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May 19, 2021

Find out what it means to Tony LaRussa


              I don’t know why so many people have trouble with the concept of Unwritten Rules.  What are called "Manners" in the rest of the world are, in baseball, called Unwritten Rules, and are grouped under the heading "Respect for the Game" or "Playing the Game the Right Way".   There are literally many millions of things that you can do in the rest of the world which would be considered bad manners, but the general heading that groups almost all of them together is "showing a lack of respect."  Probably that gets them all, although in some cases, over time, the original purpose of the UWR (Unwritten Rule) gets lost.  Many times this lack of respect is codified in some way that you don’t intuitively understand.  In Korea, at least when I was there, it was considered highly offensive to light a cigarette in the presence of a person older than yourself, a person of the previous generation.   It was/is an unwritten rule; if the senior person smoked, you could smoke, and if the senior person gestured or said that it was OK for you to smoke, then it was OK for you to smoke, but you didn’t just light up on your own.   It was considered to show a lack of respect for your elders. 

              In the great movie "Gran Torino", Clint Eastwood pats a young child on the head, only to learn that this is considered highly offensive in the Hmong culture.  It’s an unwritten rule. 

              We are, of course, in the middle of a controversy involving the unwritten rules.  Yermin Mercedes, who is no relation to his cousin, Vermin Gran Torino . .  Anyway, a non-pitcher was on the mound, lobbing meatballs at the Chicago White Sox.  The score at the time was 107-to-nothing.  The count on Mercedes got to be 3-0, and the pitcher lobbed one over the plate, and the Vermin Yermin hit it out of the park.   Well, maybe it wasn’t out of the park, I don’t know; for all I know it was in a domed stadium.  He hit a home run.  You’re not supposed to do that; it’s a violation of an unwritten rule. 

              There are unwritten rules everywhere.  No business could survive without them, no family could stay intact without them, no personal relationship could work without them.   Whenever we stumble into one of these controversies, people say two things that really don’t make ANY sense:

1)      That we should get rid of all of the unwritten rules, or

2)      That we should AT LEAST write them down somewhere.


You couldn’t BEGIN to write them all down.  They would make the Baseball Encyclopedia look like a pamphlet.  (Credit:  Mark Twain said that if you took all of the "Begats" out of the Bible, the rest would be a pamphlet.  If you’re going to steal a joke, steal from the best; it’s an unwritten rule.)

Anyway, the thing that has just happened, between Yermin the Vermin and Tony LaRedneck, has very close parallels in my life, your life, and everybody else’s life. A couple of years ago, in a Kansas University Basketball game, KU was beating the hell out of somebody and, at the closing gun, a kid who only got to play when the game was out of control fired up a completely unguarded three-point shot, which went in.   His coach apologized immediately, and the kid himself apologized the next day.   The same thing happened the other way ten years ago; KU, who normally loses about 5 to 7 games a year, was getting beaten badly by somebody and, as time ran out, our player, unguarded, slammed down a dunk.  Bill Self apologized immediately, and our player apologized the next day. 

Nothing is on the line here, nothing matters.  The contest is, in reality, already over; we are just trying to formally conclude the event without unnecessarily embarrassing anybody.  We are showing respect for our opponents by not attempting to embarrass them.  The young player used that "gift" in a way that was never intended.   Do you remember the scene in Bull Durham when Crash Davis, upset with his young pitcher, calls for a fastball and tells the batter a fastball is coming?  The batter hits a home run, but he stands there admiring his shot.   Crash immediately starts yelling at him. . .I don’t remember the exact words, except for "I gave you a gift", but he yells something like "RUN.  What are you standing there for?  I gave you a gift. Don’t stand there acting like you did something great." 

33 years ago, I was accidentally drawn into an incident very much like this.  I was in the process of buying a new car, and I went by the dealership two or three times, working with an older man who was trying to sell me the car.  But when I had decided to make the purchase and went into the dealership, the salesman was just running out of the office to go to a doctor’s appointment, so he told a younger salesman, "Hey, Jack, I’ve got to run; can you close this out for me?"   Exactly the same thing as the on-field incident; we’re just formally closing out a done deal, combined with "I’ll give you a gift."

