Baseball By The Book
Examining the Unwritten Rules of the Game
By Joe Giardina
outfielder Hideki Matsui was rounding third base, getting ready
to greet his teammates at home plate after hitting a walk-off
home run in a mid-July game against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
Following their cue, he took off his helmet and threw it into
the air in celebration.
"They told me to throw my helmet, so I threw my helmet," he told reporters after the game through an interpreter. "I've never done it before, so yeah, it's a little uncomfortable. But I'd like to follow whatever the team's rules are."
That, in a nutshell, is the mindset of a Japanese baseball player: Follow the rules-and the unwritten rules-to a T.
Baseball has evolved to an international game over the last 30 years. As of Opening Day 2009, 28 percent of players in Major League Baseball were foreign-born, representing 15 different countries.
But it is still a simple game. Throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. It doesn't matter if you grew up in Chicago, Cuba or China, the rules of the game are generally the same.
It is the unwritten rules, however, that can define a player, and perhaps more importantly, a culture.
"Players in the Far East definitely stress the fundamentals more than anywhere else," said Orestes Destrade, former Pirate and current ESPN baseball analyst.
Destrade, who came to the United States when he was six, played four seasons in the major leagues for three different teams. He also played five seasons for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League, where he led the league in home runs three straight years. But he first learned the intricacies of the game as a young player in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
"[The unwritten rules of baseball] are taught everywhere," Destrade said. "I grew up playing Little League in Miami, but I was schooled by a lot of great Latino players."
Destrade has covered the World Baseball Classic and the Little League World Series for ESPN. He believes that the nuances of the game are the same in most parts of the world, but that the distinction lies in the emphasis placed on them.
It's rare, he says, to see a player from Latin America lead the league in walks, because they want to take their cuts. It's just as rare to see a Japanese player swing at a 3-0 pitch, or attempt to stretch a double into a triple with no outs.
"They are pretty much like their culture," Destrade said of the Japanese players. "Safe is best, uniformity is best. They don't take crazy risks because that might hurt the team and you'd be singling yourself out."
Destrade recalled a game in Japan in the early '90s in which his team was batting in the first inning of a scoreless game. The leadoff hitter got on base and, without hesitation, was sacrificed to second - something you would rarely, if ever, see in an MLB game.
Now take a glance at the other end of the spectrum.
Vladimir Guerrero, who was born in the Dominican Republic, won
the American League MVP with a .337 batting average and 39 home
runs. Despite pitchers trying to pitch around him, he finished
the season with just 52 walks, or one in every 13.1 at bats. That
same year, Barry Bonds, who was born in California, won the National
League MVP with similar numbers. Bonds, however, had 232 walks,
or one in every 2.7 at bats.
Two different nationalities (Latin American and American), two different styles (aggressive and selective), both yielding the same results.
"Latinos are very aggressive risk takers," Destrade said. "They aren't going up there looking to take walks."
In 1986, Baseball Digest published a list of the unwritten rules of baseball. Some are obvious - #1) never put the tying or go-ahead run on base, #5) never make the first or third out at third, #10) never throw behind a runner. Some aren't as evident and require a little more thinking - #11) corner outfielders concede everything to center field, #14) don't go against the percentages, #24) don't use your closer in a tie game.
Certainly there are exceptions. After all, there is a reason they are called "unwritten rules" and not simply "the rules."
Because in some cases, they may not always be right.
point - Roberto Clemente, born in Puerto Rico, was famous for
throwing behind runners to catch them off guard. It's a safe assumption
that Pirates' manager Danny Murtaugh didn't try to rein in his
powerful right arm very often.
In Latin America, major league players become national icons. It was once said that every Puerto Rican has two pictures hanging in their home - one of Jesus and one of Clemente. Young Latino baseball players grow up emulating him, modeling their game to match his hoping one day to follow in his footsteps.
"There is a different way that players from across the world learn about the game of baseball based on the environment in which they are brought up," said Ben Badler, an international baseball reporter for Baseball America. "Not just in terms of rules, but stylistically as well." Badler covers players from all over the world for the publication, most notably the younger Latin American prospects.
