Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Need Revising

By David Steele
Updated: August 21, 2007

BALTIMORE — To be clear right at the start: This isn’t a defense of Jose Offerman, who last Tuesday retaliated for being hit by a pitch in a minor league game by charging the mound with his bat.

It’s more of a condemnation of one of the more stupid, more nonsensical aspects of baseball at every level: the Unwritten Rules.

All over baseball, Offerman, the former major leaguer now playing for the Long Island Ducks, is being dogged for bringing a bat into a fight when the aforementioned rules dictate that he shouldn’t even have gone fighting at all. The consensus is that he snapped, right along with his sense of baseball decorum.

Because the opposing pitcher used his weapon, a hardball hurled at a high rate of speed, seemingly with intent to get back at Offerman, and Offerman dared use his weapon, a wooden bat, in return.

The latter, we all know, is against those rules.

Offerman had gotten drilled by a pitch one at-bat after hitting a home run – but the rules say that’s OK. The rules say Offerman should have just taken his base and shrugged it off. The rules say the pitcher was perfectly entitled to it.

There are nuances. If you start such a battle, expect the other team to finish it, unless a direct statement by the manager — Dave Trembley, for example, when two of his Orioles players were plunked in the series at Yankee Stadium this week — or the umpire puts a stop to it. That’s actually not illogical. The mindless ways they start, though, from the act of a hitter beating the odds against him and hitting a homer, that’s the bigger problem.

The opposing manager for the Bridgeport Bluefish, Tommy John, is the definition of old-school. Thus, he had less of an issue with his pitcher, Matt Beech, busting one on Offerman than he did with Offerman showing up at the mound with a bat trying to bust him back.

John didn’t exactly say that Offerman should have expected something inside after the home run, but he told reporters, “When I played, yeah, but nowadays, I don’t know.”

Yeah, you know. Not that much has changed.

The batters accept it. Offerman accepted it for 15 major league seasons. He has said he’s sorry, and that he probably did snap. But he also said he believes the pitcher meant to hit him, and that the catcher was in on it. If this were the real world, he could claim self-defense and say the Bluefish players acted with premeditation.

But no, it’s just baseball. There’s history and tradition in it, even though no one can really explain it, other than by saying, “It’s an unwritten rule, OK?” Like stealing in the late innings with a big lead, admiring your home runs and other affronts to baseball manhood.

The problem in this case, though, is that by reacting as he did, it was determined that Offerman violated some written rules, against assault in the state of Connecticut. Now he’s all over TV and the Internet being cuffed and taken away, and the world is clamoring for a lifetime ban from baseball.

Give someone a concussion with a baseball (as no less than Roger Clemens did to Mike Piazza in recent years) because you failed to retire a batter as you’re paid to do, and that’s what the greats in this game have always done.

But give someone a concussion with a bat (as Offerman’s wild backswing did to the opposing catcher, John Nathans, who was trying to stop him) because you feel there was no rational reason to get hit, and that’s a crime and the end of your career.

Once again, this isn’t a defense of Offerman bringing a bat to the mound. That’s inexcusable. This is a plea to get someone in baseball to understand that using a pitched ball for any reason other than getting the batter out is just as inexcusable.

Every sport polices itself. Drive the lane unimpeded too often in basketball, and you’ll be met with a hard foul. But you won’t be met with a chair from the bench. Lay a hard hit on a player when he’s not looking, the way Ravens rookie Antwan Barnes did on the Philadelphia Eagles punter last Monday, and you might find yourself laid out the next time you don’t have your head on a proverbial swivel. But the other player won’t take off his helmet and swing it at your head.

Those are codes, rooted in some sense of justice. What code, however, says that a pitcher who flunks his one-on-one test earns a free chance to maim you, or the poor sucker who bats behind you? Baseball’s code!

That’s not justice. It’s gutlessness disguised as pseudo-machismo. It’s men in a skill-and-finesse sport thinking they’re rough and tough, but who are actually as soft as a wad of chewed tobacco. It might impress people a little more if the victimized pitcher struck the guy out next time instead of using him as target practice.

Do that, and no one has to worry about flying bats and arrest warrants. Make it a rule. Just as long as it’s unwritten.