Why Are Unwritten Rules Disputed and Written Rules Ignored?

Alex Rodriguez has been in the middle of some unwritten rule controversies. (via Arturo Pardvila III)

Alex Rodriguez has been in the middle of some unwritten rule controversies. (via Arturo Pardvila III)

KAFFEE: Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please?
BARNES: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.
KAFFEE: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?
BARNES: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.
KAFFEE: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was, if it’s not in this book?
BARNES: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.
KAFFEE: No more questions.
A Few Good Men

A BALL is a pitch which does not enter the strike zone in flight and is not struck at by the batter. If the pitch touches the ground and bounces through the strike zone it is a “ball.”
Major League Baseball 2015 Official Rules

Baseball has an extraordinarily extensive rulebook — the latest version runs to 172 pages, and Major League Baseball helpfully appended the entire 2014 rulebook to the 2015 PDF, so it comprises 282 pages in all. But it still remains relatively laconic, when you think about all of the things that aren’t there. That makes sense, to some degree: the Government Printing Office’s PDF of the American Constitution is a mere 85 pages. And that’s the governing document for a country of 300 million people, not just a league of 30 teams.

Of course, there are rules, and there are rules. Or, more to the point: the rules aren’t necessarily the rules. (Wrestling isn’t wrestling, either.)

That’s the point that baseball historian John Thorn made to me in an interview about the New York Knickerbockers, who in 1845 compiled baseball’s first surviving rulebook. You can read it today, a svelte list with a mere 20 rules that somehow, improbably, describes a game relatively similar to the one that we pay to watch men play 170 years later.

Among the rules that have survived more or less unchanged from then to now are:

10TH. A ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of the first and third base, is foul.

11TH. Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand-out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.

Brevity was sufficient, Thorn told me, because of course the Knickerbockers already knew how to play their game. “Custom and practice ruled, as it did with any innovation,” said Thorn. “The idea that you would make a rulebook and allow the rulebook to rule would make no sense!”

As you know, any time you ever learn a game for the first time, the most important things to know about how it is played can’t be learned from the rulebook: they can be learned only by playing. Very often, the rules that you and your friends play by will incorporate numerous commonly agreed-upon interpretations and departures from the written letter of the law.

For example: Nothing is supposed to happen when you land on free parking in Monopoly. You certainly aren’t supposed to get $500 just for landing there. It makes the game take a lot longer to play. Parker Brothers doesn’t even know when people started playing the game that way. And yet that is the way that most of us grow up learning how to play the game.

As it turns out, refereed games work the same way.

We can create a two-by-two matrix describing the possibilities: rules can be written or unwritten, and they can either be uniformly agreed to or there can be widespread disagreement.

Written, enforced Written, unevenly enforced
Unwritten, but consensus Unwritten, and disputed

The distinction is important. A rule where everyone agrees on the interpretation is much easier to adjudicate mechanically — by replay or robots — than a rule that at its heart boils down to a judgment call. Even if we all agreed on the definition of the zone, would we agree that it should be illegal for Russell Martin to fool an umpire into calling a ball a strike?

  • Written and enforced as written. This comprises all of the basic, definitional stuff. Three strikes and you’re out; hit a ball out of the park and you get to touch them all.
  • Written, but unevenly enforced. This applies to all the rules where there are widely understood exceptions. The neighborhood rule (allowing a middle infielder turning a double play to be in the “neighborhood” of the base without actually stepping on the bag, to keep safer from takeout slides) was unwritten for a long time, as was the notion that anything above the belt was a ball. It also applies to the coaches’ boxes, whose pristine chalk lines are hardly ever crossed by the cleats of the coaches who frequently stand a yard up the line.
  • Unwritten, but uniformly agreed upon. Many of these are ethical in nature. If a guy hits a foul ball off his foot, the umpire will frequently and theatrically wipe the plate off to delay the game so the pain will subside. If a runner tries to slap the ball out of a fielder’s glove when running to first, like Robert Fick in 2003 or Alex Rodriguez in 2004, he will be uniformly condemned. (This rule may be only partially unwritten; umpires determined that Rodriguez had committed interference based on a rule in the MLB Umpire Manual. This definition of interference is not contained in the MLB rulebook.)
  • Unwritten, and hotly disputed. These are often honor-based. The definition of what constitutes disrespect is frequently and loudly litigated on the field. Pimping a home run, flipping a bat and jawing at the other players are condemned by some but seen as unproblematic by others. Same for the most frequent punishments for these supposed crimes: rushing the mound and throwing at a guy’s head.