But, I later learned, this led to ill will between the two car salesman.  The younger car salesman, rather than being grateful for the gift, was crowing to a third salesman about how he had closed the deal.  

What should he have done?  I’ve never been a car salesman, but what I would have done is, I would have said to the older salesman, "Hey, thanks for the gift there, I’ll split the commission with you."  He probably would have said "No, that’s not necessary", in which case I would have said, "Well, let me take you and your wife to dinner, then." 

If a player plastered a 3-0 pitch at the end of a blowout in a High School game, his coach would have told him not to do that.  Mercedes, of course. . . and I mean no disrespect by joking about his name. . .but Mercedes did not play high school baseball in the states.  He comes from a different tradition, a different place, and there has to be space in your value system to accommodate that.  When I was in Korea, a friend of mine was meeting with his girlfriends’ father and extended family, preparing to ask her father’s permission to marry her.  Having somehow missed the memo, he pulled out a cigarette and lit up.  The room gasped, and the girlfriend gestured hurriedly for him to put it out. 

But he still got permission to marry the daughter.   He got the OK because his prospective father-in-law understood that he had not INTENDED to show disrespect; he just didn’t know about the rule. 

But what happened next, in our present example, is that Mr. Mercedes insisted that he had done no wrong, and he was going to do it again the next time he had a chance.   Suppose that my friend in Korea, being informed that he had violated the unwritten rule, had responded "I don’t give a shit about your unwritten rule; I’m going to light a cigarette whenever I God Damned well want to light a cigarette."   That’s a different thing. 

None of this is intended in any way to justify throwing at the batter, or to justify giving his players permission or instruction to throw at the batter, if that is in fact what LaRussa did.  That’s wrong; that should not happen.  As Brandon McCarthy points out, players get paid based on their performance numbers.  It’s one thing when it happens in a high school game; it’s a different thing when people are getting paid.

Well, yes, but Yermin Mercedes is going to wind up the year with 21 or 22 homers, probably.  The difference between the two is not necessarily very much, and I would argue that trying to take advantage of a situation like that for a petty prospective gain in salary is. . . .perhaps not recommended.   I remember one time this guy I worked with and I were flipping a coin over something, and, after we finished, he put the coin in his pocket and walked away.  He was a guy who did stuff like that.  It’s petty, of course; I don’t care about the quarter.   But what he was saying is, "I care more about this quarter than I do about your respect."  Was that a smart decision, on his part, because he came out ahead a quarter?   Most of us would choose the respect of the community over the quarter.  The question is, will Yermin choose the respect of the community over a hit here and there? 

If he wants to have a long career, he will be better off if he does.   But it wasn’t ONLY Yermin who misunderstood the unwritten rule; it was also LaRussa.  The unwritten rules change over time, just as manners by all the other names change over time.  Every generation challenges the rules and changes the rules.  In 1985, the unwritten rule was that if a player showed you up, you threw at him, or at least threw close to him.  That’s not the rule anymore.   LaRussa, it may be, I don’t know, but LaRussa may have been insisting on enforcing a rule that hasn’t been on the books for the last 15 years. 

That’s happened before.  Anybody remember this one? 15 to 30 years ago, Don Baylor had a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, which used to be a really big deal before pitchers started throwing them every week.   With two out in the 9th, a young player, I think a rookie, bunted to break up the no-hitter.   Baylor was livid, and insisted that there was an unwritten rule that you didn’t do that.  

But Baylor was just wrong; there was never any unwritten rule that you’re not supposed to bunt to try to break up a no-hitter.  Baylor THOUGHT there was some such rule, because he personally would not do it, but that was just his choice, and since then a lot of writers have WRITTEN that there was some such rule, because they suppose that Baylor must have known what he was talking about. 

