Multiculturalism and Baseball's Unwritten Rules

Alex Rodriguez is, of course, one of baseball’s least popular superstars. He is not unpopular like other players have been, such as another steroid abuser, Barry Bonds, who was reviled everywhere but always well liked in San Francisco. Nor is Rodriguez unpopular on the road, but generally respected as a great player by fans and players around the league, like his teammate Derek Jeter. Rodriguez is despised by fans outside of New York, but Yankee fans themselves have never warmed to A-Rod either. Rodriguez has run afoul of former manager Joe Torre who is still well liked among Yankee fans and team captain Derek Jeter, who is one of the best and most adored players in franchise history. Yankee fans seem to hold A-Rod to extremely high standards, take his impressive achievements for granted and are completely blind to his sacrifices. On a team full of well paid players, Rodriguez’ contract seems to bother Yankee fans more than that of any other player.

Rodriguez had not helped the situation because he has developed a gruff style, is often embroiled in controversies that generate negative media attention and has a somewhat aloof manner with teammates and fans. While probably no longer the best player in the game, Rodriguez is still a great player who had contributed a lot to recent Yankee successes, not least being last year’s World Championship. Somehow Yankee fans forget this, and the two MVP awards he has won while wearing pinstripes and focus on A-Rod’s rough post-seasons from 2005-2007 as the measure of his value as a Yankee.

It has also been completely overlooked that when Rodriguez arrived in New York, despite being the superior shortstop, he moved from shortstop to third, allowing Jeter to remain at shortstop. This move will have an impact on how Rodriguez is viewed by baseball historians, because had he remained at shortstop he would have easily become the best at that position since Honus Wagner and secured his place as the greatest shortstop in American League history. Rodriguez made this transition quietly without raising any problems for the Yankees, but Yankee fans seem unaware of this.

As an unpopular, highly paid player with a nose for trouble, Rodriguez is an easy target for detractors seeking to make him look bad while generating some attention for themselves. The incident involving Oakland Athletics pitcher Dallas Braden a few weeks ago is an example of this. Braden lost his composure and began screaming at Rodriguez because Rodriguez had allegedly broken one of baseball’s sacred unwritten rules by walking across the pitcher’s mound and touching the rubber on his way back to first base after a foul ball. In the video of the incident, Braden can be seen yelling the words “That’s my mound” as he storms off the field after the inning ended. Rodriguez seems puzzled by Braden’s outburst, but more significantly, so do Braden’s teammates.

Apparently, this unwritten rule is significantly obscure that few people know about it. Rodriguez has a history of what might be generously called quirky, or more accurately obnoxious, behavior on the field, but in this incident, the mistake is clearly Braden’s for his overreaction. The expressions on the faces of Braden’s teammates make that clear.

In addition to the question of whether Braden or Rodriguez is at fault, the incident also raises another question about the unwritten rules. Implicit in the notion of unwritten rules is that there are one set of unwritten rules which all players should understand. However, as the game becomes more international this assumption seems unlikely to hold up. Just as the language and expressions used in baseball vary regionally and nationally, it is likely that these unwritten rules will as well. For example, the policy of not stealing with a big lead dates back to a time when a five or six run lead seemed insurmountable. Countries where baseball has been introduced recently, during a period of stronger offense, may not view a five or six run lead as insurmountable and may view it as fine to steal in that situation. Similarly, places where baseball has not been played as long may have different views of brushing back hitters because they do not have the traditions of brushback pitches which were common in baseball until recent decades.

It is equally likely that ballplayers from Taiwan, Australia or the Netherlands, whose numbers will likely increase in the near future, will bring their own unwritten rules and either take offense at a seemingly innocent gesture by an American or Dominican player or deeply offend those players by doing something that is considered normal in their own country.

This dynamic is clearly not at play in the Braden-Rodriguez contretemps, as both players grew up in the U.S. However, the event raises questions with which baseball will have to wrestle as it continues to become more international. Baseball is a game of customs, traditions, jargon and, yes, unwritten rules. These will all become less homogenous as baseball continues to become more international with fewer common reference points.