I’ve just finished reading The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, & Bench-clearing Brawls, a fascinating look inside the unwritten rules of America’s pastime by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca. Originally I started this book in the hopes of gleaning some fresh insights to pass on my 14 year-old DirtDog son, who is now on the threshold of his highly competitive High School years which require more serious mental and physical preparation than he has ever experienced up to this point in his amateur career.
What I learned is that professional baseball is an altogether different creature than all of its amateur expressions in the Little League/Babe Ruth, AAU, High School, Legion and College venues. While they may look familiar from the outside, the professional game has a completely different essence from what we grow up and fall in love with as “The Greatest Game on Earth.”
In my personal view as a combination baseball dad, youth coach and trainer, many of the unwritten rules of baseball (also known as “The Code”) do not properly apply to the amateur game. Such examples include the moral imperative to join bench-clearing brawls, deliberately hitting batters with pitches, and covering for the marital infidelities of teammates. However, there are other principles embodied in “The Code” that definitely do have a place in baseball at all levels, particularly in competitive AAU, High School and College programs. Following are a few gems that I am passing on to my son and maybe also to yours:
- Respect: Respect your teammates, respect your opponents, and respect the game. The entire purpose of “The Code” is to embody the principles of respect and playing the game the “right way.” Only those inside the game who understand it, “get it.” Therefore, for those inside the game, no explanation should be necessary.
- Loyalty: Be loyal to your teammates, even if you dislike them personally. What goes on inside the locker room stays there. Don’t talk negatively about your teammates to those on the outside. If someone is doing something wrong or has a problem, fix it inside the “family.”
- Don’t Run Up The Score: While open to circumstantial interpretation based on the level of competition and what could be considered a reasonable margin of insurance runs, this applies to respecting your opponent. Essentially it means don’t play aggressively with a big lead late in the game, continuing to score runs at all costs including stealing extra bases, swinging at 3-0 pitches, etc. You don’t stop trying to score runs and win the game, but you also don’t hit & run and manufacture runs small-ball style.
- Don’t Swing on 3-0 Pitches: I’m ambivalent about this one. Refer to my previous post on The Hit Chart. Generally, I tell players to swing at the good pitch when they see it regardless of pitch-count because youth players are still learning to become good hitters. If the count is 3-0, the chances are the next pitch is going to be a fastball right over the plate. It may be the best pitch you see, so take advantage of it. On the other hand, if the pitcher has control issues, the batter is wise to hold off on a 3-0 count because the odds of getting on base with a walk are already in their favor. Ultimately, getting on base is the objective. Overall, my advice is to swing on a 3-0 pitch if it is in the hitter’s best zone. Otherwise, leave it alone.
- Don’t Run Into The Catcher: At the youth level, collisions on the base paths are highly discouraged. Overall, collisions should be avoided whenever possible to prevent injury to oneself. However, an infielder blocking the baseline without the ball in their possession is interfering with the runner who is entitled to that space and is inviting some pain. This is particularly true with catchers trying to block the plate before they have the ball. The baserunner’s mission is to advance, period. If you have to go through a player to get there, so be it.
- Intimidation: Intimidation is a pitcher’s best friend. This is accomplished vs. batters by a combination of high velocity and sick movement. One effective way to assert who is boss in the pitcher-hitter relationship is for the pitcher to reclaim the inside part of the plate. Many youth pitchers lack the control to reliably pitch inside without hitting batters. However, with the mandate of deadened BBCOR non-wood bat construction that applies to High School as well as NCAA play as of 2012, it is a significant advantage for pitchers who can move batters off the plate and master the full use of the strike zone. Early brushback pitches also make the batter think about avoiding being hit, rather than hitting the ball. Anticipating being hit is worse than actually being hit, and the batter is far more likely to strike out as a result. As Nolan Ryan once said, “show me a guy who dosen’t want to pitch inside, and I’ll show you a loser.” On the flip side, as a batter you can never allow yourself to be intimidated by a pitcher. Showing a flinch means he owns you and will continue to exploit your weakness. Respect the fact that the pitcher claims the strike zone, and protect it accordingly. If you get hit, wear it and take the base. You have accomplished your objective.
- Don’t Rub It In: The best way batters can show they are not intimidated by pitchers is to not flinch and concede the strike zone to the pitcher. Likewise, when they do get hit by a pitch, batters should never rub the spot. Don’t give the pitcher the satisfaction, and don’t show any weakness. Show the pitcher that you are tougher than his best shot. Pete Rose would sprint to first base immediately after being hit, doing everything to show that the pitcher couldn’t hurt him.
- Don’t Pimp Home Runs: One of the most irritating practices that has migrated from professional baseball down to Little League is the homerun pimp, whether standing and admiring the trajectory of the ball, flipping the bat, slowly trotting the bases, fist-pumping, etc. If you want to indulge yourself in conceited scoring celebrations that publicly disrespect your opponent, play football instead. Anyone who does this is simply inviting a drilling from the pitcher during their next plate appearance. While all hitters love basking in the magical moment of a home run, let the hit itself be simple reward. Run the bases smartly and no differently than at any other time, be humble and enjoy the attention of your teammates back in the dugout.
- Gamesmanship: There is the baseball saying, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” There is certain truth to this, and the higher the level of play, the more true it is. For our purposes, acceptable gamesmanship can include creative sleight of hand with the ball such as the decoy (“the deke”), selling catches, framing pitches, etc. It does not extend to corked bats, altering the surface of the baseball, altering the playing surface of the field, adjusting distance between the bases, etc. Deking involves players attempting to fake out the opposition. It can take the form of fielders deceiving baserunners by pretending to have the ball when they don’t, outfielders pretending to field the ball from a different place than it actually is, the hidden ball trick, etc. It can also take the form of baserunners cutting corners when rounding bases, attempting to grab an extra base by deception, or stealing when the pitcher has the ball but is not on the mound. Selling catches involves the fielder trying to earn an umpire’s call by pretending a trapped ball was actually caught on the fly. This is best done with ranging catches in the outfield. At the plate, skillful catchers should regularly “frame” pitches, bringing pitched balls back into the zone with dexterity so that the umpire calls them as a strike. Batters can also employ gamesmanship, trying to take first base by selling an inside pitch as having grazed them.
- Stealing Signs: Stealing the signs of an opponent is as old as baseball itself, and any truly competitive player will try to figure them out. This also extends to hitters carefully studying pitchers for both how/when they throw various pitches and whether they have any body language “tells” that consistently indicate what they are going to throw. When at the plate, a hitter can also determine if the pitch will be outside by whether he can see the catcher set up in his peripheral vision.
- Don’t Talk About No-Nos: Never speak of a no-hitter while it is in progress, especially after the 5th inning. This is a hard, fast superstition throughout baseball at all levels. Leave the pitcher alone, don’t do anything to distract him from the zone. Don’t sit near him, don’t talk to him. Anyone who interferes with the mojo will be branded as the jinx.
- Don’t Pack Your Bags: Never pack your gear before the end of the game, regardless of how lopsided the score may be against you. It is the ultimate sign of having mentally “checked out” of the game, and is a fundamental disrespect of your teammates and the game itself. Regardless of the score, you must believe in hope. Anything is possible in baseball, just ask the 2004 Boston Red Sox.