“Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police and Baseball’s New Future”
The publishing info:
Triumph Books, $26.95, 352 pages, released April 2
The review in 90 feet or less
There’s a natural flow for us to go from the Day 12 “Strike Four” explanation about how and why rules are written, to now pivot to why other rules aren’t officially documented because they’re in constant flux and subject to human nature’s flaws.
Few better out there than Knobler, the UCLA grad, one-time L.A. Herald Examiner employ and the tireless lead baseball writer for Bleacher Report, to jump on this always topical subject.
As Knobler once reported that “Numbers Don’t Lie!” in documenting Detroit Tigers’ history in 2015, he’s interests lie in how things that are less than honest are handled, reported on, and even explained, in baseball’s system of checks and balances.
To set the table, we go to the end pages to find:
“Growing up in Los Angeles, Vin Scully won deserved plaudits for the way he called baseball games, but those of us who were raised with the Dodgers of the 1960s and ‘70s remember how he also taught us the game. On those nights when we went to bed with a transistor radio under the pillow – yes, we really did. On those mornings we snuck radios into school to listen to the first spring training games from Vero Beach (sorry, teachers, we did that too).
“I learned from Vin, and I learned from my father, who would take me to a few games a season at Dodger Stadium and explain what was going on.”
If we can add to that: We also were in tune to when things happened out of the norm, based on Scully’s tone of voice.
Respect the game was a lesson that seemed to come across. Anything that didn’t respect the game was an annoyance of some sort and, if not a rule to enforce, than a breach of etiquette to examine.
That still rings true. It’s just that, as Knobler points out, culture clashes have lately highlighted some things that can be apparently lost in translation. The Dodgers of 2017 and ’18 made it to a World Series with Yasiel Puig, Kenta Maeta and Kenley Jansen all coming from different backgrounds and cultures. Sure made things interesting, didn’t it?
“Unwritten rules change as society change,” Knobler points out. “They change as players change. They become the reason some guys get called ‘old school’ and some don’t.”
Changes come from analytics and big data as well, from unintended consequences of replay that now changes interaction of players and managers with umpires.
“The idea of this book was to figure out how changes affect unwritten rules.”
In talking to current and former players, managers, coaches, scouts, broadcasters and even writers, there’s enough material to fill 50-plus tightly constructed chapters that cover all the usual suspects – stealing signs, fraternizing, retaliation – but then gets into the more modern issues like if and when it’s proper to bat flip, use a position player as a pitcher or determine if Manny Machado is playing dirty or just playing hard as he avoids being labeled “Johnny Hustle.”
Specific chapters devoted to Puig and Jansen bring more context to readers who wonder how they feel about their upbringings and the affect it has on their attitudes and perceptions.
Perhaps Knobler sums unwritten rules best is with a quote from 35 year old current Miami Marlins third baseman Martin Prado: “Just because you walk around your own house in your underwear, that doesn’t mean you can walk into your neighbor’s house and do the same thing.”
You know, on second thought, that probably is a written rule somewhere. Google check the “Ten Commandments.”
How it goes down in the scorebook
A year ago, Norman Chad addressed in the Washington Post some of the game’s “lesser-known unwritten rules … that kind of make sense”:
Don’t leave the on-deck circle dirtier than you found it.
Don’t call your manager “Skipper” in front of a sommelier.
Don’t waste a pitch during a recession.
Don’t throw a four-seam fastball to a five-tool player.
Don’t advance a runner if he owes you money.
Don’t throw an Eephus pitch to anyone named Eephus.
Don’t be late to a road game when you are the leadoff hitter.
Don’t take financial advice from Lenny Dykstra.
On a less fragmented side, former MLB player Doug Glanville, now back with ESPN, wrote about the unwritten rules in a 2018 New York Times piece and explained:
“Our lives are enveloped in unwritten rules that cover safety, politeness, respect, etiquette, money and so on. These are ways to acculturate a new generation in tradition, and doing that empowers that generation to take ownership, invest and evolve them. So we open gifts on Christmas Day, we don’t take a bite of dinner until we read the grace, we hold the door for Grandma, I kiss my daughter on the forehead every night before bed. Did we hand out a rule book? Nope. So how do we know what to do?
“As a former big leaguer, I roll my eyes in isolated cases and think baseball players’ ideas on unwritten rules are silly and uptight, or even culturally insensitive to baseball’s evolving diversity.
“But I also see behind the bravado. I see the value in the dialogue around baseball’s invisible statutes that makes it a generational game. Veterans and rookies, retired players and coaches engage across team loyalties about how they want the culture of the game to move forward.
“Imperfect, but considerably better than rejecting all lessons of the past — or, worse, ignoring them completely.”
Documenting the game’s unwritten rules seems oxymoronic — if you’re writing it down, it’s no longer unwritten. But since we once had a run about 10 years ago on this subject — see Jason Turnbow’s “The Baseball Codes” from 2010, Paul Dickson’s “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball: The Etiquette, Conventional Wisdom and Axiomatic Codes of Our National Pasttime” in 2009 and Ross Bernstein’s “The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct” in 2008 all take a crack at code cracking — the time lag only indicated that a reboot is needed.
This does it in a way even Puig can follow if he was serious enough to realize all the noise he was making still has people paying attention.