The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct
By Ross Bernstein
Forewords by: Rob Dibble, Torii Hunter & Jack Morris
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
About The Book
Like hockey, baseball too has its own sacred code of honor. While it differs somewhat in scope from its icy brethren, the baseball code, like hockey, is also all about respect and disrespect. Baseball is a game steeped in tradition with rules dating back to the game’s inception more than 150 years ago. Yet, while the code has been around since the early days of the game, it still remains a very taboo subject shrouded in a veil of secrecy. In fact, most players are downright uncomfortable talking about it on the record. You see, if they did, then that would be acknowledging that a code actually exists at all. Ross Bernstein, the author of 40 sports books, brings it all to life with the help of some 100 current and former Major Leaguers who he interviewed for the project.
The game of baseball is governed not only by an official rulebook, but also, and maybe more importantly, by an unwritten rulebook which is otherwise known as the code. It’s the game within the game. So, just what is the baseball code? It is a system of intimidation, retribution and retaliation between pitchers and hitters; all in an effort to keep the game on an even playing field. Fear, and the fear of excruciating pain, plays a huge role in baseball. It takes a brave man to stand in front of a 95 mph fastball and not be intimidated when it comes flying straight towards his face. That fear, of being hit and injured, is what keeps the players honest. It is the basis for the code.
The wheels of the code are sent into motion when any number of certain situations occur on the field. For instance, when a teammate gets plunked, retaliation of some sort is required — typically a retaliatory plunking of a similar caliber player on the opposing team. This of course changes if the game is a National League game, where pitchers are required to bat and there are no designated hitters. Pitchers in the NL understand that they are fair game if they so choose to drill a batter. These nuances between the American and National Leagues are all a part of the intricacies of the code.
With regards to the actual act of plunking the batter, there are many messages and meanings to consider. For starters, it is generally understood that when retaliating, it is a no-no to throw above the shoulders. There is a fine line between “chin music,” and a rising fast ball to the head which leaves the batter no chance to duck out of the way. One is a nonverbal threat, a warning shot over the bow, so to speak. The other, meanwhile, is extremely serious and can permanently injure or even kill the batter.
Other innuendos which may require retaliation include such things as a hard slide to break up a double play at second base; or a batter celebrating too much after hitting the ball out of the park and then taking his sweet time to trot around the bases. This is considered very disrespectful to the pitcher and will be dealt with the next time the batter comes to the plate. Nobody likes to be showed up in baseball, and that is a lesson that sometimes must be learned the hard way. It is just understood that when you hit a homer, you had better get on your horse and start running. If you want to smile and gaze at the ball with love and affection as it clears the fence, then you better not think about digging in the next time you come to bat… because you will more than likely get nailed.
Exceptions to this rule might include a guy like Sammy Sosa, who jumps like a ballerina as he tosses his bat and then blows his trademark kiss as he is about to round first. Pitchers know that this is just Sammy being Sammy, no disrespect. Other guys like Barry Bonds, who stands there and watches the ball land in the outfield seats from home plate, they are detested. Bonds is also despised because he wears hockey-like elbow pads which allow him to crowd the inside part of the plate with no fear of being plunked. On the other hand, pitchers know that the code frowns upon plunking future Hall of Famers. So it goes both ways.
Further innuendos may include a pitcher trying his damndest to prevent back-to-back-to-back homers in an inning. The third guy up is going to get nailed because no pitcher wants to give up a hat-trick, or he will find himself on the bench pretty quickly. Even jumping on the first pitch with aspirations of hitting if out of the park may warrant a pitcher taking offense. It just depends on the situation. It is also OK to bowl over the catcher when trying to score at home plate, but not if the catcher has left a lane for the runner to slide by safely. It is also a no-no for a middle infielder to pretend to catch a ball to trick the runner or hitter. The same is true for a base runner who tries to trick the infielder by yelling or lunging at him to get him to drop a fly ball. Those things will get you drilled. Baseball players have memories like elephants and will get even, even if that means waiting weeks, months or into the next season.
And here is another thing: If a batter gets nailed with a 95 mph fastball on the fleshy part of his thigh, he had better not act like a baby and start rubbing it. No way. He should suck it up and be a man by simply “walking it off” on his way to first base. Period. A batter can never let a pitcher know that he hurt him with a pitch, that would be a psychological advantage and a clear sign of weakness. The code forbids it unless he is knocked unconscious or bleeding bad enough to warrant some medical attention.
