Doug Wolter: Baseball's unwritten rules -- they're complicated

Doug Wolter.jpg
Doug Wolter

There’s snow on the ground and it’s cold outside, so I can think of nothing better to talk about today than baseball.

I’m reading a fascinating book called “The Baseball Codes,” by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, which reveals the inside story of how major leaguers enforce the so-called unwritten rules of the game. As fans, we believe we know those rules. But “Codes” goes further, peeling back the onion to reveal the subtleties behind them and how and why they continue to be implemented in today’s modern era.

There are fierce practitioners of the baseball code, which in application is as complicated as tax law -- unwritten tax law.

Others are more relaxed about the code. You’ll be able to see both sides of the story by reading the book.

For instance, suppose your team is leading 10-3 in the seventh inning and you have a man on first base. The manager of the team that is trailing, aware of the unwritten rule that says you don’t steal second base in such a situation, deploys his first baseman off the bag. Why hold the runner on? Right. It doesn’t make sense.


But the runner takes second base, anyway. Why not? The first baseman is giving it to him for free.

The manager of the other team is incensed. You don’t take second base with a 7-run lead in the seventh, he insists. The runner, however, defends himself by saying that by not holding him on, the first baseman is virtually begging him to take the base. He’s also attempting to gain an unfair advantage while assuming the runner won’t go.

And besides, in today’s major league baseball, even a seven-run lead in the seventh is unreliable. Why stop trying to score when the team with three runs might erupt with 7-run ninth to send the game into extra innings?

Maybe he’s right. But it doesn’t matter. When the baserunner comes to bat in the ninth, he’s plunked.

I spoke with veteran Jackson Bulls amateur baseball manager Scott Bahr about unwritten rules, and Scott -- whose reputation as a tough-minded sportsman is well-earned -- declares himself to be a devotee to the traditional guidelines. Scott, as all area amateur ballplayers already know, wants to do virtually anything he can do to win games. But he says he’s not going to break any unwritten rules.

Enforcing the rules, however, is a little bit different for amateur baseball than it is for major leaguers.

“We probably aren’t going to throw at anybody, because in our league people have to get up and work the next day,” he said.

But even Scott admits it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly where the rules come into effect. Do you steal or not steal second base when you’re ahead by four runs? Six runs? Seven?


If the Bulls are working on a good lead against a strong opponent like the Luverne Redbirds, for instance, Scott says he might continue to score when he otherwise would take his foot off the gas -- for the simple reason that he doesn’t trust the Redbirds not to mount a comeback.

Scott said something else that I thought was interesting. Just like in major league baseball, different people interpret unwritten rules in different ways. Sometimes people just don’t get it.

“I have no problem saying something from the bench (when a rule is violated),” he said, adding, “But I’ve also seen it on the other side where someone’s standing there like he’s saying, ‘What is he talking about?’”

I told Scott that as a longtime men’s fast-pitch softball player, I had my own unwritten rule. I played shortstop and second base for my entire career, and I’ve sustained many cuts and gashes from baserunners breaking up double-plays by knocking me down. I never complained. That’s just part of the game. But I always made sure that if I was to get my feet knocked out from under me, I’d manage to fall on the baserunner. And as I rolled over him to get back up, I dug my elbow into his ribs.

Code, schmode. It’s Newton’s Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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