Thursday, April 29, 2010

On the Unwritten Rules

RulesI mentioned a few weeks back that I’d been watching more baseball this year than I have been in the recent past. Am still doing so, and while I don’t necessarily have a fave team anymore (used to be the Braves, long ago), there are a handful of teams I’ve been following a little more closely than others, mainly because they’ve turned up on the tube most often.

One of those teams getting extra coverage, of course, has been the New York Yankees, off to a hot start this year although currently trailing the surprising Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. And speaking of the Yankees, there was an interesting incident last week in a game between New York and the Oakland A’s you might have heard or read about, if you follow baseball, too. The incident involved Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden, and a lot of talk about so-called “unwritten rules.”

To summarize what happened briefly, in the sixth inning of the April 22 game, Rodriguez had been on first base when Braden was pitching to Robinson Cano. Cano hit a high pop-up, during which Rodriguez had rounded second and was halfway to third when the ball landed foul. A-Rod then trod over the mound as he headed back to first base, kind of a no-no insofar as pitchers tend to be a bit fastidious over their workspace.

Braden saw what Rodriguez did, and was not a happy camper. When the inning ended he gave A-Rod an earful, yelling at him to “stay off my mound.” There’s a video of Braden’s outburst and more details of the incident over on the MLB site, if you’re interested.

When asked about it afterwards, Rodriguez expressed surprise that Braden had gotten so upset, adding that he didn’t think “a guy that has a handful of wins in his career” should be barking so loudly, anyway. Braden has been a major leaguer since 2007 and currently has 17 wins to his credit. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has been around since the mid-1990s, is a three-time MVP, is closing in on 600 home runs, and for the last decade has been the highest paid player in baseball.

Alex Rodriguez slaps ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove in 2004 playoffsRodriguez has failed to acknowledge certain unwritten rules before. There was an incident in 2007 when he yelled out at Toronto outfielder Howie Clark causing him to miss a pop-up. And back in the 2004 playoffs versus Boston there was that play in which Rodriguez slapped the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove as Arroyo tried to tag A-Rod while running to first (see picture). Rodriguez was called out for interference, and then was later called out again by Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling who described Rodriguez’s action as “junior high school baseball right there, at its best.”

Schilling’s shot referred to the fact that besides breaking a written rule there, Rodriguez had violated another of those unwritten rules, too, by doing something major leaguers shouldn’t do. Of course, A-Rod has long been a lightning rod -- pun intended -- for other reasons, too, including his gaudy salary, his high level of achievement (something that always draws haters), and his admission to steroid use back when the policing of such was so badly managed by the MLB.

The whole episode reminded me a lot of the many unwritten rules in poker -- i.e., that sometimes elaborate code of conduct players and sometimes others (dealers, poker room managers, tourney directors, reporters, etc.) all are expected to know and follow. What sometimes gets referred to as “etiquette” and which tends only to get attention when someone fails to follow the code.

Slowrolling would be an obvious example at the tables -- not technically disallowed, but a clear violation of an unwritten rule. Other examples would include acting in a timely manner, refraining from verbally abusing the dealer or others, not “hitting and running” (i.e., winning a big pot quickly and then immediately leaving), or not speaking or interfering with play when not involved in a hand.

I suppose what Rodriguez did when he crossed Braden’s mound was a bit like touching another player’s chips unnecessarily. Not cool, man.

And, as a few commentators have been pointing out, Rodriguez’s response afterwards -- a kind of incredulity borne from the difference in experience between himself and Braden -- suggests another unwritten rule, namely, that seniority allows one greater freedoms. Such also often seems to be the case in poker, where the “name” players sometimes seem to get away with more egregious behavior and/or are given the benefit of the doubt more readily than are others when it comes to violations of etiquette. (Scotty Nguyen, Phil Hellmuth, and the 2008 WSOP spring to mind.)

Interesting stuff, and perhaps indicative of something more profound -- and paradoxical -- about human nature and competition. We like to compete, and perhaps have a kind of natural instinct to do so. But we also tend to surround our competitions with all sorts of guidelines (rules, written and unwritten) that not only ensure fairness, but a kind of decency as well. We want to beat each other, but we want to get along with each other, too.

Most of us, anyway.

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Blogger stephenAmurphy said...

I really enjoyed this post. I think I disagree with a lot of it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I am no A-Rod fan (although he is on my fantasy team) by any stretch of the imagination, but I personally don't find anything wrong with any of the three things you mentioned him doing (except maybe the slapping the glove away).

It's a competition and he's doing all that he can within the rules to win (with the exception of the glove slapping, but I personally didn't know that was a firm rule, I see collisions like that happen all the time that are let go).

They may indeed be unwritten rules, but if something is important enough, it should be written down. Unwritten rules create unlevel playing fields.

Slowrolling and berating the dealer are still no-nos in my opinion because it's a tough argument to say it helps you win, and it clearly shows a lack of respect for other people (though I suppose the argument could be made that slowrolling could put someone on tilt and that berating the dealer could make other players at the table uncomfortable and tight).

Obviously, I'm conflicted about all this. Probably all the more reason I enjoyed someone else trying to make sense of it.

4/29/2010 1:31 PM  

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