Another innuendo which may require retaliation occurs when either the batter or a base-runner sneaks a peek at the catcher’s signs to the pitcher. If a batter is caught doing so, he will be nailed. If the base-runner is caught doing so, when he is on second base and has a clear view of the catcher’s hand signals, and then relays what the upcoming pitch or pitch location is to the batter, then he too will be dealt with accordingly. In addition, stealing the third base coach’s hand signal signs for communicating orders such as base-stealing, bunting or to hit-and-run, are also part of the code, and may warrant retribution. Sign stealing plays a big part of the code. Doing it with your eyes to figure out the poker-tells is kosher; using electronics or technology is outright cheating. Both have been a part of the game for more than a 100 years.
Plunkings are just a part of the game and players understand this. The pitchers do too, which is why it is oftentimes tough for them to have to plunk an innocent bystander who may even be a personal friend outside of the white lines. The batters know the situations and usually know when it is coming, and they accept it. They also know the history of bad blood between certain players or between certain teams. Maybe there were words spoken after a game; or in the media; or even a blow-out game that was deemed as disrespectful — all or any of those things may warrant a plunking. Or, perhaps a flame-thrower such as Pedro Martinez is simply carrying a grudge. Needless to say, there are many reasons as to why retaliation strikes may occur.
Pitchers are so accurate, to within millimeters, that they can place the ball with pinpoint precision exactly where they want it. If a player gets hit in a certain spot, and the situation is ripe for payback, then there is no doubt as to whether or not a bean ball is just that, versus a mis-thrown wild pitch. That’s the ballplayer’s intuition, or sixth sense, taking over.
The unwritten rules of baseball are not just about payback and retribution. In fact, there are many, many more fascinating aspects and innuendos to it. Situations such as what a hitter should do on a 3-0 count in a blowout game are a part of the code too. If he is swinging for the fences in that situation, then the opposing team will have reason for retaliation on grounds of disrespect by both the hitter as well as the manager who gave him the green light in that situation. Run up the score on a team and payback will be certain, that much is for sure.
It is also understood that you don’t try to steal a base or bunt with a five or six-run lead in the last three innings of a game either — that is considered rubbing it in and may warrant retaliation as well. Furthermore, a hitter shouldn’t try to embarrass the pitcher off whom he just homered, and conversely, the pitcher shouldn’t try to mock the hitter that he just struck out. The code goes both ways.
Other idiosyncrasies which may warrant a pitcher taking issue may include something as nonchalant as a batter trying to gauge the rhythm and speed of a pitcher while he is in the on-deck circle. This is deemed as unfair and disrespectful to the pitcher and he may take offense as soon as the batter steps into the batter’s box. There are just certain things that you don’t do on the ball field, and that is one of them. These unwritten rules of the code oftentimes are learned the hard way by trial and error and baptism by fire. It usually only takes one 95 mph fastball to the ribs to figure it out.
Sometimes the pitcher will just toss what’s called a brush-back pitch, to get the batter to back off the plate a little bit. Nowadays it’s called “throwing inside.” Pitchers want the batter to be a little bit scared and to back off a bit, so that they can have the outside of the plate to their advantage with the umpire. Sometimes, however, the batter will not budge. That may warrant a plunking, depending on the situation. Other times, the batter may take offense, claiming that real estate next to the plate to be his, and his alone. When this happens, bench clearing brawls are oftentimes the end result of two alpha males barking loudly and holding their ground. When emotions take over, it’s on, and the fans love it.
When a bench-clearer ensues, usually the batter will charge the mound. The catcher will try to tackle him from behind, but it all happens very quickly. Punches are thrown and serious injuries can occur in the ensuing melee. Pitchers have to stand their ground, but don’t want to risk breaking a knuckle on their throwing hand by doing something foolish. It is a dangerous few seconds to be sure.
Players wear long metal spikes and foreign objects such as bats, gloves and catcher’s masks oftentimes end up as part of the fray. Opposing players from both sides sprint in from their positions on the field and are joined by the reserves from both dug-outs, as well as the players from the outfield bullpens. Everybody pairs up and tries to make sure there are no unfair two-on-one scenarios. The umpires try to keep order, but things can get ugly in a hurry. The code says that if a guy charges the mound, then the rest of the team had better follow… or else. There is no room for cowards on a baseball team, so players know that they better “show up,” or else they may find themselves sent down to the minors, or worse yet, traded or even released.