These controversies erupt because different people have different understandings of what the rules are right now.  I am certain that they all have a better understanding of the UWR than I do.   But in every field, the unwritten rules—that is, the manners—the unwritten rules are WAY more important than what is written down or what can be written down.  Whether you are a baseball player, a car salesman, a lawyer, an academic, a butcher, a baker or a burglar, you are living in a jungle of unwritten rules, and if you want to be successful, you had damned well better respect those rules.  If you are working with the Mafia, you had better know every jot and tittle of the Unwritten Rules of the Mob.   In the front office, it’s an unwritten rule that, when you win the World Championship, you have to pay the players who won it for you.  You have to show respect to the players who put that ring on your finger.  You can think whatever you want to think about that rule, but if you don’t follow it, it is GOING to cost you.  


COMMENTS (33 Comments, most recent shown first)

My biggest issue is this: If you're not trying why the hell should I? If all you're doing is just throwing meatballs over the plate, should I just take the strikeout?

To me, if you're not trying your best, you are giving the game zero respect. I'm not a "back in my day" person. I believe that when a football game is clearly over (up two scores, less than a minute to play, etc.) one should just take a knee and the trailing team should just do the same. I believe that when a basketball game is clearly over (up 10, under 10 seconds to go, etc.), one should just dribble the ball until the clock is done and the trailing team should just not bother trying to foul.

I get that there are days one just doesn't have it. But if the manager was that worried about a player being embarrassed, why didn't he just forfeit the game? When it was 6-1 in the fifth should he had told his players to not hit anymore, the game is over (it was already about a 97% chance the Sox were going to win)?

It was brought up in some earlier posts, but as has been said in various forms, I promise to let the foot off the gas if you promise to not try and come back.
11:38 PM Jan 12th
My biggest problem with unwritten rules is when there is no clear consensus on what the Unwritten Rule is. Buck Showalter used to criticize Ken Griffey Jr for wearing his hat backwards during batting practice. Showalter said it was disrespectful. Showalter considered himself a baseball lifer who was an elder statesman in the game and Junior was just a cocky kid. To me, Junior was a 2nd generation player who was well-versed in the Unwritten Rules and played the game with joy and enthusiasm. I agree it's important to have unwritten rules. But it's also messy when people can't agree on what the unwritten rules are.
11:37 AM May 28th
I don't think Mercedes did anything wrong, either.

I think in amateur sports, especially high school or lower where the participants are kids, coaches should push players not to run up the score, and a team winning by a big enough margin the game is won should put its scrubs in and tell them to take it easy.

I think in pro sports, these are adults whose job it is to play, and within the rules it's at least always acceptable to hit a home run if you can. Maybe someone would finish his career with 299 home runs otherwise but be in the 300 home run club because so many years ago he hit that homer. Note I don't think it's a duty, and a player who chooses to hold himself back a bit in a complete blowout, I have some respect for that, too. But at the least it's a personal choice and neither action is immoral.

It's different from in high school or younger or something, when it's mean to humiliate a kid. These are adults and professionals. If someone can't take it at that level, the one who can't take it is the one with the problem.

I think taunting, making fun of the opponent, when the opponent hasn't done something to make himself deserve to be a target, is a very bad thing. even at the pro level. It doesn't affect any game outcomes or stats not to take actions that humiliate opponents beyond the runs you score against them, etc., and that is not called for at any level.
10:50 AM May 26th
I am with those who do not think Mercedes did anything wrong. The point of sports is to try to win within the rules. I also like the point at least one other person made--what about the fans? Surely they enjoyed the home run more than they would a bases-loaded walk?

David Kaiser
8:51 AM May 26th
Bill made some excellent points about unwritten rules. I had never thought about unwritten rules in quite that same framework before. It rings true. Thank you, Bill.

I love stories about running up the score and the unwritten rule against it. When a coach runs up the score intentionally, it's usually to settle some previous slight, perceived or otherwise. The most blatant of these was an NFL coach (I can't remember which one, seems like it was Rex Ryan) who ran up the score on an opponent in retaliation for having been beaten earlier in that year by that same opponent in a lopsided game. On the game's final play, ahead by forty points, he called timeout and kicked a field goal.

University of Houston basketball coach Guy Lewis, when asked why he left his starters in a game so long in a blowout, responded "You can get thrown in jail for shaving points."