Some rules are violated frequently enough that the umpire’s decision to call them is almost purely a judgment call, like balks, or holding in football, or traveling in basketball, or flopping in soccer. They are most likely to be called when they are violated most egregiously, but most of the time, most players know you can get away with it, which is why players do it so often. (Obviously, in baseball, you can’t balk with the bases empty, but there are plenty of pitchers whose motion looks like very definition of a balk. No, I’m not only talking about Carter Capps.)

And there are some rules which exist in the rulebook but which have hardly ever been called in living memory, like Rule 8.04, the 12-second rule, which required pitchers to deliver the ball within 12 seconds after he received the ball. (Steve Trachsel, for one, played his entire career blissfully ignorant of this unenforced rule.) This rule was so widely ignored that many fans had no idea it existed when Major League Baseball undertook its pace-of-game reforms last year.

Similarly rarely enforced is rule 6.08b, which says that a batter is not entitled to first base on a hit by pitch if “the batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.” Other than the famous call that preserved Don Drysdale’s scoreless innings streak, batters are almost never denied first base after being plunked by a ball they made no attempt to avoid.

Consequently, the unwritten interpretation of the rule is, if anything, more important than the rule itself. Baseball being baseball, rules that are purely unwritten seem to be just as important — or, at least, they are just as important to the people who agree that they exist at all. I used to love writing about them over at Fangraphs.

Yet the tortured logic of them can truly make your head hurt. I wrote about a situation in which former Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade got incensed when Carlos Gomez stole two bases in the ninth inning of a game that Ron Roenicke’s Brewers were winning 5-0, as he said:

Everybody has to make their own decision on that. There are unwritten rules, so I’d disagree with [Roenicke] on that. Since they’re unwritten, I guess the decision on what they are and when they apply are left to the individual.

A lot of situations, a lot of different things apply. I cut (Tyler) Colvin loose with a five- or six-run lead last year in the middle of a game with the bases loaded and 3-0 count, and had an umpire tell my young player that was not right, which was amazing. These unwritten rules — everybody has their own interpretation. Sometimes when interpretations differ, that’s when you run into trouble.

Because unwritten rules are unwritten, there are always two things going on in any player’s mind: his own interpretation of those rules, and the other players’ interpretation of them. Baseball’s unwritten rules have a long tradition of being enforced on the field, which means that if a player runs afoul of someone else’s interpretation, he is liable to get spiked or thrown at. That was a nuance that came out when I emailed Delino DeShields Sr., a major base stealer in his own day, to ask him what he thought of the Quade-Gomez argument. I put his response in the same blog post.

“I am not a big fan of the so called unwritten rules,” he told me. “Yes, you do need to respect the game, but a five run lead is not a completely safe lead. I would not have taken the base in that situation, but as far as strategy, I don’t have a problem with it.” When I asked to clarify why he wouldn’t have taken the base, his team’s director of media relations responded: “He said he would not do it due to the likelihood of someone getting hit.”

Obviously, the biggest difference between written and unwritten rules is that written rules are enforced by umpires (when they are at enforced at all), while unwritten rules are enforced by players. But the bigger distinction is between the rich game that we all know as baseball, and the inanimate husk depicted by the rulebook. No set of rules can ever truly describe a game, no more than a play can be described by its stage directions. The essence of the game is in its playing.

Of course, as baseball expands video review and eventually, inevitably, moves toward a system where certain calls like balls and strikes and safe/out can be automated, it may seem that we are moving toward a game where the rulebook rules. It is tempting to fall for the illusion that, at least in sports, there is such a thing as objective truth.

But there’s no such thing. “A lot of situations, a lot of different things apply,” as Mike Quade said. “Sometimes when interpretations differ, that’s when you run into trouble.”


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
newest oldest most voted
Dick Strong
Guest
Dick Strong

Never in my life have I played Monopoly in such a manner as you stated. None of my peers played Monopoly in such a manner. Free parking is free parking. Free parking was just a free space where you were not charged any rent.

pbmax
Guest
pbmax

That’s the way we always played. All the fines, etc money went into the free parking pot. Everyone I ever played with played it this way. I was a kid in the late 80s – early 90s. I wonder if age has a lot to do with it? Also, unwritten rules make baseball so much worse. I want to see Home Run bat flips like the Korean League. Let’s try and make baseball fun. I don’t understand how baseball celebrates with champagne winning every series and qualifying for the playoffs. That seems vain and really, what are you celebrating? Winning… Read more »

Tramps Like Us
Guest
Tramps Like Us

Yup…fines go into the “Free Parking” pot, and when someone lands on it, they get that money. Always played that way, too…..everyone I knew did.

