Ten days ago, Yermín Mercedes hit a 429-foot home run on a 3-0 pitch in ninth inning of a 15-4 game. This home run would have been a banal footnote, minutiae in the annals of baseball history, if Mercedes’s manager didn’t spend days rhapsodizing to the media on Zoom calls about the unwritten rules. The manager said what Mercedes did was wrong. His players’ opinion on what’s right and wrong doesn’t matter because the players have a locker, and the manager has a dugout. The Twins crying about the home run and then throwing behind Mercedes the next day exacerbated the situation, but if Tony La Russa had stood up for his player or even nonchalantly answered media questions that night without turning it into a Big Incident, it would have quietly faded into the ether.
The idea behind the unwritten rules is that we’re living in a society, dammit, and part of living in a society is behaving in ways that are courteous and respectful to our peers and colleagues. Swinging for the fences on a 3-0 pitch when it’s 15-4 isn’t cheating by any stretch of the imagination. However, showing up a pitcher who’s just trying to get the mandatory last three outs so everyone can go home and watch the last half hour of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert isn’t a nice thing to do.
Contemporary thought has turned this idea on its head, offering several cogent arguments that the unwritten rule in this case is bad and belongs in the dustbin of history. Players are paid based on the statistics on the back of their bubblegum cards. Asking a hitter to meekly make an out because it’s the right thing to do could cost him money at an arbitration hearing down the road. It also doesn’t help that position players toeing the rubber used to be an extreme rarity but are now commonplace. Between 2005-2009, a total of 22 position players appeared in a regular-season game. In 2021 so far, a total of 31 non-Shohei Ohtani pitchers have showed up to do someone else’s job.
There was a time when the appearance of a skinny infielder on the mound signified that the manager was begging for mercy, raising the white flag to the opposing team. Now, it’s partially that, but it’s also a stratagem to save the bullpen for another night. Asking hitters to stop taking good swings at pitches in three or four percent of all games because a position player is pitching isn’t a reasonable request.
Unwritten rules aren’t ironclad laws but mores that change over time. It used to be OK to barrel into the second baseman at full speed and throw pitches up-and-in at batters to “send a message,” but even before the written rules changed, baseball was drifting away from violent contact in favor of less physicality. Some fans and writers gnashed their teeth about how prohibiting the runner from destroying the shortstop with a violent slide would ruin baseball, but baseball wasn’t ruined. We barely think about the old rule. On the rare occasion when we see a video clip from a few generations ago of a runner destroying a fielder, we gasp and think “what the hell were they thinking?”.
The unwritten rules aren’t codified into the game. While there’s nothing wrong with following them if the players feel they have value, they should just as quickly be discarded when it’s obvious that they don’t. Bat flips and celebrating a home run or a strikeout used to be verboten, but now players do it commonly and the game on the field hasn’t suffered for it. Jazz Chisholm encapsulated perfectly what does and doesn’t work in terms of celebrating your accomplishments and enjoying yourself to Craig Mish of Sports Grid.
All the talk from old baseball men about “respecting the game” is irrelevant if the players are trying their hardest to win and putting themselves in a position to do so by putting the work in, as Chisholm so eloquently puts it. A handful of salty old-timers might not like seeing a player flip a bat or pimp a home run, but it doesn’t do anything to diminish the game you’re watching on the field or disrespect the history of the sport.
The only unwritten rule that drives the bus, the one that makes baseball—or any sport, for that matter—succeed or fail is that you must always try your best. Without that precept in place, we’re no longer watching a high-end competition among the best in the world but a matchup of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Watching the Globetrotters run circles around the Generals is fun and entertaining. It isn’t a serious athletic competition.
This well-understood and accepted concept makes it baffling that a not-insignificant contingent of major-league players have opted out of getting vaccinated. There are frequently misguided attempts by fans and occasionally reporters to paint major-league players as lazy or not trying their hardest where those fans and reporters should instead maybe sit this one out. “He’s soft” or “why isn’t he back already from that minor injury” is the sort of ignorant mindset that glosses over the reality that most players want to play, will move mountains to do so, and are often being held back by a trainer or management (wisely, of course) from getting back in there. “Why didn’t he bust ass on that routine groundout?” is rooted in a similar mentality and ignores the heightened injury risk during a 162-game season if an elite athlete goes all out on every play.
Opting out of an FDA-approved vaccine that is safe and effective doesn’t make anyone “soft,” but it does veer toward a different mindset: that a player’s personal feelings take priority over the team and the sport doesn’t matter. It isn’t realistic to ask athletes to undergo risky surgeries, rush back from injuries before they feel 100 percent, or take performance enhancing drugs to bolster their statistics or extend their careers. It is completely realistic and reasonable to expect athletes to take a vaccine that protects them and their teammates, and that significantly reduces their risk of contracting a virus that sidelines them for days or weeks and takes them off the field of play.
COVID was a danger in all walks of life in 2020 but really hit home in sports, where athletes were asked to go out and play a game before it was reasonable to ask them to do so, and to forfeit their pay or scholarships if they didn’t. While a handful of players might have taken risks they shouldn’t have taken, many took all the precautions they could and still contracted COVID because they were traveling from stadium to stadium and at higher risk than the general population. I felt sorry for the players and felt like they didn’t deserve to be put in that position.
(I should also point out that I still feel sorry for the players, as most of them did decide to get vaccinated and did so as soon as possible. The ones who went out and got vaccinated and did the right thing shouldn’t be in the terrible position they are in.)
The promise of a vaccine made me hopeful for 2021 for a lot of reasons. Sports wasn’t anywhere near the top of those reasons, but I’ve been watching sports for most of my life and have been writing about baseball for almost 15 years. I’m not going to tiptoe around the idea that baseball is important to me. In January, the thing I wondered about in the context of baseball was how quickly would MLB be able to get vaccinations to as many players as possible. Outside of perhaps a minuscule contingent of players who understandably couldn’t or wouldn’t get the vaccine for medical or religious reasons, I assumed nearly everyone would get vaccinated. Why wouldn’t everyone just want to put this nightmare in the rearview mirror and move forward?
I write about baseball through a fantasy lens, so a significant amount of my hope was tied into the fact that we’d have a normal season. Normal in 2021 would come with wide error bars, and there were many factors that would be impossible to predict. Injuries and durability were the biggest items on a long list of questions surrounding what would be different this year and what would I need to do to adjust to the unpredictability. As with any long laundry list of unknowns, I realized the variance would be higher than it had ever been, and that many things I assumed about 2021 would ultimately wind up being incredibly wrong. I would learn, yes, but I would also laugh, and the year would end with some valuable lessons and maybe a few new friends along the way.
What I didn’t anticipate was a year where a handful of players would simply decide they weren’t interested in doing all they do could within reason to stay on the field and help their teams win.
This year has been more fun than I thought it would be, despite the somewhat predictable increase in injuries that has made fielding a lineup challenging some weeks, next to impossible in others. With the value of hindsight, we probably should have altered a few league rules to allow for more flexible roster management. But we didn’t, and while the impact has been extreme, it’s something that happens and is within the boundaries of what you should expect in a fantasy season. It is part of the competition.
Trying to figure out who isn’t going to get vaccinated and which teams will be impacted more by players opting out our social compact isn’t something that should fall within the boundaries of our competition. It might have a similar impact to non-COVID related injuries in that it’s somewhat random (who could have known that Player X wouldn’t get vaccinated?), but it’s coming from a bad place, one that violates the only unwritten rule that’s essential to the game and part of the implied compact between management, players, and fans. This goes for fantasy, too. I hear the term “high stakes” bandied about frequently, but if I shelled out hundreds of dollars to compete in a fantasy league where some of the players are cool with missing playing time when they don’t have to—and there isn’t really a good reason for almost any of them to be doing so—I’d want my money back.
Many years ago, when I was a kid, I was at a family friend’s house playing a friendly, low-key game of poker. We were playing for matchsticks or coins or something trivial like that and having a great time. In the middle of the game, I noticed our host pulling cards from the bottom of the deck. I started getting mad (I had and still have this stupid face I make when I get mad, and our host noticed it right away), so before I could say something the host pulled me aside. He explained to me that he wanted everyone to have fun, there were some younger kids there and he didn’t want to exclude them.
I didn’t quite understand the lesson then, but looking back on that hazy memory, I do now. Fantasy sports isn’t the same thing for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be a cutthroat, no-holds-barred competition for all of us. Some of us just want to do something fun with our friends. If that fun thing with friends is an eight-team mixed league with daily lineup changes and unlimited free agents, so be it. Not everyone has to be a fantasy “expert.” And that’s OK.
I don’t mind playing out the 2021 season like a lighthearted competition and an opportunity to play a friendly game of fantasy baseball against people I’ve known for years. But pretending this is anything more than that is a bridge too far, something I cannot do and feel honest about doing when I can clearly see that there are cards being dealt from the bottom of the deck.
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