A few weeks back, one of the unwritten rules of baseball came into play when Fernando Tatis Jr. ignored a take sign and converted a 3-0 pitch in the eighth inning into his first career grand slam with his San Diego Padres up 10-3 over the Texas Rangers.
Instead of celebrating Tatis hitting the first grand slam of his career, Padres manager Jayce Tingler, issued an apology to the Rangers for Tatis swinging on a take sign. The grand slam also resulted in condemnation from the Texas Rangers.
Rangers manager Chris Woodward, as quoted in a USA Today article, stated that, “There’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game. I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game. But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis. So just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right. I don’t think we liked it as a group.”
The Rangers showed just how much they didn’t like the grand slam during the next at bat when Rangers relief pitcher Ian Gibaut intentionally threw behind Manny Machado enacting another of baseball’s unwritten rules. For his actions of perceived retaliation, Gibaut was suspended three games and Woodward was suspended for one game..
With so many unwritten rules to remember, one has to wonder whether it is time to either write them all down to help players keep track of them, or if it is time to build a proverbial snowman and as the song says, “let it go.”
For Tatis’ part, he noted that, “I’ve been in this game since I was a kid. I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. Those experiences you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”
And therein lies the rub, an unwritten rule is only good if those asked to live by it are aware of it. At the heart of the condemnation of Tatis for hitting the grand slam is the notion of not running up the score on an opponent when the outcome of a game is well in hand.
This is where the debate really come in. Even without unwritten rules explicitly stated, athletes are often programmed to try not to run up scores against opponents. The reasoning being similar to the Golden Rule, where they are doing unto others as they would hope others do unto them.
After all, on any given day depending on which way the ball bounces a team can be on either side of a lopsided game. But, this “golden rule” of athletics goes against the try your best to win philosophy that is instilled in athletes from an early age.
While professional athletes are given some leeway to police themselves when it comes to the so-called unwritten “mercy rules,” many youth athletics enforce mercy rules to the point of ending a game once the margin of score reaches a certain point
Is showing mercy during an athletic competition mercy, or is it patronizing and outside the realm of sportsmanship and fair play? That question is at the heart of many debates related to mercy rules in many youth sports leagues.
Back when I covered high school sports as a reporter, I loved the mercy rule because, lopsided games are no fun to write about, and the earlier a game finished, the quicker I could rush back to the newsroom to write my story. Baseball games would be called if a team was up by 10 or more runs at the end of the fifth inning based on the assumption that the losing team would not be able to score 10 or more runs in two innings.
In other cases, where a game clock is involved, a running clock is utilized in an effort to end the game as quickly as possible to shorten the time a team has to run up the score against an over matched opponent.
Despite the selfish benefit I received at the time in terms of having more time to write my articles, in my mind I was the only one receiving mercy from a mercy rule. Despite gaining the benefit of more time to write before deadline, I always felt bad for the teams that were getting trounced.
Plus, it was newspaper policy to state that the game ended early due to a mercy rule which further showed how off a particular team was. Calling attention to the mercy rule added another degree of shame to their bad night.
One season while covering high school soccer, one of the teams I covered was so over matched that 90 percent of their games were called by the mercy rule before halftime. Late in the season when they actually got to play a full game it was like a victory for them.
While that particular high school had a football and basketball team that routinely won state championships, soccer was an afterthought.
Of course, this self-policing of trying to show sportsmanship by not running up a score can lead to cases of football players falling down at the 1-yard line to not score, versus running into the wide open endzone as their normal instincts would tell them to do.
While well intentioned, and certainly a sports writer’s best friend in terms of making it an early night, it can be argued that mercy rules tarnish the spirit of sportsmanship and take away an opportunity for teams to rally and unite through shared adversity.
It also can lead to a patronizing effect where the team on the winning side of the equation is acting superior or starts to consider the other team has something to pity or despise. Another downside of mercy rules is that the team on the winning side can be shamed for being that much better than their opponent.
The issue of showing mercy in lopsided games is certainly tricky. In my opinion, games should be played in their entirety regardless of the score. Players should also try their best on every play. Asking a player to go against that instinct is asking them to be less than who they are and tarnishes the leave it all out on the field approach of competitive sport.
Yes, lopsided games are painful to watch, and even more painful to write about, but if a team can take their foot off of the accelerator in a lopsided game, what is to prevent them from doing so in other instances? Players should use lopsided games to try new things that can help them in future games versus heading to the locker room early.
Players owe it to themselves, and everyone else, to play their best on every play regardless of what the scoreboard says. Sportsmanship is shown through being gracious in both victory and defeat. Athletes need to go all out on every play knowing that some days they will be on the winning side, and some days they might suffer a terrible lopsided loss.
Those traits are learned in youth sports and carried throughout a person’s life. As such, youth sports need to go the distance and fight through adversity both on the field and off.
While well intended, mercy rules, and the other unwritten rules for lopsided games, have no place in athletics, even if that means that reporters have to work a little later into the night.
In the example of that Padres game against the Rangers, it was the job of the Texas pitcher to keep the ball out of the reach of Tatis’ bat to prevent the grand slam. It was not Tatis’ job to lay off of the pitch and take a walk, or strike out.
Let the players play, and keep the unwritten rules of the game to a minimum when it comes to asking players to forego their competitive instincts at the plate.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some unwritten rules to jot down.
Copyright 2020 R. Anderson