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Baseball’s unwritten rules enter ‘gray area’ as player celebrations get more colorful

Baseball’s unwritten rules enter ‘gray area’ as player celebrations get more colorful
Kansas City Royals bench coach Dale Sveum (46) and Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria shove each other as benches clear during a game on April 17. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

The clips rolled on repeat on a trio of televisions in the visitors clubhouse at Miller Park in Milwaukee where the Dodgers played the last three days.

In the first, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson wallops a home run off Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller on Wednesday and chucks his bat into the grass near his dugout. In the next, Keller drills Anderson in the backside with a fastball. In the third, the dugouts empty and the two middle-aged managers jostle as their teams try to separate them.

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On the eve of the 2018 playoffs, Major League Baseball commissioned a commercial aimed at shattering the veneer of sterility surrounding the sport. “Let the kids play,” the advertisement suggested. Flip your bat, it seemed to advocate. Pound your chest. Cherish your trips around the bases.

The rest of the sport did not exactly receive the message. The paradigm may have shifted — no longer is every celebration greeted with retaliation. But the idea of “unwritten rules,” that staid, theoretical concept that so vexes younger fans, still exists among players, as this week displayed.

Which creates an unfortunate dilemma. The sport polices itself by using baseballs as weapons. A reprisal often leads to another reprisal. The line between delight and disrespect is thin, and often shifting.

As the highlights from the imbroglio between Anderson and Keller were replayed, Clayton Kershaw gazed toward the screens and chuckled. He found it amusing to hear pundits pontificate about this situation, or a similar one earlier this month, when Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chris Archer targeted Cincinnati Reds infielder Derek Dietrich after Dietrich had admired a home run. Kershaw suggested all these incidents belonged in a “gray area.”

“Does that cross the line?” Kershaw said. “I don’t know anymore. Honestly. I don’t know.”

A decade ago, Kershaw indicated, the celebrations from Anderson and Dietrich would have been outliers. But in 2019? “That’s just the way the game is going,” he said. “I’m not going to get offended by it.”

Keller received a five-game suspension for plunking Anderson with a 92-mph fastball. Anderson received a one-game suspension for using a racial epithet, according to ESPN. Anderson served his penalty Friday. Keller appealed his ban, and the Royals can manipulate his schedule so he might not even miss a start.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller, left center, stands on the mound moments before being ejected for hitting Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson with a pitch.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller, left center, stands on the mound moments before being ejected for hitting Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson with a pitch. (John J. Kim / TNS)

The subsequent debate felt familiar, one that has been waged ad infinitum during the past decade. Only the participants change. In 2013, it was Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann blocking home plate after Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez took an exuberant, chatty romp around the bases. In 2015, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista launched his bat skyward after a sizable postseason homer. A year later, Texas Rangers second baseman Roughned Odor punched Bautista in the face.

The sport finds itself weighing the same questions over and over. Was the celebration a genuine display of emotion? Was it designed to embarrass another player? Was it a mixture of both? Does it even matter?

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had no issue with Anderson’s actions, outside of what Anderson may have said to Keller. Roberts allows his players to express themselves — it was under Roberts’ watch, after all, that Yasiel Puig began licking his bat and chopping his crotch. Roberts appreciated the release Anderson must have felt after hitting the home run, while acknowledging how the demonstration may have looked to Keller.

“The bat throw was fine for me,” Roberts said. “I like emotion. I think there’s a respect, there’s the unwritten rules, there’s the ‘Let players play,’ or ‘Let them be kids,’ or ‘Let the kids play,’ or whatever. There are still things you can do to respect the game and your opponent. A bat throw? Pushing the limits a little bit, but it’s fine.”

Orel Hershiser debuted in 1983 and ended his career in the 21st century. He considers himself a member of the pitching fraternity, the group most embarrassed by bat flips and celebrations. He often gets questions about this era from Joe Davis, his broadcast partner.

“I’m for it,” Hershiser said. “I’m for it, because I’m for entertainment. All the other sports now are so entertainment-oriented. The three-point shot, and grabbing the jersey or doing whatever. The touchdown celebrations in the NFL. In hockey, they go and run as a group and jump against the glass.

“Our offensive celebrations should be just as big in baseball. And then the offensive player should not get upset when the guy strikes a guy out to end the inning, or gets a key out, and all of a sudden drops to his knee and does a fist pump off the mound.”

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Hershiser noted one reason why these incidents stand out in 2019. The level of violence on the diamond has fallen. In recent years, Major League Baseball has implemented rules to reduce collisions at home plate and to penalize takeout slides at second base.

Hershiser recalled batters laying down a bunt so they could run over the pitcher near the bag at first base. He was playing when Jack Clark sent Mike Scioscia to the hospital on a play at the plate in 1985. Those plays are rare in this era. When Matt Kemp barreled into Texas Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos last season, a fight broke out immediately.

At this point, Hershiser explained, “getting hit right now is one of the few personal things” left.

“There was more action and physicality,” Hershiser said. “So it led to more revenge and retribution and ‘Let’s get even.’ Sometimes it was between the two people. And sometimes it was somebody on your team noticing it, and now the pitcher had to take care of it. Or the manager said, ‘You might want to take care of that.’”

Kershaw experienced a version of this last week against the Reds. He was upset when Cincinnati pitcher Luis Castillo hit Cody Bellinger in the kneecap with a 95.5 mph fastball. In an earlier era, Kershaw might have felt compelled to answer.

“When Castillo hit Belli, we all knew he didn’t do it on purpose,” Kershaw said. “But he’s our best player right now. When you miss by that much, as a pitcher ... I mean, you can tell he felt bad. But you can’t miss by that much. It’s a gray area. It’s still a gray area.”

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Due up first in the top of the next inning was Puig. Kershaw rocked into his windup and ... threw a fastball over the plate. He did not hit Puig. He did not hit anyone. He kept pitching, and the game continued uninterrupted. The Dodgers won. No one got suspended.

Kershaw indicated he could not remember a particular opposing player’s celebration he had to stomach. In a way, he represented a significant portion of his industry. He might not embrace the push toward individual expression. But he would not waste time trying to police the sport.

“That’s changed so much,” Kershaw said, “which I’m fine with. Look, personally, I think hitting a home run is enough. And I will teach my son to run the bases. I don’t believe in that. But I’m not offended by it.”

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