Other rules of charging the mound include the batter never bringing the bat with him. Back in the old days of baseball there are many a story about batters getting revenge on pitchers who nailed them with their 44 oz. hunks of lumber. Stories of players getting maimed are legendary, and are an ugly sidebar to the history of the game.
Most big league managers want their players to police the game themselves, rather than the umpires. Legendary manager Tony La Russa, of the St. Louis Cardinals, acknowledged in his book that he has ordered pitchers to retaliate and drill guys in certain situations. Probably every manager has done so, but few admit it publicly. A manager can’t just yell out to his pitcher from the dug-out to plunk a batter, so he must have other creative ways of communicating to him about what he wants done. Those nonverbal innuendos are all part of the code. It might be a look or it might be a sign called in to the third base coach which is then relayed to the catcher. If justice needs to be served, then the pitcher must react and do as he is instructed — or he too will be breaking the code.
The code has changed in recent years though, for better and for worse. Major League Baseball has gone through more than its fair share of heartache and controversy as of late and it has been forced to tighten its belt so to speak. The commissioner’s office put a greater onus on umpires to reduce the number of benches-clearing brawls these days, and as a result a warning system was put into place back in 2001. Now, when an ump has reason to believe that a batter is being thrown at, he warns both teams instantly that the next hit batter, intentional or not, will result in the pitcher and manager both getting ejected from the game. A fine and suspension may ensue as well. This has changed the landscape of the code, forcing the players to change and evolve their tactics to conform to the new rules.
The code also deals with other random subtle issues on and off the field as well. Issues such as “what happens in the locker-room, stays in the locker-room…” are a big part of the player’s code of honor. “Perks” that veteran ballplayers receive, such as the prime locker location in the clubhouse, may also be a part of the code. Other intricacies include: the media not talking to the starting pitcher until after he is done pitching. In fact, some managers don’t even want their own players talking to the starting pitcher before or during a game, as to not mess with his mental preparation or perhaps for superstitious reasons. And a player knows never, ever to remind a pitcher at any point during a game that he has a no-hitter going. That can jinx it all in a nanosecond. Consider things like this to be “subchapters of the code.”
Lastly, there is an entire section of the code that deals with the relationships between the players and managers, and the umpires. Just exactly what can be said and not said to an ump without getting tossed is an art form all to itself. It is just understood that players do not talk about the ump’s mother, or he will be given a one-way pass to the club house. Knowing what to say, how to say it and when to say it are all a part of the code, and it can get pretty humorous for sure. Stories here are plentiful. Beyond that, it is generally understood that if a batter disrespects an ump or tries to show him up, then he will not be getting any special favoritism, or “good calls” in the future. Cross the line with an ump and he will make you pay one way or another. Some claim that there is a code within the code when dealing with the umpires.
The bottom line with baseball’s unwritten rules is that it all comes down to one word: respect: respect of the game, respect of the past history of the game, and a respect of the opposition. The code, in a nutshell, is about players sacrificing individual glory for the good of the team. Professional baseball players make millions of dollars on the field, and for many, millions more off of it through endorsement deals. Players want to be individuals and stand out in the crowd. They have big egos and big personalities, which put a big “I” in team. But, they have to know that if they choose to showboat and act disrespectful towards an opposing pitcher or opposing team, then there is a price to pay for that type of selfish behavior. The code makes sure of that. That is why the game polices itself at this level.
The book will delve into many taboo subjects surrounding the code, including bench clearing brawls, the abolishment of the designated hitter, and even the issue of drugs and steroids in the “juiced ball era.” Yes, the code is about respect, but it is also about how the game polices itself; accountability; and even about how players build team camaraderie amongst one another through intimidation and retaliation. It is amazing what standing up for a teammate can do for team morale. Boys will always be boys, and when a teammate gets nailed, intimidated or disrespected, then the wheels of retaliation are set into motion. It could be bad blood between two players or teams, or a heat of the moment incident — either way, baseball players will always find a way to even the score. Welcome to the baseball code. Play ball!