Commentary

Unwritten rules violations

Three former pitching greats share their thoughts on how best to mete out justice

Updated: May 5, 2010, 1:05 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Dustin PedroiaJohn Rieger/US PresswireAs every hitter knows, there are consequences for breaking one of baseball's many unwritten rules.
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, a perennial All-Star and Hall of Fame-caliber lightning rod, recently landed in the middle of controversy with a seemingly harmless jog across San Francisco's East Bay. When Rodriguez cut across the pitcher's mound during a game against Oakland, A's pitcher Dallas Braden took offense and ripped him for his lack of professional courtesy. The incident set off a major turf war and prompted some inflammatory back-and-forth in the papers.

Who knew? Each time a player tests the game's "unwritten rules,'' it spurs debate about what is and isn't kosher. One man's gamesmanship is another's breach of baseball's internal code.

You never know precisely what a hitter might do to irritate a pitcher. Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, for example, told ESPN.com that he doesn't understand why hitters are allowed to scratch out the back line of the batter's box to gain an extra couple of inches, or stray from the on-deck circle to better gauge his pitches. The list of perceived transgressions is endless.

Goose Gossage
Gossage
Bert Blyleven
Blyleven

Jim Palmer
Palmer

As a public service, we sought out three prominent pitchers for their opinion of different offenses: What's out of bounds, what's part of the game, and what might prompt you to drill a hitter or make a mental note that he's crossed the line?

Expert No. 1: Jim Palmer, a six-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner and proud owner of a 268-152 record with the Baltimore Orioles. Palmer made the Hall of Fame on his first try in 1990 and currently works as an Orioles analyst for MASN.

Expert No. 2: Bert Blyleven, who won 287 games and ranks ninth on baseball's career list in shutouts (60) and fifth in strikeouts (3,701). Now a Minnesota Twins TV analyst, Blyleven fell five votes short of the Hall of Fame in January and should make it to Cooperstown this winter in his 14th appearance on the ballot.

Expert No. 3: Goose Gossage, nine-time All-Star, owner of 310 career saves, one of the most feared closers in history, and a 2008 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

The three pitching greats approached the task from different perspectives. Blyleven ranks 17th on baseball's career list -- one spot ahead of Don Drysdale -- with 155 hit-by-pitches. He's a staunch advocate of frontier justice.

"That's the way I was brought up,'' Blyleven said. "It's an eye for an eye. If you show me up, I'm going to try to knock out your eye.''

Palmer, in contrast, hit only 38 batters in 19 seasons in Baltimore. That total ties him with Cliff Lee, Steve Blass, Hideo Nomo and 20 other pitchers for 666th place in baseball history.

"Earl Weaver didn't believe in throwing at guys, because we had better players, and if you throw at guys, somebody gets hurt and it hurts your ballclub,'' Palmer said. "You just have to pick the right time.''

As for Gossage, he didn't encounter much tomfoolery in any form because of his triple-digit fastball and imposing presence on the mound. Hitters were usually too frightened to mess with him.

In this week's Starting 9, we laid out nine common scenarios for Palmer, Blyleven and Gossage. Their responses might be worth consulting the next time a pitcher and hitter clash over baseball etiquette.

The hitter stands at home plate and admires a home run.
What do you do?

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziMove it along, Mr. Howard. Move it along. Nothing to see here.
Jim Palmer: "You don't want to get angry. You get even. I learned that from Cal Ripken Sr. You're emotional, competitive, all the things that make you a good athlete. But you can't let things affect you. It's somebody else's actions. Do you respect them? No. Jim Rice hit nine home runs off me. So did Graig Nettles, and they never showed me up. They never went around the bases and put on all this [expletive].''

Bert Blyleven: "I guess you can ask Jose Canseco that question. He did it and I accidentally hit him in the chest area his next time up. There were some words exchanged, all from me basically, saying, 'The next time you hit a home run, run around the darned bases. You think you're so big and strong.' That type of thing.

"Tony La Russa came out and I think we had some words too, in the heat of battle. When you give up a home run, good for them. But don't show me up. When I strike you out, I don't stand there and 'fireball' you or point at you or laugh at you. That's part of the game.''

