He was writing about the F.F.V.–the First Families of Virginia, the elite caste of slave-owning aristocracy–but Mark Twain might have been channeling a lousy sportswriter, a old-school bench coach, or Sam Dyson, the Texas Rangers’ relief pitcher who last week gave up a series-clinching home run to José Bautista and then told him to “respect the game.” The Toronto Blue Jays’ Dominican outfielder walloped a three-run homer and flipped his bat in celebration, a violation of baseball’s “unwritten rules” against showboating. In his 1892 classic Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain wrote that the F.F.V.
had its unwritten laws, and they were as clearly defined and as strict as any that could be found among the printed statues of the land. The F.F.V. was born a gentleman; his highest duty in life was to watch over that great inheritance and keep it unsmirched. He must keep his honor spotless. Those laws were his chart; his course was marked out on it; if he swerved from it by so much as half a point of the compass, it meant shipwreck to his honor; that is to say, degradation from his rank as a gentleman. These laws required certain things of him which his religion might forbid: then his religion must yield — the laws could not be relaxed to accommodate religions or anything else. Honor stood first; and the laws defined what it was and wherein it differed in certain details from honor as defined by church creeds and by the social laws and customs of some of the minor divisions of the globe that had got crowded out when the sacred boundaries of Virginia were staked out.
The novel’s leading F.F.V., Judge Driscoll–slaveowner, first-class citizen–flies into a rage when his nephew, Tom, is kicked in the behind in public and reports the crime to the authorities. The Judge flies into a rage: “You cur! You scum! You vermin! Do you mean to tell me that blood of my race has suffered a blow and crawled to a court of law about it?” The “honorable” thing to do, the Judge explains, is to challenge the kicker to a duel–to shoot him dead in the street. This is the point, after all, of “unwritten rules,” to legitimize unjust hierarchies and cruel treatment by shrouding them in “tradition.” It’s not about the enforcement–Judge Driscoll, after all, controls his town’s written rules also. It’s about the broader power that comes from knowing the “unwritten rules” in the first place, and making sure everyone else knows that you know.
Baseball’s “unwritten laws” are often described as “arcane,” a “canon” governed by tradition. (They are also a favorite target of sportswriters who love to be exasperated at them). As far as I can tell, they’re not too complex–not writing the rules down seems to prevent everyone from noticing how dull and stupid they are. Don’t watch a home run; don’t jog to first base; don’t call attention to yourself by celebrating outside the dugout; only acknowledge the crowd on the rare occasions when they ask for a curtain call. Otherwise, we can throw a baseball at you. Simple as they are, they’re also inconsistent. For example, if you are a pitcher, you may do many of these things with impunity, a point made by Carlos Gómez, a Dominican star for the Houston Astros and a persistent “unwritten rule” violator.
The racial, ethnic, and national politics of baseball’s code of honor were documented in an interesting recent investigation published in USA Today. Of the 67 bench-clearing incidents in Major League Baseball over the past five seasons, a little more than half “pitted white Americans against foreign-born Latinos,” wrote Jorge Ortiz, the author of the report. “Another four featured white Americans and U.S.-born Latinos.”
Gómez called the restrictions on celebration “rules from a different time.” Bautista, in his comments about the wild 7th inning of the Blue Jays’ playoff victory against the Rangers, mentioned different places. Had he ever seen anything like it–benches clearing, unruly fans pelting the field with beer cans and debris? “Not in the big league level, not in the U.S.,” said Bautista, who plays with Licey in the D.R.’s national league. He was speaking, of course, in Canada, not the U.S., but he was referring to the relatively buttoned-up rules of the American league. I’m not sure what the Dominican league is like, but when Toronto fans pelted the field in anger after an umpiring decision that went against the home team, it reminded me of games at Caracas’ Estadio Universitario, where I used to attend Leones de Caracas games regularly. The tickets were cheap and the quality of play high, so I used to buy seats I would never be able to afford in a major-league stadium–in the lower deck, near the dugouts. As I discovered, these are also seats likely to be soaked by beer thrown from the higher seats, often tossed in celebration after a home run by the home team. (To be clear, the beer wasn’t thrown on the field, just on the other spectators). For big games, I learned not to wear anything I didn’t want to get beer on. Leones games against Navegantes de Magallanes–the Venezuelan equivalent of the high-stakes Red Sox-Yankees series of a few years back–were enthusiastic, loud, but with an almost political intensity that I associate with European soccer matches, an intensity that could be thrilling and a little intimidating.
In U.S. stadiums, by contrast, a stiff formality still prevails, part of baseball’s commercial commitment to entertainment and “family friendliness” but also the sign of the national pastime’s hoary notions of tradition and history. One of the jokes of Twain’s novel, though, is that the people who crow the loudest about “honor” and “tradition” are usually covering for their own mendacity or mediocrity. Curt Schilling, incompetent swinder and Donald Trump superfan, said with apparent approval that Bautista should be ready to get hit next season in Texas. And here is Bud Norris (2015 ERA: 6.72), talking after a game in the long-time northern Mexican city of San Diego, where he plays for a team called the Padres, standing up for the “honor” of the game against the “antics” of certain players. “If you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars,” he said, “you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years.”
Unwritten rules are all about the defense of unearned, inherited privileges. And the ethnic and racial meanings of baseball’s unwritten rules are never far from the surface.It’s only appropriate that the sport that calls itself “America’s pastime” is also its most sanctimoniously, obliviously innocent about this.
It was nicely ironic that the Texas Rangers–a baseball team named after a racist paramilitary organization founded to terrorize Tejanos–were victimized by Bautista and his bat flip. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s a good sign that the loudest calls for Bautista to “respect” the game seemed to come from the likes of Schilling and Dyson, the sore loser. Someone buy Dyson a beer, and pour it on his head.