A “code” of respect?

White Sox’ manager Ozzie Guillen recently threatened to retaliate against teams whose pitchers hit their batters. This seems like a brutal case of bad sportsmanship unless you read The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct by Ross Bernstein. Then, baseball’s traditional “eye for an eye” method of policing proper conduct makes sense – but it’s not a world that youth baseball players should enter.

Bernstein interviewed dozens of current and retired ballplayers to learn about the code behind retaliatory pitches thrown at batters, bench-clearing brawls, and hard slides into second. It’s a code based on showing respect for players, protecting teammates, practicing gamesmanship in a fair way, and – surprisingly – keeping players from getting injured. Jack Morris explained, “Baseball has policed itself for decades upon decades, and really, that is the basis for the code.” Jim Perry added, “You had to protect your players. That was the bottom line. If they were being thrown at or hit, you had to go out and let the other side know that you weren’t going to tolerate it.” 

But the code has limits and rules. Torii Hunter of the Angels wrote, “The vast majority of pitchers don’t want to hit a guy in the head because they know that they could be ending his career.” Dave Winfield added “[Y]ou should never try to intentionally hurt anyone out there. That is when you have gone too far in my eyes.” Mayhem on the field is actually controlled and planned. Frank Viola said, “As a veteran pitcher, you just knew when you had to drill somebody, but you also had to pick your spots…Maybe the payback wouldn’t be until the next time you saw that team, even if the next series was weeks or months away.” Some pitchers would wait a year to retaliate.

This is why “the code” must not apply to youth baseball. It requires a level of emotional and physical control that kids don’t have. A pitcher who tries to “send a message” with a fast ball to the batter’s ribs might wind up hitting him in the head or neck. A hard slide into second could wind up injuring both the infielder and the base runner. And I don’t want to picture the chaos a bench-clearing donnybrook would cause on both the field and the stands, as well as in the parking lot after the game. Baseball can be a dangerous sport when players don’t develop self-control.

This is why adults (including coaches, umpires, and especially parents) need to keep tight control over player’s conduct on and off the field. They have to teach kids how to discipline themselves, how not to get rattled by the common insults and taunts others give, and how to keep cool under pressure. They also have to teach kids what is acceptable behavior on the field and what is not. Kids have to learn the rules of sportsmanship before they can even decide what is worth retaliating over.

An aspect of the “code” kids should start learning now is respect. Don’t stop and admire a home run as it goes over the fence. Don’t fist-pump when you strike someone out. Among the Major League ballplayers that Bernstein interviewed in the book, there is an understanding that they are all professionals. They don’t want to undermine their own careers or anyone else’s by letting emotions run out of control. Furthermore, many professional ballplayers are much friends off the field as they are rivals on it.  This is why respect and self-control are key parts of the code for players at all levels.

By learning to show respect and good sportsmanship while they’re younger, players can avoid getting “plunked” when they get older.