The Unwritten Rules are fickle. Supposedly, they are known, taught and adhered to at all levels of baseball, working as an extrapolation of a single overarching clichéd theme: act like you’ve been there before.
But they are also dependent on the judge. His age is a factor. His position in the game is an influence. The supposed transgression -- by whom, for how long, what exactly was done -- also ends up folded into any incident.
Monday night, two of the game’s young stars were chided by the Unwritten Rules Police. Juan Soto hit a 445-foot home run against Atlanta reliever Will Smith. He looked at Smith, watched the homer, broke into a trot. Smith yelled expletives at him, which in turn led to members of the Nationals’ dugout, including Davey Martinez, to give Smith advice about how to pitch.
“He means nothing by what he does,” Martinez said postgame. “When he does his shuffle, it’s just to get him to the next pitch. He doesn’t do it to show anybody up, he doesn’t do it — when pitchers start acting the way they’re acting, it does bother me. But he doesn’t do anything back. He stands up there and he gets a good pitch to hit and he hits the ball really hard. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” Later, Fernando Tatis Jr. continued his 2020 rampage with two more home runs in Texas. The second came on a 3-0 pitch when San Diego led 10-3 in the top of the eighth inning. The bases were loaded, Juan Nicasio threw a fastball away, Tatis hit it out to right. He didn’t watch. He did dance in the dugout.
Afterward, Rangers manager Chris Woodward expressed his displeasure with the swing.
“I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” Woodward told reporters. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game. “But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis, so — just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right.” Woodward’s final statement is correct. This is an age-old conundrum between generations and topics. It’s not baseball-specific, though the sport holds a tighter grip to the past than others. Are bat flips OK? Sort of? If so, when? And who decides?
Does this stodgy sport need more flair to survive in this era? Does Major League Baseball need to continue the “Let the kids play” marketing campaign? Should everyone consider the idea that what Soto did is all right, and what Smith did is all right? Can Soto hammer a pitch, admire the result and be yelled at by Smith who is not happy with the pitch or the admiration? Isn’t that a competitive core tenet?
Among the comments Martinez had Monday was for Smith to “make a better pitch.” This seems applicable to Nicasio and the Rangers, too. Make a better pitch. Or be in a better count. Or situation. The hottest hitter in baseball is at the plate with the bases loaded and a 3-0 count, none of which is his fault. Tatis does not carry responsibility for the pitcher’s failure.
There’s an underlying note here which may give further insight to Woodward’s philosophies: Texas has taken 100 percent (35 of 35) of the 3-0 pitches thrown this year to it. The count itself appears to be part of the mentality there. So, Tatis poked the bear with his swing.
Tatis said postgame he would take a pitch in the future in that situation. Now he knows, he said, of this unwritten rule and the proper behavior to go with it. The Nationals have previously advised Soto to alter his in-box shuffle, to look at the pitcher less, to keep his hand from his groin area after a good take. Martinez doesn’t allow celebrating on the field. He often points out that the dugout is the home for such shenanigans. Why? His version of the unwritten rules includes a consideration for showing up the other team close to the field of play. Is there really a difference? There is to him, because he is the judge here.
So, should Tatis and Soto change? No. Woodward may not like it; Smith may not like it; others may see the highlights and grumble. They can play by their rules. Everyone else can enjoy watching Soto and Tatis play by theirs.