"If you are 15 or 16 years old, no matter where you are, Latin America, the Pacific Rim, even the United States, a lot of the small nuances of the game-not making the last out at third base, things like that-that knowledge of the game tends not to develop until later in their careers," he said. "You see minor leaguers struggle with some of those small nuances of the game."
But Badler says there are also other reasons behind the aggressiveness of Latino players. For a player to be noticed among the thousands of prospects, his skills have to stand out.
"In Latin America, certain tools like power and arm strength and speed are emphasized for some of the trainers to showcase their players in workout settings," he said.
Japanese and American-born players play in many leagues in which they can be scouted. Latino players, however, don't always have that benefit. They play in and are scouted in games, but their true talents are spotted in showcases at facilities built in Latin America by major league clubs.
So if Latin America preaches aggressiveness, and the Far East stresses fundamentals, how are American-born baseball players taught the game?
"The United States in general is just an ethnically diverse country," Badler said. "You see a little bit of everything."
There is no right or wrong style of playing the game. Each culture has its own version. If the NFL is a copycat league, then Major League Baseball has a copycat fan base unlike any other sport. Young players mimic their favorite player's batting stance or their favorite pitcher's windup. It is for this reason, perhaps more than any other, that Latino players are aggressive, following in the footsteps of Clemente, Guerrero and players before them. Or why pitchers from the Far East have quirky windups like Hideo Nomo.
And within the next few years, yet another new fan base may develop with its own nuances and style of play. That is thanks to Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the first two Indian-born players to play professional baseball in the United States.
With no knowledge of the game, they had to start from the beginning, learning the fundamentals, nuances and unwritten rules of the game on the fly. There is a good chance that their one billion fellow countrymen will take notice and aspiring Indian-born major leaguers will soon try to follow in their footsteps. Their culture's baseball development may depend largely on the way Singh and Patel, who are currently pitchers for the Pirates' Bradenton affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, pick up the game.
There is no better place for them to be, either. Bradenton, the bottom rung of the Pirates' five-step ladder to make it to the majors, has 35 players from 11 different nations and five-yes five-different continents.
It is perhaps the best showcase of a culture's effect on the development and style of play of a young player.
It is proof that to play the game, all you need is a glove, a bat and a ball.
BASEBALL'S UNWRITTEN RULES
1. Never put the tying or go-ahead run on base.
2. Play for the tie at home, go for the victory on the road.
3. Don't hit and run with an 0-2 count.
4. Don't play the infield in early in the game.
5. Never make the first or third out at third.
6. Never steal when you're two or more runs down.
7. Don't steal when you're well ahead.
8. Don't steal third with two outs.
9. Don't bunt for a hit when you need a sacrifice.
10. Never throw behind the runner.
11. Left and right fielders concede everything to center fielder.
12. Never give up a home run on an 0-2 count.
13. Never let the score influence the way you manage.
14. Don't go against the percentages.
15. Take a strike when your club is behind in a ballgame.
16. Leadoff hitter must be a base stealer. Designated hitter must be a power hitter.
17. Never give an intentional walk if first base is occupied.
18. With runners in scoring position and first base open, walk the number eight hitter to get to the pitcher.
19. In rundown situations, always run the runner back toward the base from which he came.
20. If you play for one run, that's all you'll get.
21. Don't bunt with a power hitter up.
22. Don't take the bat out of your best hitter's hands by sacrificing in front of him.
23. Only use your bullpen stopper in late-inning situations.
24. Don't use your stopper in a tie game - only when you're ahead.
25. Hit behind the runner at first.
26. If one of your players gets knocked down by a pitch, retaliate.
27. Hit the ball where it's pitched.
28. A manager should remain detached from his players.
29. Never mention a no-hitter while it's in progress.
30. With a right-hander on the mound, don't walk a right-handed hitter to pitch to a left-handed hitter.
Courtesy of Baseball Digest