Have you heard? Baseball players are as sensitive as ballerinas. Slip a single off-color rose into your favorite center fielder's bouquet and he'll weep at the beautiful incongruity of it. Should ancient Mrs. Trumpington speak crossly at Madame Beltone's fortnightly reading circle, the average big-league shortstop will avert his eyes behind a slender volume of Wordsworth and blush like a maiden attending her first cotillion.
Yes, baseball players are a delicate lot -- always have been. Among the assorted Lake Poets and flower painters out there on the diamond these days, we find Mr. Davey Lopes, manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. He was so utterly chagrined a few weeks ago by a breach of social etiquette on the part of Mr. Rickey Henderson, of the San Diego Padres, that he uttered a rebuke.
"Fuck you, asshole!" Mr. Lopes said. For all to hear, near and far, and for TV lip-readers to plainly see, it must be reported.
Mr. Henderson's affront? With his band of brothers leading by seven runs in the seventh inning of a contest with Milwaukee, he brazenly stole second base. Stole it! Imagine the cheek. The unmitigated gall. Where, oh, where have proper manners gone, friends? What has become of chivalry? And respect for the feelings of others?
Fuck you, indeed, Mr. Henderson. Or should we say, Mr. Asshole? In the company of sensitive gentlemen you are no longer welcome, sir.
If we can believe men whose hobbies are chewing tobacco and wrecking hotel rooms, baseball is governed by rules both written and unwritten. Any Little Leaguer can reel off the written rules -- three outs per inning, four balls for a walk, touch all the bases, things like that. The so-called unwritten rules (and their reasons for being) are a little harder to define. But we'll take a whack at it.
Tradition, traditionalists claim, dictates that if the opposing pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, you don't bunt to ruin his chances. It's not gentlemanly -- certainly not as gentlemanly as spitting in an umpire's face. If you've got a big lead, this amorphous code supposedly says, you don't swing at a 3-0 pitch. Instead, you stand there and watch a fastball whiz by you, right down the middle. This reduces your chances of reaching base but shows respect for the tender sensibilities of your foe. Also, a hitter is not supposed to sneak a peek at the catcher's signs. Little matter that you have to be a contortionist to see anything, and that the guy's fluttering fingers are as hard to decipher as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Protocol says you don't peek.
Furthermore, upon hitting a home run, a batter is not supposed to showboat -- which means he is not allowed to stand too long at the plate admiring his handiwork. Nor should he turn cartwheels between second and third base, show an upturned middle finger to the pitcher or hand his bubblegum card to the opposing manager. And naturally, if your team is far ahead on the scoreboard late in the game, you don't steal a base, as Mr. Henderson did. It's terribly bad form; Miss Manners would be appalled.
To coin a phrase: Fuck you, assholes.
The notion that any baseball player, for any reason whatever, should give less than his all every minute he is on the field is abhorrent, a violation of the very soul of the game. And it sure as hell ain't traditional. Are we to believe that Ty Cobb, having noted that his Tigers were leading the St. Louis Browns 16-0, exchanged pleasantries with the Browns' first baseman rather than tearing off toward unoccupied second base at the first chance and sliding in with his spikes high and a demonic scowl on his face? Are we to believe that Babe Ruth, ahead in the count 3-0 in a laugher against the White Sox, would decline to smash Sloppy Thurston's next pitch into the cheap seats? Think Hack Wilson, sober or drunk, wouldn't rip an opposing catcher's ear off his head if it meant getting a hit in an 11-0 game? How about Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals' famously ill-tempered picher? How often did good old Bob consider the emotional well-being of his opponents?
Then again, this is a New Age. Maybe Seattle, baseball's best team, should dump a few games to give the other Americal League West teams a sporting chance at the division title. Maybe Roger Clemens should send thank-you notes to the guys who hit homers off him. Yes, and maybe the Russians should have let up on the Germans at Stalingrad.
In any event, the ethically wounded Mr. Davey Lopes must not read the papers -- or have anyone read them to him. If he did, he would know that the very day before Rickey Henderson stole his politically incorrect base against Milwaukee, the Houston Astros took an 8-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against Pittsburgh, only to see the lowly, God-awful Pirates score seven runs and put a 9-8 win in the books. Obeying "tradition," Houston runner Moises Alou had declined to steal with two outs in the top of the inning and was forced out at second base. Even more telling, a few days later, the Seattle Mariners held a 14-2 lead over Cleveland in the seventh but managed to lose the game 15-14. While "comfortably" ahead, no Mariner dared swing at a 3-0 pitch. It just isn't done.
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Lopes is not alone in his traditionalist posturing. San Francisco manager Dusty Baker, a touchy-feely kind of guy if ever there was one, recently took exception when Arizona's Matt Williams swung at a 3-0 pitch with the Diamondbacks way ahead, and Arizona manager Bob Brenly blew up when San Diego's Ben Davis tried to bunt in the midst of a potential no-hitter by Curt Schilling. Sensitive, right-thinking, tradition-honoring gentlemen all, are they not? Evidently, they've never seen Seattle play Cleveland.
If baseball is going to indulge mumbo-jumbo and unwritten codes, maybe what it really needs is some new rules of the official, chiseled-in-stone variety. For instance, from now on, if the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox ever happen to be in first place in the last week of September, they will promptly be docked 5.5 games in the standings. After all, it's always been an unwritten rule that the Cubs and Red Sox don't win the World Series, so they must never be given the chance. Also, this home-run thing has gotten out of hand. Sluggers like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire have so badly damaged the delicate psyches of the pitchers who face them, that the poor fellows are in need of major self-esteem therapy. To that end, all batters will now be allotted two home runs per month -- no more. Violators will be demoted to the Toledo Mud Hens. Second-time offenders will be sentenced to watching an entire season of Montreal Expos home games.
Because baseball, as we have pointed out, is a game played by gentlemen, certain new rules of on-field decorum will also now be enforced. For one thing, no cursing. Not even if you give up seven runs to Pittsburgh in the bottom of the ninth. Simply put, bad language is vulgar and has no more place in baseball than stealing a sign for the knuckleball. As an alternative, the recitation of Bible verses or selections from Ovid's Metamorphoses is acceptable. In the same vein, no more spitting. It's unsanitary and sets a bad example for youngsters. And no more scratching, rubbing or yanking of the genitals while fidgeting in the batter's box or standing at first base. While these are traditional baseball activities, they are inimical to gentlemanly behavior and are now prohibited.
Under the new rules, batting helmets will be banned. As any traditionalist can tell you, the skill level of so-called major-league pitching has fallen so low that any player too cowardly to step into the batter's box without cranial protection isn't worth the measly $11.8 million per year his club is paying him. If these rag-arms can't get it over the plate, they certainly can't stick it in your ear. That's always been an unwritten rule. Now it's written. Lastly, there is to be no touching. No more pats on the backside, no high fives, no dusty collisions between runner and shortstop at second base. Should a catcher notice a baserunner rounding third at full tilt at the same time the throw is zinging into him from the outfield, he shall heretofore be required to step aside and allow the runner to cross home plate unimpeded. After all, baseball is for sensitive men. Men rightly offended by breaches of etiquette and protocol. It is most certainly not a contact sport like the ones that crude ruffians play. If you don't believe us, ask Mr. Davey Lopes.