Sports Law Professor Revisits ‘Baseball’s Unwritten Rules’
By Jordan Kobritz
Baseball’s Unwritten Rules reared their uninterpretable and oftentimes ugly head last week.
With his team leading, 15-4, in the top of the ninth inning, White Sox manager Tony La Russa claims he gave the take sign to Yermin Mercedes on a 3-0 pitch. The bases were loaded as Willians Astudillo, a position player who was on “mop up” duty for the Twins, threw the next pitch towards the plate.
Mercedes swung and connected for a grand slam, precipitating a complete melt down by La Russa. First, he criticized Mercedes publicly for not “respecting the game,” old-timers’ speak for you shouldn’t swing at a 3-0 pitch late in the game with your team holding a “substantial” lead, however the latter is defined.
La Russa followed up his criticism of Mercedes by saying he didn’t have a problem with Twins’ pitcher Tyler Duffey throwing behind Mercedes in the following game. Fortunately, the umpires and MLB felt otherwise. Duffey and his manager, Rocco Baldelli, were immediately ejected and MLB suspended Duffey for three games and Baldelli for one.
The younger generation of players, more than a quarter of whom come from outside the U.S., grew up without any knowledge of the unwritten rules and they act accordingly. To them, the game is supposed to be fun, and they aren’t averse to showing their emotions on the field, which is anathema to members of the old guard like La Russa.
The 76-year-old La Russa’s appointment as manager last year, after nine years out of uniform, sparked an immediate firestorm in the media centered on how he would relate to the modern player. It didn’t take long for the naysayers to say, “I told you so.”
La Russa would be well advised to brush up on the written rules before opining on the unwritten ones. Earlier this year he left a pitcher in as a runner on second base to start the 10th inning of a game because he didn’t know the new rules allowed him to use the player preceding the pitcher in the batting order.
Surely someone as “old school” as La Russa would be aware of the unwritten rule that managers should deal with player issues in private, rather than embarrass them in public. Another unwritten rule in the manager’s rulebook is they always protect their players at the risk of losing the clubhouse. If Duffey had hit Mercedes in the face, like the Mets Kevin Pillar had been a day earlier, would La Russa have been OK with that?
Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was La Russa’s closer for a number of seasons in Oakland said of his old manager, “He’s getting killed (in the media). I can’t help but think a lot of it is because he’s old.” Sorry Eck, age isn’t the issue. The problem is La Russa is thinking backward while the game is moving forward. True leaders learn from the past, but they aren’t immobilized by it. They’re open minded, listen to others and embrace change.
La Russa has struck out on that count.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.