Sunday, August 14, 2011

When Baseball Imitates Congress, and Not in a Good Way

Jeff Kowalsky/European Pressphoto Agency
In the third inning, Jered Weaver shouted at Magglio
Ordonez as he circled the bases slowly after a home run.

By Jonathan Mahler, New York Times
Aug. 5, 2011

What a spectacle of undignified behavior, of hypocrisy, of extremism, of civility abandoned, of epic brattiness. Could a disgraced city possibly have proved itself more worthy of its reputation?

I'm talking, of course, about last Sunday's Tigers-Angels game at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Maybe you were tuned in to a different channel, watching a different group of people in a different place violate a different code of conduct that has long held together another one of our nation's most cherished institutions. I'll recap.

First, the setup. The stakes were high. This was the final game of a four-game series between two American League playoff contenders, teams that might collide again in the postseason. It also happened to bring together the league's two Cy Young front-runners, a pair of lanky former first-round draft picks with starkly different pitching styles: Jered Weaver, with his magician's deception and surgeon's control, and Justin Verlander, with his three-digit fastball and paralyzing changeup.

The game certainly lived up to its billing. Verlander took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and the Tigers managed to hold off a late Angels rally to win, 3-2. As a baseball game, it had everything you could possibly want: Some dominant pitching, flashes of power, a lot of hard-fought at-bats and a couple of dramatically manufactured runs complete with a botched rundown.

But what was most memorable about the game — and the reason why I'm still thinking about it almost a week later — was what you couldn't necessarily see, or at least conclusively decipher. Like maybe no other single game in history, this one was packed with violations, both real and imagined, of baseball's unwritten rules.

Jeff Kowalsky/European Pressphoto Agency
The Angels’ Erick Aybar tried to bunt his way on
in the eighth inning, a move Justin Verlander, who was pitching
a no-hitter at the time, later described as “bush league.”
Along the way, it produced roughly the same gob-smacking effect among baseball fans that most of the nation was experiencing as it watched the parallel debt-ceiling theatrics in Washington. Baseball imitates Congress.

The purpose of the baseball codebook, passed down in the clubhouse from generation to generation like an ever-evolving collection of tribal rites, was probably most succinctly described by Bob Brenly, who led the Arizona Diamondbacks to their 2001 World Series championship.

"I can break it down into three simple things," Brenly told the authors of "The Baseball Codes." (Yes, there are enough of these rules to warrant their own book.) "Respect your teammates, respect your opponents, respect the game."

If only it were as simple as Brenly makes it sound. As with the unwritten rules that govern any institution, baseball's are subject to endless interpretation: You can't steal on an opponent when you have a big lead late in the game, but what constitutes a big lead? And when, exactly, is it late in the game?

No bunting to break up a no-hitter, but what if it's a tight game in the heat of a pennant race and the batter has been known to successfully bunt for base hits? (This last scenario isn't hypothetical: The Angels' Erick Aybar tried to bunt his way on in the eighth inning of the game in question, a move Verlander later described as "bush league.")

The elaborate, if ill-defined, system of self-policing that is supposed to encourage players to play the game the right way can ultimately have the opposite effect.

With their midgame adrenaline flowing, their sense of baseball righteousness rising up in them like, well, an ideological crusade taking root inside the mind of a zealous young politician, players can wind up following their principles right off a cliff.

The process quickly becomes circular: Retaliation begets retaliation. Individual reputations are compromised. Teams' prospects are damaged. Not to get too Bart Giamatti on you, but the strength of the game's social fabric is tested. Did I say that baseball imitates Congress?

It was pretty easy for even the most partisan among us, which is to say Tigers and Angels fans, to see who went over the edge in Detroit.

If opinion research firms conducted approval-ratings polls for baseball players, the Tigers' Carlos Guillen would have suffered the steepest decline after Sunday's game. In the seventh inning, when Guillen smashed a ball into the right-field seats, he lingered in the batter's box to admire his handiwork and pointedly flipped his bat, a strictly prohibited form of grandstanding known as home-run pimping. He compounded the infraction by trotting slowly down to first, angled toward the mound, taunting Weaver all the way.

Bear with me, because this is where the narrative gets a little convoluted. In Guillen's mind, he was actually taking the moral high ground by paying Weaver back for disrespecting one of his teammates, Magglio Ordonez, earlier in the game. (In the third inning, Weaver had shouted at Ordonez as he circled the bases slowly after a home run, another variation of home-run pimping.)

Weaver responded to Guillen's taunts by throwing at the Tigers' next hitter, Alex Avila. The beanball has been an accepted part of baseball's code pretty much since the game's inception. But it's one thing for a pitcher to make a rhetorical point with a knockdown or brush-back pitch. It's another to throw near a hitter's head, which is what Weaver did.

He was instantly kicked out of the game, and on his way to the locker room was so worked up that he had to be physically restrained from the umpire by his teammates. He was later suspended for six games. Considering the tightness of the pennant race — the Angels and the Rangers are running neck and neck — it's entirely possible that the start he'll miss will make the difference for his team's season. Not that Weaver had any regrets. "I wouldn't do anything different," he said when he learned of his suspension.

So there you go. That's what happens when dogma and misguided principle win the day.

In no time at all, our combatants could very well be at it again when the playoffs start — I am already envisioning the Fox pregame lead-in of a showboating Guillen and a fury-filled Weaver — and Congress returns to the debt drawing board.

It will certainly make for some more compelling theater. Whether it will make for good legislation is a different question. It's hard to believe we're in a good place when our elected representatives and our professional baseball players start to look so much alike.

No comments: