Unwritten MLB Rules Start Another Fight

The Orioles and Red Sox both think they’re just following procedure

The unwritten rules of baseball exist, in theory, to enforce a certain etiquette among ballplayers, ensuring that nobody will play dirty and nobody will show up their opponent without being called out on their behavior.

This is the same as any other sport.  Famously, hockey’s system of enforcers and fights allows players to police themselves.  Dirty hit on Sidney Crosby?  Some blueliner is going to be throwing punches.  While at times brutal, the logic is that these fights prevent major injury from a hit into the boards.

In baseball, however, the unwritten rules have failed.  Rather than prevent injury, rather than dis-incentivizing dirty play, baseball’s ethical code more often than not drags a fight between two teams through multiple series.  This is happening right now in Boston.

Photo Credit: AP

On Friday, April 21, Manny Machado slid into second base hard in a home game against the Red Sox.  He was not sliding to avoid a tag—a force play was on—nor did his slide stop entirely at the second base bag.  His right leg was in the air, not on the bag.  Eventually, it was digging into Dustin Pedroia’s leg, causing the Red Sox second baseman to leave the game and miss a few others after with an injury.  Fortunately, the injury turned out to be relatively minor, but it was a scary play and the Red Sox took issue with it.

That Sunday, Matt Barnes threw a pitch at Manny Machado’s head.  He was ejected and suspended for four games as a result.  The Orioles were furious.  Zach Britton, on the disabled list at the moment, grabbed a passing beat reporter and suggested that Pedroia was responsible for the brushback.  Never mind that accusing an injured second baseman of ordering a beanball is a first in the history of a century-old league that holds thousands of games per year.  Never mind that the “unwritten rules” evidently have nothing at all against using media either mainstream or social to bash an opponent.

Dustin Pedroia did not return to the Red Sox lineup until the end of the next week.  He missed the rest of that Orioles series and much of the next set of games.  Manny Machado’s slide was not punished, and to this day Machado does not feel he was at all in the wrong for the play that unfortunately injured Pedroia.

A week passed.  The Red Sox had a homestand against the Yankees, and then the Cubs.  Then, when the Orioles returned, all Hell broke loose.

In retribution for Machado being thrown at, the Baltimore Orioles’ Dylan Bundy threw at, and hit, Mookie Betts.  It was not a batting practice style pitch.  It was a legitimate major league fastball to the ribs of a person who is not named Matt Barnes.  See, the unwritten rules state that once you feel you have been wronged in the American League, you get to just drill anyone you want.  And if it just happens to be the best player on the opposing team, who just happens to have eleven career home runs against Baltimore and hit .408 against the Orioles last season, that’s just how the game is played.

Had that pitch broken Betts’ rib, those who adhere to the unwritten rules would not be fazed in the least, especially Buck Showalter, the keeper of those invisible codes.  Buck is an old style baseball man.  He believes firmly in this etiquette.  He’s not trying to get anyone hurt, he’s not trying to start fights, in fact just the opposite.  Just because his Orioles wear orange and black doesn’t make them Bobby Clarke and the 1975 Philadelphia Flyers.  This is simply his sense of baseball justice, and it is not exclusive to him.  Baseball has been played this way forever.

The problem is, if it ever worked, it sure doesn’t now.  What happened next in the Great Beanball War of Twenty Seventeen proves that.

Photo Credit: AP

Chris Sale, newly-acquired ace, was not happy about Betts being hit Monday night.  He was furious in the dugout.  He was furious before Tuesday’s game.  Just after Fenway Park and its faithful attended to some important business by giving Adam Jones the best ovation they can give an opponent who isn’t about to retire, Manny Machado stepped into the batter’s box.

Chris Sale threw behind Machado.  When a pitcher like Chris Sale throws behind a player, it is a “make no mistake” kind of situation.  Nobody watching was confused about what that was.  Machado swore so much that the umpire had to ask him to calm down.  The umpire issued warnings.  Sale went on to strike Machado out.  Later in the game, a pitch seemed to come awfully close to the head of super-rookie Andrew Benintendi, but nothing was done about it.  Machado would also homer off of Sale later, which in any sane world would be revenge enough.

Expect this to continue Wednesday.  Expect Betts in specific to be thrown at, as by my count he’s been hit by the Orioles four times dating back to last September.  It will not be a changeup.  It will be a mid-90s heater.  Again, in the eyes of the keepers of the rules, should this break a rib and put the right fielder on the DL, that’s what he gets for Chris Sale and Matt Barnes throwing warnings.