These are in-your-face examples of bad sportsmanship, I'm mad-as-hell kind of thinking. Not really relevant to the current discussion, but the following story MIGHT be:

I was playing baseball in the mid 1990s in an amateur league. We were ahead, 7-0, in the top of the ninth. One of our less experienced players, Monte Mason, decided to steal second base. He was safe, and came around to score and put us up 8-0. In the dugout between innings, Tim Walsh, who was our best player and one of Monte's roommates and best friends, cursed him out for rubbing it in on the opponents. Tim said it was bush league BS and in a serious baseball league the next batter would have been hit. You can guess what happened next - the opposing team scored seven runs in the bottom of the ninth. We won, 8-7. Monte's run was the difference in the game.
12:03 PM May 24th
The one thing that surprised me was that not swinging in this situation has been so uniformly respected in the past. ESPN came up with a stat saying that in the last 20 years, there have been 557 players batting with a 3-0 count while their team led by 10 or more runs. Until now, none of them had swung.
7:56 PM May 21st
Maybe when the team getting crushed puts a position player in to pitch, the team doing the crushing should send pitchers up to hit.
2:43 PM May 21st
One last point, on April 19th the Red Sox were beating the White Sox 10-4. In the 7th LaRussa brought in Yarmin Mercedes to pitch. He walked the first batter Franchy Cordero who then had the audacity to STEAL SECOND BASE!

I'm assuming on September 10th when the Red Sox and White Sox next play each other that LaRussa will have a pitcher plunk Cordero, right?

1:43 PM May 21st
LaRussa said after the game that he had given Mercedes a signal to take a pitch. But watching that entire at-bat it seems like Mercedes walked up to a guy soft tossing meatballs and he just swung. The pitches were one right after another and I don't think Mercedes ever looked into the dugout for "a sign".

My question is, why should he have? I mean if the game was over, what is Tony doing flashing signs to hitters between every awful pitch? Making the game go longer?

My last point is LaRussa's comments to the media then seemed to encourage someone to throw at his own player. In absolutely no team sports is encouraging someone else to attack one of your players appropriate or warranted. It would be interesting to see what Kevin Pillar what he thinks of the comments of a Hall of Fame manager.
1:34 PM May 21st
No, you are disgustingly wrong. If a batter can blast a homer on a 3-0 pitch, then he should swing. A team should never stop trying to run up the score. All unwritten rules that are stupid, such as this one, should be blatantly and intentionally disregarded. If idiots get mad about it, then you should keep doing it and try to make them foam at the mouth. Giving up and not trying to score more is disrespecting the game. The way you respect your opponents is by trying to run up the score. If they can't stop you from blasting homers on 3-0 pitches, then that is their problem and they need to kick themselves in the nuts for getting mad. I hope Yermin blasts 50 homers on 3-0 pitches in blowouts this season.
9:28 AM May 21st
I honestly didn't know the one about not swinging on 3-0 if your team's way ahead until Tatis Jr hit a Grand Slam in that situation. I know it would be taboo to have a runner steal 2nd then have someone bunt him to third in that situation. I honestly didn't know about not swinging at 3-0
3:41 AM May 21st
You boys are very interesting. I read someone and go yeah that sounds good. Then I read someone else and think, well he's got a point. The major thing it convinces me off is that being an anarchist is the only rational thing to be. I certainly don't know enough, or have the necessary wisdom to tell anyone else how to live their lives. And neither do you.
6:18 PM May 20th
I'd rather give up the home run. Boom bang, it's over. Next batter. You start walking people, the game will go on FOREVER.
3:52 PM May 20th
Putting a position player in to pitch is not a sign of disrespect for the other ream; it’s running up the white flag. You don’t shoot prisoners.

The issue here is that Mercedes was raised in a different culture, and I respect that. Then again, when I Rome, do as the Romans. As Bill hinted at, Mercedes should get a pass…this time. Now that he knows the UWR, he should respect it, just as I’m sure he would like others to respect him.

