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Kobritz: Are baseball’s unwritten rules outdated?

Column: Beyond the Lines

The importance – or folly, depending on your view – of the unwritten rules of baseball was on display during the opening week of the 2018 season.

With the Minnesota Twins leading the Baltimore Orioles 7-0 in the ninth inning, Orioles’ rookie Chance Sisco bunted for a hit. Bunting when you’re that far behind - or ahead - late in the game goes against one of baseball’s many unwritten rules. It should be noted that the Twins had shifted their defense against Sisco to better defend against a hit, leaving a large gap in the infield. The significance of the move will be addressed later.

Twins second baseman Brian Dozier was offended by Sisco’s bunt and said so publicly, for which he was (mostly) vilified on social media. Why? Therein lies the conundrum that encompasses the unwritten rules of baseball.

In a nutshell, the unwritten rules of the sport address the concept of sportsmanship. Play the game right, be courteous, don’t show up your opponent, are precepts ingrained in us since we first played the game on an organized basis. But sportsmanship can’t easily be codified or quantified, especially in professional sports. Amateur sports have Codes of Ethics that attempt to address sportsmanship, but even those don’t do justice to the ideals of sportsmanship beyond expressing generalities. Professional teams generally disdain Codes of Ethics leaving it mostly up to the players to “police” themselves. Hence, the development of the “unwritten rules,” which are passed down by word of mouth from one generation of athletes to the next.

The problem with unwritten rules lies in their name: they aren’t written. Therefore, they are subject to even greater interpretation than written rules (which is why we have courts). Furthermore, one rule can conflict with another, which is arguably the case in this instance. Sisco was bunting for the same reason the Twins deployed a shift against him: They were both trying to win the game.

Trying to win, competing until the last out of the game, is another of baseball’s unwritten rules, as it should be. Sisco hadn’t given up his desire to win and the Twins weren’t taking anything for granted. While not exactly common, teams have lost games despite being up by seven runs in the ninth inning.

A similar flap occurred during the 2015 MLB playoffs when Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista slugged a three-run homer against the Texas Rangers late in the game to put his team ahead. Bautista flipped his bat and momentarily stood at home plate admiring his handiwork. The Rangers took umbrage with his celebratory antics and their disdain carried over into the following season when a play at second base led to on-field fisticuffs.

Bautista’s irreverent act pointed out another dichotomy with the unwritten rules: different cultures and different generations have their own interpretation of what is and is not considered sportsmanship.

Despite the conflicts and differing interpretations of the unwritten rules, one thing is certain: their existence makes the sport better than not having them at all.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.