Goose Gossage: "When I was pitching for the Cubs, Ron Gant hit a home run that was eight miles foul. He stomped around the batter's box for about five minutes because he was so bummed out. He was a rookie then and I didn't even know who he was.

"So he's all up in arms about this ball going foul, and he's causing this big scene while I'm out there waiting to throw the next pitch to [catcher] Jody Davis. When he finally steps back in the box, I plug him with the first pitch.

"Gant looks out at me and says, 'What did you hit me for, man?' And I said, 'If you ever do that again, I'll hit you in the head.' He never understood, but a year later Jody Davis went over and played for Atlanta. He told Gant, 'You must be the dumbest SOB in the league. Everybody in the stadium knew you were going to get drilled, except you.'''

The hitter flips the bat or takes an excruciatingly slow home run trot. What's your reaction?

Palmer: "It doesn't make you happy. It's just showing you up. The opposite of that is, when I first met Dennis Eckersley, he was pointing at guys and shooting them and all that. I said, 'Eck, guys want to hit home runs and knock you out. Just pretend you did your job.' It's the same with a hitter. It's your job. Just put your head down like Harmon Killebrew did and run.

[+] EnlargeFrank Viola
AP Photo/James FinleyA penny for your thoughts, Frank Viola.
"The only thing this stuff really does is encourage me to want to get hitters out more. A lot of people look at it as a negative; I look at it as, 'This guy is a complete jerk, and I don't like jerks.' Dave Winfield used to come out and twirl the bat, and late in my career, I'd have 5 mph more on my fastball against him.''

Blyleven: "In the '87 World Series, Tom Lawless hit a home run off Frank Viola and threw the bat in the air about 20 feet and thought he was Babe Ruth. If anything helps bring a ballclub a little closer together, it's when an opponent reacts the way he does. Everybody on your team gets pissed together.

"You can talk about steroids all you want, but when Mark McGwire hit his home runs, he was not a showman. He dropped the bat and ran around the bases. When Barry Bonds hit one, he did a little twirlette; he thought he was a ballet dancer. Even with all the armor he wore, I still would have tried to find a place in his rib cage where he was open.''

Gossage: "Hitters never showed me up, as hard as I threw. And I was pretty mean out on the mound. Guys hauled ass around the bases when they hit a home run off of me. And if they ever did [take their time], somebody was going to get plugged. That's just the way it was.''

The hitter runs across the mound while you're nowhere near it.
Is that an issue?

Palmer: "I don't have any problem with that. Why would I care?''

Blyleven: "It doesn't make any difference to me whether I'm standing on it or not -- that's my mound and you stay off my mound. When the left fielder runs from the first base dugout to left field between innings, you never see him run across the mound. You just don't see players running across the mound.''

Gossage: "I'm sure I would have taken offense to it had it happened, but it never happened. I don't ever remember seeing a baserunner who was all the way to third base run back across the mound. It was kind of a respectful thing. It probably would have been taken as an 'in your face.'"

The hitter crosses the mound while you are standing on it.
Is there a difference?

Palmer: "That doesn't bother me, either. I don't think A-Rod probably thought anything about it. But I do admire Dallas Braden for what he did, because it took some cojones. To his credit, he was able to yell and scream and it didn't affect his performance.''

[+] EnlargeBraden
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesNo trespassing! The mound, as Alex Rodriguez discovered on April 22, belongs to A's pitcher Dallas Braden.
Blyleven: "It's not right what A-Rod did. He could have run around the mound. You respect the game of baseball and you respect your opponents.

"I saw the interview with A-Rod, and the arrogance he showed. He should have said, 'Hey, I'm really sorry. I didn't realize I did that.' Instead, he made a circus out of it. I believe Braden had every right to be upset; A-Rod ran straight across the mound, and he's very good at lying. He said, 'I don't remember that.'

"Don't be surprised if Braden pitches against the Yankees and A-Rod is up, and in the right situation Braden may come up-and-in on him or make him move his feet a little bit or even drill him. The sad part is, in today's game, the discipline a player can get for hitting another guy isn't the same as it was in the '70s. It's hard to do the 'eye for an eye' now.''

Gossage: "I was so mean, even my teammates were afraid to come on the mound. I remember once in San Diego, I was really struggling. They wanted to get the bullpen going, and [manager] Larry Bowa yelled to John Kruk to come out and talk to me to buy some time.

"There's dust flying, I'm kicking the ground and I'm mad as hell, and I sense somebody standing by me. It's Kruk, standing on the grass. I looked at Kruk and I said, 'This better be good, [expletive].' Kruk was just a rookie then, and he was petrified. He turned around and ran back to first base. He never said a word.''

Is bunting to break up a no-hitter a violation of baseball's unwritten rules?

Palmer: "Heck, I did it in Little League against [a kid] because he was going to strike out 18 out of 18. I pitched a no-hitter and [the Orioles] scored eight runs, but it might be the appropriate play. It's part of the game. Plus, if a guy can bunt, I usually want my infielders playing in to defend the bunt anyway.''

Blyleven: "Your goal as a hitter is to get on. And if the third baseman is playing back and letting you lay down a bunt, I don't have a problem with that even if it's late in a no-hitter. Their goal is to try to win the game -- not to help a guy get a no-hitter.''

Gossage: "I never took offense to that. Nolan Ryan used to take offense to guys trying to bunt off him. Nolan used to give guys his so-called 'bow tie.' I just figured it's part of a hitter's job. And I was a guy you could bunt on, because I couldn't field anything on the third-base side.

"Usually a no-hitter is a tight ballgame, and they're trying to beat you. You need baserunners, and I can't blame the opposition for trying to get on base. If the game is out of reach, then it's a different story. I would take offense to that. I'd drill the SOB. 'If you want to get on base, here, I'll put you on base.'''

What's your response if a hitter calls timeout while you're in the middle of your windup?

Palmer: "We were taught not to wear your emotions on your sleeve, so you just have to internalize all this stuff. It makes you want to get the guy out even more. Some people have a legitimate reason, but if you do it a couple of times, then it's annoying."

Blyleven: "If it's the same guy day-in and day-out who's always asking for time, then it might be a problem. But I think the umpires are trying to control that a little better to keep the game moving. We just did a game where Denard Span asked for time, and the pitcher was already in his stretch position, and Gerry Davis was the umpire and he didn't give it to him. The umps are trying to make it so guys can't step out all the time."

Gossage: "When Buck Rodgers was managing in Montreal, they used to step out to break up my timing because I worked fast. I didn't go after the hitters. I walked off the mound, threw the rosin bag down and motioned with my finger for Buck to come on out. I was going to kick his ass. I heard later that the hitters told Buck they didn't want to do it anymore."

What do you do if you catch a hitter peeking back at a catcher's setup, or getting signs relayed to him from a teammate on second base?

Palmer: "I was pitching one night against Jim Spencer, and he used to live in Baltimore. He played basketball with us in the offseason, and he was a friend of mine. [Catcher] Rick Dempsey came out to the mound and said, 'Spencer is looking back at the signs.' So I walked off the mound and said, 'If you do that again, I'll hit you in the side of the head.' I threw the next ball right down the middle and he took it for Strike 3."

Blyleven: "That's a no-no. I don't think too many players peek back at the catcher. If they're caught, it's up to that pitcher or catcher to say something. 'If you do it again, there's going to be repercussions.'

"Ted Simmons and I had words one time in Milwaukee when he was at second base. I came into my stretch position and turned around real quick, and he was staring right in giving the signs. I stepped off and we had some words. I had an incident with Paul Molitor where I thought he was peeking [at the catcher], and I settled it right there."

Gossage: "If we thought hitters were getting signs relayed signs from second base, we would call a breaking ball, and then I'd throw a fastball up and in. That stopped it right then. It was over. They were done."

If you think a hitter intentionally leaned over the plate to get hit by a pitch, how do you respond?

[+] EnlargeFielder
AP Photo/Darren HauckPrince Fielder has already been plunked a major league-leading seven times this season.
Palmer: "I didn't get annoyed very much. But Damaso Garcia stuck his elbow out, and he was going down the first-base line. I said, 'If you're going to pull that crap, I can hit you where it's really going to hurt.' It was a 2-0 ballgame and I guess he was just trying to get on base. But I didn't like it."

