Cole Hamel, Bryce Harper, and the Unwritten Rules of Baseball

One of the books I’m currently reading is Jason Turbow and Michael Duca’s The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime.  It’s a great read that goes through the myriad of unwritten rules in baseball – from running up the score, when stealing should be done, retaliation and general baseball etiquette.

Halfway through the book, a few insights are apparent.  First, many of the disagreements we see in baseball come from a different interpretation of these many unwritten rules. It is also worth noting the application and interpretation of these rules can change given the specific situation a player or team might be in – exacerbating the potential for disagreement. Secondly, while these rules surely developed over time, they have been in play for most of the history of baseball. Third, while most players don’t know these unwritten rules when they start in professional baseball they learn them quickly (more on this below). Fourth, because of retaliation many players will address issues with their own teammates.

These unwritten rules add a degree of chivalry to baseball and I would contend are one of the things we love about baseball even if we don’t explicitly make note of the rules being adhered to.

In most instances these rules are learned as part of a player’s minor league career.  But increasingly star players aren’t spending sufficient time in the minors where they can learn some of these unwritten rules. In other instances, stars are heavily watched by the media even when they are in the minors.  Bryce Harper’s “kiss” is a great example of that.  Years ago, this would have gone unnoticed by the masses and would have been addressed by teammates or through retaliation from another team.

Earlier this week Bryce Harper again became the center of the application of these rules.  On Sunday night, the Nationals were hosting the Philadelphia Phillies. Phillies start Cole Hamel hit Bryce Harper in the bottom of the first inning with his first pitch to Harper in his first at-bat.  In the third inning, Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann retaliated (as the unwritten rules would suggest) by hitting Hamels in the left leg with.

Hamels was ultimately suspended for 5 days – not necessarily because he hit Harper, but because he admitted to intentionally hitting him. Quotes after the incident speak strongly to these unwritten rules.

after the game Cole Hamel said the following:

I was trying to hit him. I’m not going to deny it. I’m not trying to injure the guy. They’re probably not going to like me for it, but I’m not going to say I wasn’t trying to do it. I think they understood the message, and they threw it right back. That’s the way, and I respect it

Hamel also said:

That’s something I grew up watching, that’s kind of what happened. So I’m just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it. I remember when I was a rookie the strike zone was really, really small and you didn’t say anything because that’s the way baseball is. But I think unfortunately the league’s protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.

The day after Charlie Manuel told WIP-AM in Philadelphia

I wish he’d been a little bit more, what do you call it, not so honest, or dishonest, or discreet, that might be the right word. What I saw was the next time up Hamels came up to bat they definitely retaliated, he got hit on the calf, and he could have got hurt. I like to think it was dropped right there and the rest of it will be done baseball-wise.

Here’s the transcript of a conversation between Billy and Cal Ripken discussing which parts of the incident were consistent with the unwritten rules of baseball.  While they might not agree, it seemed very consistent with the unwritten rules. As Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal put it:

Players tend to take care of these things themselves, and Harper sent his own message on Sunday night, stealing home. That is exactly the way the game should be played, the way it used to be played, the way it was played when Frank Robinson would get knocked down and get up and hit a home run.