Dvd Avins
Guest
Dvd Avins

That’s why people think the game never ends. Parents make up these silly rules so their kids won’t lose and feel bad, which means the game goes on and on and on…

The last thing Monopoly needs is more money in players’ hands than the rules provide.

Mark L
Guest
Mark L

Completely agree. The idea that this game where grown men are paid millions of dollars to play a game, but they’ve got to be completely stony-faced serious as they do it, is ludicrous. Let’s have celebrations when you hit a home run! You should be pleased!

And like you said, if the other team then beans one of your players, 20 game suspension for pitcher and manager. Let’s be serious about stopping people throwing hard objects at peoples’ heads at nearly 100mph because they’re annoyed at them being overly celebratory.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11

I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that we still refer to professional baseball players as “playing a game” as if what they do for 9 months is all that similar to what boys do in sandlots, ballparks, etc. Professional baseball players WORK. Sure it may be fun. Yes, it may be a dream job. But they work and work very hard. ———————————— Pitchers are likely more upset about history with a player or a confrontation/situation around town, or with another player, or something said or not said prior, or something said rounding the bases or yelled from the dugout, etc than… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

It is a game to fans but I agree that it is a job for the players and not always fun, just like any job. How far do you want to take this “having fun”? Should players start catching the ball behind their backs because it’s fun? When I play on my softball team, I break out laughing when one of my teammates makes an error because it’s just a game for fun. I wouldn’t particularly like my favorite team joking around after a key error. We expect the players to take the game seriously because we are paying to… Read more »

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11

Based on my experience with rookies in MLB (which can be summed up as “I personally have known two of them” … not much experience) is that they are not as much having fun as they are “scared shitless they’re going to have a horrible game, arrive late to the stadium, miss a meeting, have something go wrong and miss night check, etc … and be sent down. It’s not necessarily a rational thought process, but neither one of the two I knew had any such thoughts of “oh my god, I’m getting paid to play a kid’s game”. I’ve… Read more »

DENNIS BEDARD
Guest
DENNIS BEDARD

I started playing Monopoly in 1967. ‘Free Parking” was a exactly that. You gained nothing or lost anything. Sort of like calling time out between pitches, another rule I could never find or understand why it is honored. Why is a batter allowed to unilaterally stop play before a pitch is tossed so he can adjust his helmet or batting glove?

Lanidrac
Guest
Lanidrac

I grew up hearing of the Free Parking “rule” but stopped using it once I learned it wasn’t in the rules. One unwritten rule my family always added to the game is that any owned property could be upgraded if all properties were bought without any monopolies obtained, as the game is almost impossible to end otherwise. Well, I suppose two players could agree to a trade where they both end up with monopolies, but we never liked the idea of trading or selling properties to other players. We also usually ignored the auction rule when someone declined to buy… Read more »

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

And then there’s the “lefty strike zone.”

I’d love to see both strict enforcement of the true strike zone, and umpires refusing to call HBPs for guys who “lean in.”

Robby Bonfire
Guest

They almost NEVER call “traveling” in basketball, anymore. This way, super-stars can run five steps toward the basket like FB running backs, and hit for 30+ points in a game, instead of merely 20+ points in a game. They have made a joke and a travesty out of the game, in deference to what commercial tv now dictates, not just “wants.”

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

Not to mention clearly deliberate fouls in the last two minutes of games that are never called deliberate fouls. You know what really hurts basketball? The three-point shot. Now give me a minute here: Because a team can trade a foul (break the rules) and two free throws for a chance to make a three-point shot, the last two minutes of games have been turned into a hackfest. The punishment does not fit the crime. The offended team should get something like two free throws AND THE BALL. Then maybe we’d see trailing teams forced to play actual defense to… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

When I read about players in the 30s and 40s, they always talk about how they played for the lover of the game and not for the money-which obviously wasn’t go much then. But it certainly seemed to me that there was a certain grimness because this was, after all, their livelihood and probably a better one than most could expect doing anything else. When people talk about how players played harder in the old days, maybe it was a matter of desperation because the teams would easily discard guys once they were used up. They were trying to keep… Read more »

Blasters fan
Guest
Blasters fan

No rule requires coaches to stay in the coaches’ box. The rules just say the box must be marked. Bad example.