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The Baltimore Orioles, 19th Century

The Baltimore Orioles, 19th Century

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.— Terrence Mann, in “Field of Dreams”

The National Football League recently announced that it would be more strictly enforcing rules against excessive celebrations during games in the coming season. Specifically, league officials are emphasizing the rulebook’s prohibitions against the following demonstrations: “sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.” The NFL’s enactment of this addition to its policy a few years back elicited a not inconsiderable degree of protest among fans who presumably enjoy such self-glorification and who mocked the league acronym as standing for the “No Fun League.”

Instead of mockery, however, the league’s authorities deserve praise for their efforts to enforce good sportsmanship in football, a game which over the years has devolved, perhaps more than any other American sport, into an egotistical series of self-congratulatory displays. I am old enough to recall the days when only touchdowns were openly celebrated, and then only modestly by the player who scored them. (The typical act was to spike the ball in the end zone.) This tradition began to change in the 1980s when the Washington Redskins routinely began conducting a silly, orchestrated group dance in the end zone after scoring touchdowns. These “Fun Bunch” dances led to the first NFL policy against excessive celebrations. Despite this rule change, the trend of conducting self-congratulatory routines only grew, extending now to the most routine of plays: sacking the quarterback, swatting a pass away, even making the common tackle all became opportunities for narcissistic strutting.

The fact that the NFL continues to battle the problem of poor manners serves to highlight the innate gentlemanliness that characterizes football’s main rival as “THE American sport”: baseball. In baseball there is both a respect for other players and for the game itself that is missing in football and indeed in any other major sport. Baseball singularly entails an unwritten code, which consists of four elements: (1) Do not show anyone up; (2) Do not cause serious physical injury to another player; (3) Try your best (4) Do not cheat. A general adherence to this code means that baseball requires less legalistic regulation than football and other sports.

Though the baseball rulebook seeks to address all possible rule infractions, penalties are so rare in baseball as to be shown on the nightly highlight reels when they occur. A fan will likely have to watch his team play a dozen or more games before he witnesses a pitcher cited for committing a balk, and he will likely have to take in many more games before he sees, say, catcher’s interference called or a an umpire call a runner out for running outside the baseline. The ultimate penalty, ejection, is even rarer, and occurs almost exclusively when a player “shows up” an umpire by questioning a call or when a manager uses overly colorful language in arguing an umpire’s decision. This is in marked contrast with any football game, in which it seems that a penalty is called every other play, with much time wasted marking off penalty yardage and repeating a down, both utterly boring delays of the game.

When it comes to celebrating, baseball has no written rule. The first rule of the code of conduct is enforced by the players themselves. And there is no more accepted rule than that a batter should not celebrate a home run excessively. Yes, a game-winning homer may appropriately involve one’s entire team emerging from the dugout to mob the hero at home plate. But in the case of the in-game home run, the batter cannot stand and observe his work for more than a second or two before running the bases, and he must run the bases at a fair clip—no slow savoring of a “home run trot” and certainly no dancing or gestures to the crowds. Once safely back in his dugout, he may high-five his teammates and celebrate a little more. Only in very special circumstances, such as in the case of a multiple home run game or a grand slam that gives the home team the lead, may the player emerge again from the dugout to take a “curtain call” from the adoring home crowd, and that gesture itself must be brief and not overdone.

A batter who does showboat after hitting a home run can rightfully expect to have the opposing pitcher on the offended team throw at him, likely during his very next at-bat. Now, to meet the second rule of the code, the pitcher must not throw behind the batter or above his shoulders. Both locations could endanger the health of the batter (the ball could hit him on the head in the latter case; in the former, a natural instinct to jump backwards when a ball is coming at you could also put the noggin in the way of harm.)

It is not simply the offended team that respects this code. Teammates of the batter fully expect and often support the opposing pitcher’s “plunking” their showboating teammate. A case in point occurred this season on the New York Mets when rookie Jordany Valdespin showboated a meaningless home run he hit against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates’ pitcher proceeded to hit Valdespin his next time at the plate. Some of his teammates literally applauded from the dugout the meting out of this rightful retribution. Mets pitcher LaTroy Hawkins said of Valdespin’s antics: “It was a bonehead thing to do. And to do that against [Pirate pitcher] Jose Contreras? He’s old enough to be his father, and one of the nicest guys in the world.” Mets outfielder Marlon Byrd summed it up: “The Pirates did what you were supposed to do.”

The third rule of the code—try your best—is also enforced, usually by a manager who will bench a player for failing to run out a routine groundball. In one extraordinary instance, a player enforced this code against a member of the opposition.

Carlton Fisk

Carlton Fisk

The year was 1990, and the detestable Deion Sanders of the Yankees hit a routine popup. Instead of running hard to first base, he turned and headed to the Yankees dugout. Behind the plate for the opposing White Sox was veteran catcher Carlton Fisk, who objected to Sanders’ outright disrespect for the game. Fisk shouted to Sanders to run the ball out. The next time the Yankee came to the plate (and went through his usual routine of drawing a dollar sign in the dirt with his bat—I am not making this up), Fisk confronted the younger man. “If you don’t start playing this game right, I’m going to kick your butt right here.”

In light of the recent developments in baseball’s ongoing Performance-Enhancing Drug (PED) scandal, readers might balk at my claim that baseball is the realm of gentlemanly codes. Rule four of the code has obviously been ignored by an unknown, but certainly significant, number of players going back decades and including some of the game’s brightest stars. Admittedly, the PED scandal has given baseball a huge black eye and has presented the greatest challenge to the game’s integrity since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

It is also true that as the PED scandal developed over the last decade, players were generally silent about the transgressions of their peers, reluctant to expose fellow players with whom they felt solidarity, not least because they all belonged to the same labor union. Owners too had long turned a blind eye toward the use of banned substances, relishing the revenues generated by the excitement of unprecedented offensive output and home-run-record shattering drama.

