. They never look to be in a rush. They take it easy and perform the same warmup routines they once did as Kiwanis club little leaguers. They make boredom look glorious.

Yet during the actual game, under the warmth of a lazy and bright sun, these boys of summer can sometimes grow uptight, chaining themselves to last century’s rules and sapping the thrill out of competition.

For all his years in the majors, Alcides Escobar is considered a veteran infielder. But in real life, he is just 35 years old. He should never be confused with a grumpy old man, but there he was Friday night yelling toward the Giants’ dugout after Estrada attempted to play the game until the final out. Estrada was thrown out, which should have been justice enough, but that didn’t appease Escobar. He had to defend the rules.

After the game, Martinez shared only terse phrases about Estrada’s frisky play. But by the next morning, with tempers cooled down, he explained his philosophy on playing with a big lead late in the game.

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“We won’t try to run up the score. I’ll just say that. I don’t really believe in that. But you know, it’s not a rule. We all understand that. But the guys that played the game long enough — and I know their veteran players [over] there very well; I respect them a lot,” Martinez said as a smile sneaked through. “You might want to ask them about it.”

Five years ago, when Martinez buttoned up a Nationals jersey over a dress shirt and red necktie as the new manager, he was hailed for his old-school mentality. He even name-dropped the old-timers he learned from, taking pride in those lessons.

“I had some really good teachers back then,” Martinez said in 2017. “I learned how to play the game the right way.”

Those teachers probably gave him his tattered opus of the rules. But nowhere in that book does it tell a baseball team to stop hitting at all costs because the Nationals sure didn’t do so during their July 2018 rout of the New York Mets. They won a laugher, 25-4, and didn’t pity the Mets when infielder Jose Reyes took the mound. Instead they showed respect: When Reyes threw big, fat juicy steaks over the plate, the Nats ate. When a professional is on the mound, you don’t treat him like junior varsity reject. You keep hitting.

Also, the book of unwritten rules says nothing of the sort that comebacks should be off limits.

While a comeback like the Nationals needed Friday rarely happens, when it does, the achievement can be a historical footnote inside a championship season. No one who was around Nationals Park on Sept. 3, 2019, will ever forget that night, when Washington scored seven runs in the ninth to beat the New York Mets, 11-10. Maybe the Mets should have kept piling on in the top of that frame to keep the Nationals from making the biggest comeback in the ninth inning or later in franchise history. Or maybe they were too busy following the rules.

There was no magic like that here for the Nationals on Saturday when the Giants took the second game of the series, 5-2. The final score was sensible, so thankfully, no rules were broken. Instead, thousands of fans showed up, allowed themselves to be drenched by the sun, chilled out and had a good time cheering on their 6-11 baseball team.

Surely, for many of those fans who fell in love with the game when they were kids, the allure of baseball can be a wink and nod toward a simpler era. But for those of us in the bleachers who have evolved and keep waiting on progress, baseball remains stunted by the governance of rules that make little sense.

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