Re: Bill’s story about the guy who kept the quarter. I didn’t care for the movie OUT OF AFRICA except for one scene. Robert Redford mentions he is no longer friends with a man who borrowed a book and failed to return it. Meryl Streep is aghast. “You’d lose a friend over a book?”

Redford: “I didn’t lose a friend. He did.”

Manners matter. I don’t see a big problem in bat flips for home runs (assuming the ball goes out) or the occasional chest beating by pitchers after strikeouts, though I wouldn’t do either. That’s enthusiasm. Taunting the other player, as was done in a coupe of games a week or two ago? That’s over the line.

3:44 PM May 20th
I’ve found that “unwritten rules” doesn’t work for the U.S. because it’s such a diverse country. It’s too heterogeneous a society.

We have citizens/residents that come from hundreds of different cultures, nationalities, religions and that speak 100’s of different languages. I think the New York public school system has something like 150 acknowledge languages among its students. I think there’s something like 500 different languages or regional dialects in the NYC Metro area.

Then there’s sub group among the sub groups that don’t get along. The Dominicans don’t like the Puerto Rican’s. The Pakistanis don’t like the people from India. The Shite Muslims don’t like the Sunis. There’s about 100 different types of Protestants that can’t agree on Christianity. The Catholics are divided among liberals and the conservatives and they don’t like the Protestants. The northern Italians think the Southern or Sicilians are inferior. The Christian Arabs consider themselves white and they consider Muslim Arabs as inferior. Etc, etc.

And the U.S. is such an individualist country as far a guiding philosophy. And it’s only gotten increasingly worse in the last 40 years. People are just much more selfish and self centered then they were 40-50 years ago.

As a result, we have to have everything written down and codified into laws. That’s why it’s such a litigious society.
12:21 PM May 20th
"I give you a gift and you stand there and show up my pitcher? Run dummy!"
-Crash Davis
11:49 AM May 20th
Yeah, I watching the whole at-bat: it sure looks like Yermin was looking to put the first pitch he could in play, but Willians wasn't find the strike zone. The pace was VERY quick....the four pitches took about 22 seconds, so it's not like anyone was looking for signs from the dugout.

I say it's a not a crime: Yermin didn't want to draw a walk in a blowout, so he swung at the first decent pitch Tortuga threw him. Just happened to knock it 450 feet.

11:43 AM May 20th
Thanks for the video link. It didn't look to me like Mercedes was really cranking it up. more like he took a fairly generic swing. Just looking at that part of the video, I would have expected the result to be an out F-8,
11:03 AM May 20th
Here's the whole at-bat. The 3-0 pitch was the first one that was even close to being a strike.

10:28 AM May 20th
Another unwritten rule violated here is "don't publicly throw your player under the bus if he makes a mistake."
9:40 AM May 20th
My gut reaction - recognizing that I have no first-hand knowledge - is that swinging 3-0 on a position player throwing lollipops is a helluva lot more polite than trying to draw a walk.

I haven't seen the full at-bat, and I'd like to know where Astrudillo's first three pitches went. If he was wild, maybe Mercedes was thinking, "Let's get this over with" by swinging at ball four.

The problem with the unwritten rules is that intention can be interpreted multiple ways. One person might interpret swinging 3-0 as a violation of manners (let the guy groove one), but another person could just as easily interpret that as a mannered action (cut the guy some slack and put it in play if it's close).
9:07 AM May 20th
Fireball Wenz
The show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" explores this entire subject for comic effect. The main character, Larry David, is always either balking at the unwritten rules he doesn't agree with, or insisting on the observance of the ones he does.
7:32 AM May 20th
Marc Schneider
The notion that unwritten rules are too subtle to understand strikes me as ridiculous. People know when a game is out of hand. It's a matter of showing courtesy and respect. No one is saying strike out on purpose, but I see a lot of players doing things and saying I mean no disrespect, but that's exactly what they are doing. I think a lot of this stems from the prevailing notion in society that the only thin

12:05 AM May 20th
Thanks, Bill. I guess the best public controversies arise when both sides can easily be demonstrated to be wrong, as is the case here.