Or maybe Manny Machado will just come at a pitcher with his bat, as he implied in a long tirade on Tuesday night.  With enough expletives to make Bill Burr want to bleep something out, Machado said he is out of respect for the Red Sox organization whose second baseman he injured on April 21.  The stellar third baseman who has been known for controversial and dangerous slides into second base in the past, and who once threw his bat in the direction of Josh Donaldson, said “I’ve lost my respect for the organization, that coaching staff, and everyone over there.”

Again, we’ve established that it is perfectly acceptable in today’s MLB to grab a beat writer and air one’s grievances with the other team.

In fairness, John Farrell should be held at least somewhat responsible here, and Buck Showalter is also not without blame.  Managers know this stuff is going on, they simply tend to refuse to do much about it.  It does not appear that either skipper was all that interested in putting a stop to this beanball behavior.  Perhaps the next suspension issued should target one of them.

After all, it does appear that the same few teams get involved in more fights than anybody else.  The Orioles and Red Sox are both teams that fit that profile.  Since John Farrell took over in 2013, the Red Sox have had fights with the Rays, Orioles, and Yankees, all of which at some point involved a beanball war.

In last night’s case, Chris Sale was in the first inning of what turned out to be a brilliant start.  Had he been tossed for throwing at Machado, and he very easily could have been, the Red Sox would be into their bullpen before they ever came to bat.  It is John Farrell’s job to prevent that.  He, and his team, are lucky that Sale was allowed to continue.  Hard to believe with all that preceded it that Farrell didn’t have some kind of inkling that such a pitch would be coming.  When it comes to protecting one’s players, this was a chance to protect Sale from a suspension that he fortunately won’t be getting, or an injury that could have ensued if Machado had indeed decided to come at Sale with his bat.  Not to mention that, again, this likely means Mookie Betts is going to get hit again.  Possibly Hanley Ramirez instead, since he hit two home runs last night.

Since taking over the Orioles in 2010, it’d be easier to list teams Showalter ­hasn’t fought with.  Certainly, there is no love lost for Boston, a team he has taken issue with for his entire Baltimore tenure.  The Betts beanings, for example, began well before this current fight.

Photo Credit: AP

Of course, the other incident Monday looms large over this series as well.  There is an athlete this week who has every right to feel mistreated, slighted, and hurt.  Adam Jones was mistreated on Monday by at least one fan, who hurled peanuts and racial slurs at the center fielder who played such a large role in Team USA’s World Baseball Classic win.

There is no excusing the actions of that fan or those few fans.  This is still an issue good people are working to get past, but it is not entirely in the past just yet.  Boston is far from the only part of America to be fighting that old disease of racism, but it is by no means exempt either.  What happened brings up a painful local history and a painful baseball history.  It also reminds us that in the past couple of years, people who harbor antiquated hate have been emboldened to yell their offensive language at the top of their lungs.  Recent events in the world have brought such awful speech front and center.  Talk about embarrassing, that realization might be the worst part of all of it.

Just a few days ago the Cubs were in town.  Cubs fans and Red Sox fans have quite a bit in common, and it led to a friendly and celebratory atmosphere throughout all three games.  The teams even seemed to get along for the most part, with a number of former Red Sox returning to Fenway including Cubs president Theo Epstein.  Sunday night’s game was a great atmosphere and a fantastic ballgame between two good teams.

Little did we know it would be the calm before the storm.  There is now a fight, unwinnable on both sides, between the Red Sox and Orioles.  Expect it to continue until at least the end of this season.

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Tim Williams has been Sports Talk Florida's National Baseball Columnist since December of 2015. As a member of the STF team, Tim has written about Major League Baseball, the 2016 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament, the 2016 Olympic Games, the Ryder Cup, and Florida Gators Football. Tim has been covering sports since his days at Northeastern University's WRBB student radio, where he announced baseball and football as well as contributing to the coverage of Huskies Hockey, most notably the 2005 and 2006 Beanpot Tournaments. Since, he has written about a number of sports for a number of outlets, including Sports Talk Florida and the American Sports Network. Based in Boston but a Florida native, Tim Williams has a fan's perspective that goes beyond New England. In addition to his columns, you can hear this in The Pickup Game podcast that he has hosted since the Autumn of 2016. When he isn't writing about sports, he can often be seen on golf courses around Massachusetts.