Blyleven: "It happened the other day in Detroit. Miguel Cabrera got hit with a pitch inside, and we showed the replay and he hardly even moved. He knew he had that pad on his left elbow area and he just kind of left his arm out there and got hit. There was no intent to try to get out of the way.

"You see a guy like Jason Kendall, and he's from the old school: You don't see him wearing armor and all that stuff. We had a guy in the '70s, Cesar Tovar, who was notorious for sticking his elbow out there. And Ron Hunt would lean into a fastball to get on base. I don't think these guys today should be allowed to wear a pad. David Ortiz is a designated hitter. He doesn't have to throw anymore. Why does he get to wear a pad?"

Gossage: "I threw so hard that people never played many games like that with me. It just didn't happen -- because you'd get killed."

How offended are you if a hitter takes a big rip at a 3-0 pitch when his team is way ahead?

Palmer: "I think that's over the line. What goes around, comes around. That's the thing. If guys show you up, sooner or later something is going to happen. It's bad karma. Just play the game respectfully."

Blyleven: "If a guy takes a big swing like that, yeah, I would be upset. Don Mattingly hit a home run off me many years ago at the Metrodome, and the next pitch was a fastball and Dave Winfield left his feet swinging at it. The next pitch Winfield was leaving his feet to get out of the way. He was picking himself up off the ground.

"Guys swing hard. I don't have a problem with that. But as a pitcher who pitched every fourth or fifth day, that was my bread and butter. I had to have my game face on. When you're not at the top of your game and you feel like the other team is laughing and embarrassing you by doing certain things, it's time to retaliate."

Gossage: "If a guy screws himself into the ground, I'm going to undress him. I might not drill him, but I'm going to send a message.

"The score of the game definitely comes into play. Guys used to quit playing if the score was 17-0. The game was out of reach, it was in check, and it was over for all intents and purposes. It was just a respect thing -- you didn't want to show the other team up. Now guys want to pad their stats."

Special bonus question: If a player on your team gets drilled, are you obligated to respond?

Palmer: "In Cal Ripken's first year, in '82, we'd had some guys get hit and Cal said, 'When is somebody going to protect somebody around here?' I didn't like Carlton Fisk anyway, because he hit me so well. So one game I just drilled him. It wasn't a very sensible thing to do, and why I was listening to a rookie, I don't know. Maybe I knew that Cal was going to end up in the Hall of Fame one day."

Blyleven: "I don't care if it's my No. 1 hitter or my No. 9 hitter, you know when the other pitcher is doing something on purpose. I remember one time in Kansas City, I had a 5-0 shutout going into the ninth inning, and Juan Beniquez was our center fielder [with Texas]. He hit a three-run homer that day, and in his final at-bat they threw a ball at his head and it went back to the backstop.

"Our whole team was yelling, and I knew what I needed to do. Sid Hudson, the pitching coach, came over and said, 'Don't do anything. Get the shutout, and we'll get them another time.' Frank Lucchesi, our manager, said the same thing.

"I didn't say anything. I went out there and took my eight warm-up tosses, and then I drilled Darrell Porter right in the ribs with my first pitch. To me, there's a time when you have to protect your teammates. If I didn't do that, I would have lost face with my ballclub. If I don't protect Juan Beniquez right there, I'm the biggest sissy out there. And I'm not a sissy."

Gossage: "We were playing Baltimore one year in Fort Lauderdale early in spring training. Graig Nettles comes up and Mike Flanagan drills him in the wrist with the first pitch. OK, fine. Then somebody takes out Willie Randolph at second base and they almost kill him. OK, fine. Nothing was said. Nobody got upset. That was the way the game was played at the time. But we knew when we had a chance, we'd take care of it.

"Later in spring training I was on the mound and Al Bumbry, their leadoff hitter, came to the plate. I hit him on the point of the hip as hard as I could throw. He fell down in the box and he was going around like a top. He was break dancing in the batter's box. I'm telling you, I had never seen anything like it. I came in the dugout after that inning was over and everybody was like, 'Hey Goose, way to go. Thanks, man.' They all knew what it was for. It wasn't that big a deal. But there's a time and a place to take care of business, and we took care of business."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE MLB HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM