The baseball season isn’t even a month old as of this writing, but we’ve still had our first two instances of “unwritten rules” violations. What are “unwritten rules”? Well, they’re the customs that everyone agrees to follow, except when they don’t agree on them or don’t agree to follow them. Get it? Baseball has a mess of them, and they often seem peculiar, arcane, or just plain silly to an outsider. Anyway, here are the first two instances from this season (or at least, the ones I know of).
First came the Houston Astros’ manager Bo Porter having not-so-nice words with Jed Lowrie, shortstop for the Oakland Athletics. The A’s were cruising as early as the first inning against the Astros, putting up seven runs to the Astros’ zero. With Lowrie coming up to bat, the Astros played the shift, meaning they positioned all the fielders to the right, resulting in the third-baseman playing about 20 feet off the third-base line. With his team already up 7-0, Lowrie tried to lay down a bunt along the third-base line, which would have made a near-impossible play at first for the Astros’ fielders. On his next at-bat, Lowrie found himself the target of several retaliatory brush-back pitches. He flied out to end that inning but had a few choice words he shared with Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve. And that was when Porter got involved, leaving the dugout to read Lowrie the riot act.
A manager chewing out an opposing player is an unusual sort of thing. It’s kind of like an invited guest yelling at the help. It’s just not done. But that’s not the unwritten rule I’m talking about here. Porter was incensed because he seemed to feel Lowrie violated the unwritten rule of “thou shall not take extraordinary measures to pile on to an already beaten opponent.” This may apply doubly when the opponent has the Astros’ anemic offense. Whether or not Porter really had any right to get upset is a matter for debate. If your team is capable of being beaten before the end of the first inning, it doesn’t make much difference what the other team does, and because it was only the first inning, more than arguably, Lowrie was just doing his job. But the fact that Porter felt justified in being incensed shows how seriously some take the unwritten rule.
In another instance, just in the last week, Yankees’ pitcher Michael Pineda got ejected from his club’s game against the Boston Red Sox and landed a 10-game suspension, to boot. Formally, the ejection and suspension were punishment for doctoring the surface of the baseball with pine tar to allow himself a better grip. Baseball has a long history of pitchers scuffing the ball with nail files, emery boards, or sandpaper; smearing the ball with Vaseline, to make it slip off the fingers; and the liberal use of pine tar by both hitters and pitchers. (Don’t get me started on corked bats and PEDs.) It’s an express violation of the written rules, but the conventional wisdom is that “everybody does it.” It’s the nasty little habit everyone has: like picking your nose, scratching inappropriate places, or sniffing your armpits. As long you don’t advertise it, everyone is willing to act like it doesn’t happen.
But, Pineda’s sin was doing it to the same opponent twice in a row and being so obvious that the Red Sox couldn’t help but catch him at it. (The smear of pine tar on his neck was readily visible in game photos.) Red Sox manager John Farrell brought it to the attention of the umpire and said after the game, “when it’s that obvious, something has to be said.” Again, the unwritten rule: “Cheat discreetly.” Pineda’s violation was so great that Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman felt the need to express his embarrassment about it. (Of course, a person more cynical than I might suggest that it’s rather nice the Yankees are still capable of feeling shame about something.)
It got me thinking about the unwritten rules that govern my own profession and my own little corner of it. In litigation, generally, but especially in the appellate arena, we’re all expected to play nicely together and avoid disagreement for its own sake. So when a fellow appellate lawyer—a smart, experienced, and honorable practitioner of my acquaintance—mentioned on Facebook this week that he had received pushback from his opposing counsel on getting an extension of time to file a brief (and this, when he had only just entered an appearance in the case), the opprobrium was palpable. Every appellate practitioner has been in that situation of having looming deadlines and too much to do to meet them all. Our unwritten rule is that you don’t oppose someone when he asks politely for your position on his extension. You agree to hold your tongue, regardless of how you feel about it and explain it to your client as a strategic decision.
So, in some ways, the attitude of legal practitioners mirrors that of baseball players. Even if the rules don’t require civility in certain areas, custom certainly does, and the lawyer who flouts the unwritten rule risks becoming a pariah. No one wants to be on the business end of that brushback pitch.