But attitudes began changing during the season of 2007, when Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron’s career home run record, a record that Bonds went on to break. As evidence came to light that Bonds had used, and was likely continuing to use, PEDs, the historic nature of his nightly exploits was severely tainted, and many fans immediately rejected the validity of the new “record.” This reaction stood in marked contrast to the hoopla that surrounded Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s chase of Maris’ single-season record almost a decade before, when there were only whispers of the use of questionable substances by players.

Though it took time, today baseball has at last come to grips with the PED scandal, and the baseball code. The magnitude of the PED scandal is itself a testament to the special sanctity of the game in the eyes of those who play and follow it. And nothing is more sacred in baseball than statistics and records. There is now discussion among baseball writers and fans as to whether asterisks should be placed—either figuratively or literally— next to the records and statistics of proven PED users. This season we have seen slugger Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles refer to Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in a season as “the natural record.” Davis, who as of this writing is on a pace to break Maris’ mark, clearly considers invalid the higher single-season home run totals achieved by PED users Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. On this he is joined by many, perhaps most, fans.

Witness also the prevailing nature of the commentary about Alex Rodriguez’s current refusal to accept Major League Baseball’s penalty of suspending him through the 2014 season for his use of PEDs and his continued lying about this use. Never has there been such vitriol directed at a player by major sports writers. Scott Miller of CBS Sports recently called Rodriguez “a delusional, deranged dope who long ago should have forfeited the privilege to play major league baseball.” Miller is typical of countless baseball people—players, owners, writers, fans—who have used the word “privilege” in regard to playing baseball; about what other sport is this ever said?

Baseball’s gentlemen’s code, which extends down from the major leagues all the way to Little League, tends to engender good behavior in those who play the game. Narcissistic, non-conforming players who flaunt the code—Deion Sanders, Albert Belle, Milton Bradley, Bryce Harper—are the exceptions, and their careers tend to be brief and disappointing ones (let the young Harper be warned).

Gil Meche

Gil Meche

It must be wondered whether long allegiance to the baseball code was partly responsible for one of the most astounding, yet almost unnoticed, acts of virtue ever committed by a sports figure. In the winter of 2011, Kansas City Royals pitcher Gil Meche voluntarily retired from the game, foregoing the final $12 million on his multi-year contract. Meche was injured and would have sat out the 2012 season while receiving paychecks. “When I signed my contract, Meche explained, “my main goal was to earn it. Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million for my life and for my kids, it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Of course, this was a singular act, even for baseball, as there are countless cases of injured baseball players gleefully taking paychecks while they spend entire seasons on the disabled list or are released by a team. Nevertheless, it seems that only in baseball, the last refuge of gentlemanliness, could such an act of heroism take place.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I have a good deal of sympathy for many of the themes developed here, but I think there is a misdiagnosis of the issue in question. Certainly egoism at issue, but I think it is more a matter of honor codes. (Can you have an honor code w/o regard for personal display?) Football by its nature aligns itself with a more Homeric code of intimidation and display. I think the NFL is trying to promote a more Stoic code of workman like adherence to craft and deference to standards. That seems to be an uphill battle to me–esp. themes of conflict and dominance that the game is based on. There is also the problem of over-specialization in football, anonymity with helmets and such, and an the idealization of the machine. I admit to some sympathy for the display condemned in this article in light of these things. Baseball is a completely different game and one I think that lends itself to the Stoic code far better–the whole game centers on either direct personal confrontations over distance–pitcher vs. batter, or on the craft and artistry of the player–running down a fly ball (think Willie Mays here), or the beauty of the swing of a bat (Ted Williams), and so forth. Since there is also the range of skills each player is called upon to demonstrate–think of the “five-tool player”–there is a different sort of relationship the payer has to the team–every time the focus of the game shifts to a player, there is an opportunity to make a display of his abilities. And because the game can be played for a longer time–the greats playing well into their 40s–there is much more of a master-apprentice relationship between older and younger players than you see in football. Yes, Deion Sanders deserved the scolding he got from Fisk–but in football Fisk’s comments would have seemed out of keeping with the game. Display is an indispensible part of intimidation–very Homeric. If you’re looking for Homeric display that still manages to keep the honor of team in the foreground–look to Rugby. Here’s an example of the Maori of New Zealand–the famous or infamous “Blacks”–http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj8AgStc_cQ

  2. I have nothing but respect for the examples of gentlemanly honor displayed within the game of baseball. And as Mr. Riley stated, the direct confrontations of baseball lend themselves to displays of singular honor and require an individual to stand up and be accounted. The very nature of failure in the game (.300 hitters, etc) also require a stoic attitude and an appreciation of the challenges that every player faces.

    However, to somehow impute that baseball is unique only displays a lack of awareness of the broader sporting world. The honor code of the game of Rugby is alluded to by Mr. Riley’s link to the All-Black’s Haka. He could also show examples of the respect that officials are given in that game vs. baseball. No rugby official would tolerate for a second, the berating that baseball officials take regularly, and no player would expect them to. The nature of the game is as physical and potentially violent as American Football, yet has a gentlemanly code of conduct that emphasizes self-control and respect for opponents that is enforced by teammates and opponents alike.

    Hockey and lacrosse, have similar cultures, where physical and potential violent games are held to high standards and personal accountability.

    In fact, the showboating, taunting and otherwise disturbing behavior that is described in the NFL is a recent phenomenon. Such behavior would have resulted in certain consequences per the unwritten rules of conduct as recently as the 1970’s.

    The truly relevant question to ask is where has the code of behavior gone?

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