We still have too many unwritten rules around here

2019-06-07 MattLipka

Matt (Death to Bunting Things) Lipka about to drop the bunt heard ’round the Twitterverse . . .

There’s no better time to ponder a new book about baseball’s unwritten rules than in the aftermath of a textbook example showing the intellectual barrenness of most of them. The example happened Wednesday night, when the Trenton Thunder, a Yankee AA farm team, batted in the top of the ninth against the Hartford Yard Dogs.

Long story short: The Thunder’s Matt Lipka batted against the Yard Dogs with one out and the Dogs up 3-0. The Dogs were on their fourth pitcher, trying to finish the combined no-no, when Lipka dropped as delicious a dribble bunt as you’re ever going to see. He caught the Dogs so off guard that he almost could have walked to first to beat it out.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. The further bad news in terms of the game itself was that the Thunder couldn’t continue any overthrow of the Yard Dogs. And when the 3-0 win held up, the benches emptied. Nothing much came of that, apparently. A lot of milling, a bit of barking, maybe a couple of inadvertent shoves. Maybe.

Then the story hit social media running the way Lipka did up the first base line. And now the Yankees themselves are in the mix. NJ.com writer Mike Rosenstein reported Friday morning that the Yankees are investigating death threats leveled toward Lipka on Twitter and elsewhere.

Don’t the Yankees have enough to do staying very much alive and well in the American League East despite a plague of injuries enough to make Yankee Stadium look more like St. Elsewhere than a ballpark? Are the Sacred Unwritten Rules so sacred that the idiot brigades can throw down death threats against a 27-year-old minor leaguer for breaking one of them?

Except that Lipka didn’t exactly break one when he bunted that night. “Tradition says you don’t,” writes Bleacher Report‘s Danny Knobler in his new book, Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future. “Do it against the wrong pitcher in the old days and you were likely to get a fastball in the back (or an even worse spot) the next time up.”

Like so many other things, it’s much more complicated now. It’s more or less accepted that bunting is fine if the goal is to win the game rather than simply to deny the pitcher his shot at history. If it’s a close game, your team needs baserunners, and bunting for a hit is part of your game, go right ahead. If it’s 7-0 with two out in the eighth, that might not be the best spot for it.

Now with the Astros, Justin Verlander had something close to such an experience when still a Tiger in June 2017, when Jarrod Dyson, then with the Mariners, stood in at the plate while Verlander took a perfect game bid into the sixth with one out and a 4-0 lead. The would-be perfecto became won’t-be when Dyson bunted and beat it out.

Verlander was far more upset about the three-run rally Dyson’s bunt hit began that helped turn the game into a 7-5 Mariners win, Knobler writes. Said Verlander: “It was a perfect bunt. That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.”

Verlander at least was still in the game. The Yard Dogs’ would-be no-no was a four-man effort by the time Lipka checked in at the plate. With a measly three-run lead they had less call to fume when Lipka bunted and ground his way aboard in the bottom of the ninth than Verlander would have had if he’d fumed over Dyson in the sixth.

Lipka had every incentive to try something, anything to kick the Thunder into gear. He was the lineup’s number nine hitter and with one out reaching base safely handed things to the top of their order. The traditionalists might swear the proverbial blue streak but the last time I looked the object of the game was getting runs on the board.

Squeal all you want about respect for the game. Now tell me that trying to win isn’t the ultimate respect for the game.

Yard Goats reliever Ben Bowden pitching that ninth had one job: get Lipka and anyone else in Thunder threads out. Lipka with one out and a three-run deficit had one job: get his tail on base by hook, crook, or anything else he could think of. He did his job; more’s the pity that his mates to follow couldn’t get theirs done.

And, as Yahoo! Sports writer Chris Cwik notes, “None of that really matters when we’re talking about death threats, though. No matter how you feel about the unwritten rules of baseball, there’s never any reason to threaten harm—or death—on a player. That is never an acceptable or appropriate response.”

Good thing the Yard Goats didn’t think of putting an overshift on against Lipka. They’d have looked even more foolish if he saw that gifted expanse and decided, “Oh, thank you so much!” before bunting one or grounding one in that direction.

Hark back to last season. When the Angels’ Andrelton Simmons batted against the Indians’ Corey Kluber with one out in the fifth and the Angels down 2-0 and, by the way, Kluber, too, with a no-hitter in the making. Simmons caught Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez playing far too deep and, you guessed it, went for it on the first pitch, dropping a beauty up the third base line.

The Indians and no few others hit the ceiling over the bunt, not over Ramirez playing so deep he’d practically dared Simmons to avoid thinking about it. And after a followup strikeout, AL Rookie of the Year Shohei Ohtani sent one over the left center field fence. The Angels won the game in the thirteenth when former Indian Zack Cozart hit one on a full count into the left field bullpens.

Hark back to last season, too, when the Twins’ Jose Berrios had a one-hitter in the making and a 7-0 lead in the ninth. Orioles catcher Chance Sisco—who just so happened to have accounted for the only Oriole hit of the game to that point—might not have thought of anything cute if the Twins hadn’t overshifted on him and, as Ramirez sort of did with Simmons, handed him the left side of the field on a platter.

Twins second baseman Brian Dozier fumed after the game that he’d have said something to the Sisco kid on the spot “but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there,” after Sisco dropped a bunt and didn’t even have to flap his wings flying to beat it for a hit. Somehow, Berrios survived a followup walk and hit to finish the 7-0 win, anyway.

As I wrote then, did the Twins think Sisco was only supposed to take it as an April Fool’s Day joke and thank the nice Twins by hitting it right into their packed right side and make his out like a good little boy?

But nobody to my knowledge sent Dyson, Simmons, or Sisco death threats over their bunts. Nor did any such thing happen to the Phillies’ Domonic Brown in 2014 when—with one out in the fifth, the Padres up 1-0, and the Friars  overshifting on him as well—he took care of Andrew Cashner’s would-be no-no with a bunt. Even though the Petco Park crowd booed Brown lustily and Cashner stared Brown down.

Knobler writes that Padres manager Bud Black wasn’t exactly one of the outraged, perhaps knowing that Brown reaching base represented a potential tying run. “There was more grumbling in the stands than in the dugout,” the skipper said. “Our defensive metrics say we’re going to shift on this fellow. He’s playing the game.”

“[T]here’s no rule against bunting for a hit, and no unwritten rule against it, either,” Knobler writes. “There’s absolutely nothing suggesting teams can’t bunt for hits when the pitcher is 37 years old, has bad knees, and is overweight.”

He’s talking about you, CC Sabathia, who pitched a small fit when Eduardo Nunez of the Red Sox bunted to try for a one-out hit in the first inning off you at the end of August 2017. You, who ended up having to wiggle out of a ducks-on-the-pond jam of your own making—after you walked Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts back-to-back to follow Nunez—by striking out Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers back-to-back.

“It’s kind of weak to me,” Sabathia huffed after the game. “I’m an old man. They should go out there and try to kick my butt.” Which in that context may or may not mean he thought they should really have tried to kiss his butt.

How about climbing all over his third baseman that day, Todd Frazier, for the throwing error that helped Nunez reach first in the first place? And—you guessed it again—it was a game the Yankees went on to win, 6-2.

So far as I know, though, Nunez wasn’t subject to death threats, either. Considering the history between the Olde Towne Team and the Empire Emeritus, and no few of either team’s fans, that by itself may qualify as a genuine miracle.

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