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Alyssa Nakken and the good, the bad & the ugly of baseball’s “unwritten rules”

“Unwritten rules” can be good for baseball. They can also be really really bad for it.

San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

In the second inning of Tuesday’s game against the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants center fielder Steven Duggar stole second base. In the sixth inning, shortstop Maurico Dubón bunted up the third base line for a single. On paper these are both nondescript plays, and depending on the situation, possibly considered “smart” or necessary or of a high-IQ.

A bunt single is not always just a bunt; a stolen base not just a stolen base. Context is everything and on Tuesday, Duggar stole second with a 9 run lead. Dubón bunted for a single with the lead undiminished. No matter the intent, these acts were perceived as slights by some San Diego Padres players and an infraction against the oft-mentioned ‘Unwritten Rules of Baseball’.

If this sounds made-up it’s because it mostly is. But it is kind of remarkable how well-known these invented strictures are; that within such a rigidly structured and litigated game such as baseball, there still exists this off-book code of conduct that all ballplayers generally subscribe to.

It is not illegal to lay down a bunt in the 9th inning of a no-hitter, nor is it illegal to bat flip after a home run or to swing 3 and 0 when your team has a significant lead—yet throughout much of baseball history, these have been frowned upon. A real no-no threatening the delicate “moral structure of the game.” Baseball is unraveling at the seams!

What characterizes these infractions is not the act in itself, but the context and/or style exhibited behind the execution. What lies at the foundation of all of it is the rather dubious and variable measure of ego and pride. It is not just how a player rounded the bases, but how that mimed dribble-to-dab at the plate made the opponent feel.

Alas, the rub. It is not what was stated, but what was understood. It was not what happened, but what was perceived.

In Tuesdays blowout, what Gabe Kapler saw as gamesmanship by calling for a steal in the 2nd or a bunt in the 6th (they were playing the Padres the next day, and though runs don’t carry over, fatigue does, not to mention both Duggar and Dubón are playing for spots in the lineup and hungry for opportunities to prove themselves) was seen by someone like veteran Eric Hosmer or Wil Meyers as quite the opposite. To them, those plays weren’t about winning the game but showing their team up and making them look bad.

We realize it’s all gilded machismo when we scratch at the surface of these kinds of kerfuffles. Fragile masculinity: sensitive, unarticulated, emotionally confused. At the core of it all, if someone starts complaining about another player breaking an unwritten rule of baseball, they’re really complaining about losing. But who can blame them? Who likes losing? Who likes losing in front of 40,000 people?

That being said, I’d argue that the existence of these unwritten rules often do provide a richer element to the game. These unstated-but-understood elements create the opportunity for another field of play for competition to unfold. The game within the game. If the Padres need to get a competitive edge against a division rival I don’t have a problem with them feeding into the ‘lack of respect’ narrative as long as it doesn’t manifest as pitches being thrown at Giants batters in August.

In Sunday’s game recap, I talked about Miami Marlins Jazz Chisholm’s electric play at second. On Opening Day, he homered, putting the Marlins momentarily up by a run in the ninth. A couple feet from the plate he pretended to lay-up a basketball as he touched home plate. Fans at Oracle booed…why? We lost the lead, sure, but it was because he intimated that the home run was easy. His assurance, his style, rubbed us the wrong way. But did it not make Thairo Estrada’s game-tying home run all the more sweet? Did it not bring us to the edge of our seats whenever Chisholm batted on Sunday? Was not Ruf scoring from first in the bottom of the 10th, i.e. WINNING THE GAME, a much better retaliation than a knock-down pitch directed at the next Marlins hitter?

Flip back through recent Giants history. Any at-bat between Madison Bumgarner vs. Yasiel Puig was an event because it was a clash of styles: old school country hard-baller vs. bold and brash hitter. While Puig was all flair and bat flip. Bumgarner was snot and snarl. Bum had a problem with Puig’s tendency to exhibit emotions at the plate—but was this not a hard-ass style of his own?

In the comments section of the recap, readers pointed out that it’s not necessary to choose between one approach to the game or the other—baseball is big enough for both of them. They’re absolutely right. Traditionalists feel the need to make someone like a Bumgarner their white knight to rally behind in a righteous made-up war to preserve the spirit of America’s pastime. As if there is a “right way to play baseball.” Be wary of this kind of language. It’s gatekeeping and exclusionary.

Ken Rosenthal, in his article published by The Athletic, points out that criticisms based on apparent flaunting of unwritten rules are often levied at non-white players. If one gives this thread a tug, it doesn’t take long to find ourselves in a more ugly and knotted past rooted in racism, greed, misogyny—governances that are less about the game within the game and more about the insecurities of those outside of the game. The rule barring black players from the Major Leagues was unwritten. The rule limiting minority players on a roster after Jackie Robinson was unwritten. The rule banning women from playing in the Major Leagues was written then unwritten. The rule banning women from coaching roles in professional sports was unwritten.

On Tuesday night, Duggar’s stolen base irked San Diego’s third base coach, Mike Shildt. He chirped at the Giants dugout for the unwritten rule infraction, using language that first base coach Antoan Richardson reacted strongly against for its racist undertones. It was a violence that resulted from Shildt’s feelings about how the game should be played. It was a four-seamer to the hip. Richardson was ejected for his role in the argument and Alyssa Nakken filled in at first base, finding herself breaking another unwritten baseball rule by becoming the first female to coach “on-field.”

A stolen base and a bunt with a 9-run lead. 150 years of gender exclusion. Some things matter more than others and the Padres understand that. Players aired grievances in postgame interviews about Dubón’s bunt, but Shildt met with Richardson and apologized. Eric Hosmer congratulated Nakken on the field for her achievement.

Baseball’s “unwritten rules” need to be tested. Some of them need to be broken. Alyssa Nakken is a rule breaker and baseball is better for it.