When Unwritten Rules Go Wrong

Reflecting on the ugly mess of this past weekend I can’t help but conclude that it was largely a lesson in the dangers of unwritten rules.

I have always had strong dislike for unwritten rules as a concept.  If something is important enough as to have consequences if not obeyed or followed than I think it would be important enough to codify in some manner.  If a breach is simply from a lack of common sense I tend to think those should be remedied by drawing attention to the mistake and not necessarily through any sort of retribution.  Therefore, I have never seen the need for unwritten rules which people seem to use to govern the murky waters between common sense and written laws.  If something is more than a slip up in common sense and is important enough as to warrant punishment, the rule and consequences should be stated explicitly and clearly.

Unwritten rules arise when there is a gap between the actual written rules and what some individuals perceive as necessary rules.  This often happens when rules go unaltered for quite some time and become antiquated as ideas and situations change.  Major League Baseball and baseball in general has so many of these rules because the fundamental rules that govern the game have by-and-large remained untouched for over a hundred years.  The world and the game have developed greatly over that time but the basic rules that govern it have not.  Gaps between the actual laws and the realistic laws have crept in leading certain individuals to remedy the problem by taking rule enforcing into their own hands.

The entire situation between Manny Machado and the Oakland A’s this weekend was one long lesson in unwritten laws going bad.

There is no firm rule that explicitly states how hard a tag can and cannot be made.  So when Machado lost his balance on Friday evening after a tag from Josh Donaldson, he threw his helmet to the ground in frustration over the perceived slight.  Had there been a better rule in place – or had Machado not decided to round-about “enforce” a breach of an unwritten rule by displaying his frustration – none of that happens.  Donaldson felt Machado’s response was a breach of an unwritten rule, one that states you don’t throw equipment in the general vicinity of another player (or something like that – unwritten rules by nature tend to be murky and unclear).  He responded to that violation by chirping at Machado.  The situation could have become ugly just because a couple of guys tried to take matters into their own hands but thankfully it did not.

On Sunday, Machado took a back swing that struck catcher Derek Norris in the helmet.  This happens on occasion and has happened several times with Machado who tends to have a particularly long backswing.  Norris felt that an unspoken rule of baseball was violated when Machado failed to – at least by his account – apologize for the accidental strike.

When Machado came to the plate next, Fernando Abad threw at Machado on the first pitch.  Machado glared out to the mound but that was it.  Abad was clearly retaliating for at least one of a couple perceived unspoken/unwritten rule violations that Machado made during the course of the weekend. 

Funnily enough, the umpires had in their power the backing of written rules to put an end to the mess then and there.  With the game out of hand at 10-0 and the A’s having obvious motives to throw at Machado, the umpires should have issued warnings after the first pitch.  Perhaps Abad still tries to throw at Machado the next pitch but perhaps as well Machado reacts differently knowing that punishment will be dealt swiftly in the form of Abad and manager Bob Melvin being ejected from the game.  Instead, the umpires did not exercise the power that the actual laws of baseball give them and the situation unfortunately escalated.

Abad threw at Machado again in retaliation and a frustrated Machado let his bat fly down the third base line.

Post-game, Derek Norris recounted the perceived slight on the back swing as well as the incident from Friday night.  He noted that when someone plays the game with disrespect and not the correct way, there are ways to deal with it.  In essence, he was saying Machado broke an unwritten rule and the A’s saw fit to respond with the unwritten punishment.  There are no two ways around it.  What happened over the weekend was a clear example of the dangers of unwritten rules and what can happen when individuals chose to inflict their own brand of vigilante justice.

The sad part for me is reading all the opinions from the usual sources about how Machado went too far and/or how trying to hit a batter with a baseball is acceptable on some level but wildly throwing a bat is not.  What these people are all doing is attempting to use rules that don’t exist to justify one set of actions while decrying another.  It doesn’t work that way.  At least it shouldn’t work that way if this macho notion of unwritten rules and personal brands of justice were not so prevalent in the world of baseball.

What should have happened?  I don’t know.  That is another frustrating element of this entire situation.  It turns the lot of us into un-summoned jurors passing our judgment on a situation where all of the facts are not present and the rules are never going to be made clear.  It causes people to pass judgment on a situation where I am not sure many of us would have necessarily acted differently (even if we would like to think we would have).  It is clear that a lot of people acted poorly and/or less than ideal over the weekend and I would prefer to leave it at that rather than join the sanctimonious throngs seeking a clear victim and wrongdoer in the incident.

I think we can say with relative certainty what the ideal outcome would have looked like.  It would have included Manny not tossing his helmet out of frustration on Friday night.  It would have included Norris deciding to not react to an accidental helmet hit by (or any other perceived infraction) by taking part in a plan for Abad to retaliate.  Abad wouldn’t have retaliated and Machado wouldn’t have reacted to the retaliation by tossing his bat.

In other words, a lot of grown men would have decided to let bygones be bygones, turn the other cheek, or whatever terminology you prefer, rather than contributing to the escalation of a potentially ugly and dangerous situation.  This was not a situation of right or wrong because we are talking about unwritten rules here.  Clear right and wrong do not exist with unwritten rules.  It was a situation where the concept of enforcing unwritten rules started and continued an ugly back-and-forth.

There is no right in what happened over the weekend – just a whole lot of wrong.  Trying to assign blame and degrees of blame will do nothing to change that.