I think people were primed to pile on LaRussa because he's old and now they've got their opportunity. I have really been enjoying (Not) the seemingly endless hordes of people who think they understand the mechanics of being in a clubhouse better than Tony LaRussa.

11:45 PM May 19th
I agree with the overall point of the article. I agree that it is unsportsmanlike to pile on, excessively celebrate, or intentionally embarrass someone. And I also agree that it is generally poor form to swing at a 3-0 pitch in a blowout.

But all bets are off when a position player comes in to pitch and lobs 45 mph fastballs to the plate. When a team does that, they have clearly signaled that they really don't care about the rest of the game. How respectful is that? The most important unwritten rule is that you play the game hard or you don't play at all. If I were the manager of the White Sox, I would have instructed my hitters to bash his brains in and swing for the fences.​
10:04 PM May 19th
Nothing against unwritten rules generally, but I really don't recall this one being an important rule when I was growing up playing baseball.

I watched that game. The Twins put Astudillo in to pitch - what kind of respect does that show? I think a lot more respect was shown by the guy who tried his hardest to succeed in his at bat than by the team that didn't care enough about the game to put a real pitcher on the mound. That I do remember being the most important part of respect for the game - try your best all the time no matter the situation. Mercedes did that; the Twins did not.

This isn't like the final seconds of a basketball game at all. In basketball, the clock runs. In baseball, Mercedes had to play his at bat. It's disrespectful to the fans to drag that at bat out or make them watch him tank pitches - we want to see the players compete. I was glad to see Mercedes play.

9:18 PM May 19th
When does this particular unwritten rule ("Stop trying to score runs") kick in? Going into the 6th inning the Sox were up 10-1. Should they have stopped trying to score at that point? At the end f the 6th, up 14-3. Should they have stopped trying to score at that point? When the score was 14-3 in the top of the 8th, should Garcia have been taking all the way? In the 8th, with the bases loaded after two walks and a single, should Hamilton been hitting away (and getting the 15th run home)? Should Mercedes have deliberately struck out? Or taken a walk, leaving it up to the next guy to figure out what the unwritten rule was? If not, what is the "unwritten rule" about when the score is so lopsided that the team that's ahead stops trying to score? Was it a violation of the "unwritten rule" that you're always trying to win when Baldelli
sent Astudillo in to pitch? Isn't there an unwritten rule that you always do your best to keep the other team from scoring (more)? It's too subtle for me.
9:06 PM May 19th
It is possible, it is likely, that I confused Don Baylor and Bob Brenly in this incident. On the other hand, when I googled "Don Baylor. . .bunt controversy". ..about ten different incidents popped up. None of them relating to a no-hitter.
7:43 PM May 19th
re: RipCity. Yes, there may have been a Don Baylor incident, but the Brenly, Schilling vs. Padres was the big one that I remember. The big reason Schilling was wrong was that the game was 1-0 or 2-0, so getting on base by any means necessary was certainly well within the rules. Written or otherwise.​
7:33 PM May 19th
Well, Mercedes' other option was to take pitches from a nonpitcher who had shown he had trouble finding the plate. Is that supposed to be more respectful? To stand at the plate and let pitches pass you by on purpose, when all anyone wants to do is get the game over with?

I have a feeling that if Astudio had walked a couple of guys, La Russa and the Twins would not have been very happy with that, either.
6:46 PM May 19th
I'm going to disagree with you on this Bill. Things change over time and the players came up in a different time and it doesn't bother them for the most part. Just the old guys are bothered, and LaRussa is trying to institute something long since gone. Players celebrate and show emotion now and there is no stopping it. And, quite frankly why not celebrate.
6:38 PM May 19th
The story about Don Baylor and breaking up a no-hitter -- not sure if this is what you're thinking of, but in the New Historical Abstract (I believe) you wrote (making a similar point) about Bob Brenly getting angry when Ben Davis of the Padres did that to break up Curt Schilling's perfect game in the 8th inning. May 26, 2001 -- it was a big controversy at the time.
6:36 PM May 19th
Should have read "Lobbing meatballs FOR the Chicago White Sox."
6:20 PM May 19th
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