Stan Hochman: The unwritten rules of baseball

Posted: August 03, 2009

THE UNWRITTEN RULES of baseball? Embedded in our DNA. You don't steal home against a righthanded pitcher with your best hitter at the plate.

Chico Ruiz didn't know that unwritten rule or he didn't care when he stole home against Art Mahaffey, sixth inning, scoreless game, with Frank Robinson batting on Sept. 21, 1964.

Phillies lost that game, 1-0. Lost the next night, too, with manager Gene Mauch screaming obscenities at Ruiz and Chris Short plunking the Cincy infielder in the ribs. Lost the next night when Ruiz hit a homer. Lost the next seven games, squandered a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play, broke hearts from Manayunk to Mayfair.

And now at least two books are out there listing baseball's unwritten rules, "The Code," by Ross Bernstein, and "The Unwritten Rules of Baseball," by Paul Dickson.

Whoo-ha, if a rule appears between hard covers, is it no longer "unwritten?"

"Who wrote those rules?" rumbled Davey Lopes, the Phillies' first-base coach, answering a question with a more meaningful question. Lopes appears in both books for an incident that happened in 2001 when Lopes was managing a woeful Milwaukee team and San Diego's Rickey Henderson stole second with his team leading, 12-5.

When were they written might be a better question, because miniature ballparks and mediocre pitching have twisted the arithmetic on just when a big lead is safe, if ever.

"It was the top of the eighth," is the way Lopes recalls it. (Actually, it was the seventh.) "We were a bad ballclub. How many times did we ever rally from seven runs down?

"I went out there to talk to my pitcher and I yelled something at Rickey. I didn't want my pitcher throwing at the next guy. I'm a firm believer in getting the guy that did something and not the guy who comes behind him."

So, it wasn't a pleasant exchange with Henderson?

"I didn't invite him to dinner, no," Lopes said of his one-time Oakland teammate.

So, did you threaten to stick one in his ear his next time up?

"Maybe," Lopes answered, 8 years after the episode. "But they took him out of the game."

Lopes got suspended for two games because he told the media how he felt.

"That was pretty crazy," he said of the punishment. "On the basepaths, a good basestealer can embarrass a team. It was not the right thing to do at that particular time. If it was my brother, I'd have gone out there and said something to him."

Embarrass, that's the key word. A bad team, losing by seven runs in the seventh inning, aren't they already embarrassed? There might be two handfuls of unwritten rules, and most of them involve respecting the game and not showing up the opposition.

Don't swing at a 3-0 pitch in a lopsided game, that's one of them. Lopes sneers at that one.

"Show me a guy who knows he's gonna hit one out," he said. "If he pops it up, no one says anything. If he hits a home run, they want to take his head off. Uh, that's how they felt back when I was playing.

"Now, intimidation is gone. Somebody steals, up 9-0 and he gets hit the next day, the umpires are gonna throw that pitcher out of the game. There's no retaliation. There's almost no such thing as a brushback pitch anymore."

Don Drysdale had his own code. "You hit one of ours," he warned, "and I'll hit two of yours." Bob Gibson would throw at a guy if he spent too much time grooming the dirt in the batter's box. There were pitchers who threw at the guy in the on-deck circle if they felt he was timing their pitches with his practice swings.

Me, I'd endorse a fistful of unwritten rules. You must run hard to first base. Don't steal seven runs up or seven runs down in the seventh inning. No post-game pie-in-the-face unless it's the guy's first walkoff homer or first shutout or first postgame interview with Gary Matthews.

Lopes bristles when I suggest that Ruiz, having committed a dumb baseball play, did not deserve to get nailed the next night.

"Why was it a dumb play?" Lopes asked angrily. "Maybe he saw a flaw in the pitcher's delivery?" (Mahaffey did have an elegant, slow windup.) "Why was the manager angry at Ruiz? He should have been angry at his bleeping pitcher.

"They didn't anticipate Ruiz stealing with Robinson up, that's the problem. Why didn't the manager or the coaching staff, holler, 'Watch out, he might be stealing?' "

Why didn't Gene Mauch walk Robinson and have Mahaffey pitch from the stretch, which might have discouraged Ruiz? Why didn't Mauch start Mahaffey for 8 days before that game? Why didn't Mahaffey throw a strike? It's 45 years later and there's still a clutter of questions. It's what makes baseball the wonderful game it is.

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@comcast.net

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