The Text and Also Subtext of Baseball’s Rulebooks

Baseball is enjoyable this time of year. It’s like catching up with a friend we haven’t seen in a while. We spend April trying to figure out what the game is — not as it is right now, I mean, but as it will be all season. We parse through small bits of over- and underperformance, endeavoring to sift signal from the noise. Shohei Ohtani has been great. That probably means something! Ryan Flaherty has also been good. We might expect that means less. The Dodgers will likely recover; the Padres likely won’t.

With any friend, part of learning the who of them is knowing what matters and what is mere flotsam; alma maters and disappointments, cities lived in. Sayings only our mothers use. It’s why it is so hard to make new friends as an adult: grown-ups have all these stories from way back, full of people we don’t know, doing all sorts of things. It’s a lot to learn.

And while baseball’s who shifts around and grows, changing with new players and seasons, there are bits that endure, memories of childhood and cut grass that constitute a more fixed personality. I thought I might look beyond April to other artifacts, stories from way back full of people. So, inspired by how little they change year to year, I made perhaps an odd choice — namely, of reading The Official Professional Rules of Baseball and The Official Baseball Rules (2018 Edition), to see what baseball tells us about itself.

Here are a few of the things I found.

Baseball allows for small moments of grace…
Sports inspire intense competition. It’s sort of the whole thing. Once play begins, teams are generally expected to press their advantage, however minute. It’s why managers challenge when an opposing runner comes of the bag for the briefest of instants. It’s annoying, and a bit fussy, but there might be an out hiding in there. Can’t just give up an out! Baseball knows this about itself, this impulse to be fastidious in the service of winning, but it also knows that we humans are prone to make mistakes. Managers have to wear those mistakes when they come in the fourth inning, but earlier, before the stakes are set, baseball allows its generals a bit of grace.

In The Official Baseball Rules, the comment on Rule 4.03, which concerns the exchange of lineup cards before the game, tells us that

“[o]bvious errors in the batting order, which are noticed by the umpire-in-chief before he calls ‘Play’ for the start of the game, should be called to the attention of the manager or captain of the team in error, so the correction can be made before the game starts.”

If a manager, in a fit of distraction, has only listed eight players or failed to designate a designated hitter, the umpire should help him out. It goes on later, “Teams should not be ‘trapped’ later by some mistake that obviously was inadvertent and which can be corrected before the game starts.”

Baseball wants its teams to want to win, to press and claw and fight, but it also knows that managers are just folks — folks who forget things and benefit from mercy. Not all the time, but before first pitch. No one likes to feel trapped, after all.

… but also demands that you pay attention.
Of course, that mercy isn’t boundless. They’re participating in an inherently fun enterprise, but baseball would prefer that managers and players remember that they are at work. The game must suspect that they are prone to bouts of inattention. Checking their Facebooks while they wait for the inning to turn, I bet. Lax. Easy.

And really, they need to stay sharp. It’s dangerous out there. There’s a ball flying around, and sometimes a bat, or pieces of it. A guy could put his eye out, or risk looking silly. Fatal wounds, both. Baseball demands its employees focus. Indeed, in the comment on Rule 6.03 (b)(7) on batting out of turn, we learn that

“[t]he umpire shall not direct the attention of any person to the presence in the batter’s box of an improper batter. This rule is designed to require constant vigilance by the players and managers of both teams.”

If a manager or a player fails to say anything before a pitch is thrown to the next batter, well that’s just too damn bad. The improper batter is considered to have batted in turn. You’re forced to take your lumps. Umpires aren’t let off the hook either; Rule 9.01 (b)(4) concerning the official scorer precludes said scorer from alerting either team or the umpires to the fact that a player is batting out of turn. In the absence of helpers, we are forced to help ourselves. Better tighten up.

It has an unfounded confidence in the popularity of certain names.
The rulebook is full of illustrative examples, many of which describe play on the field, all of which involve players with the following vaguely old timey names: Abel, Baker, Charles, Daniel, Edward, Frank, George, Hooker, and Irwin. According to the Social Security administration, “Hooker” has not been a top-1000 baby name in any year since 1900. It fares better as a surname; over 2 million Americans had the last name Hooker in the 2010 Census. None of them currently play major-league baseball.

Major League Baseball has thought a lot about death.
When I worked in finance, part of my job was helping new hedge funds launch their businesses. I’d find them office space and talk to them about hiring and budgets and financial regulation, and somewhere in the mess of trade flows and health plans, I’d have to ask, “So what happens if you get hit by a bus?” A sad fact about a business peopled by humans is that sometimes they die on you.

Major League Baseball has thought a lot about death. Rule 29 of The Official Professional Rules of Baseball is all about what a franchise does in the event of “an occurrence.” “If a common accident, epidemic illness or other common event (referred to in this Rule 29 as an “occurrence”) causes the death, dismemberment or permanent disability from playing professional baseball of” five members of a team’s active, disabled or suspended lists (or six members of its reserve list, should they pass during the offseason), it is a “disabled club.”

It might be put into an official mourning period, during which time no Major League games are played. Who would be able to concentrate on work at a time like that? It could have its season ended entirely.

And the league may hold a “restocking draft” or Rule 29 Draft. Each non-disabled team must submit five players for consideration, including “one pitcher, one catcher, one outfielder, one infielder and a fifth player of any position,” all of whom must have at least 60 days of Major League service time. No player with a no-trade clause is subject to the Rule 29 Draft.

We aren’t especially clearheaded in moments of grief, which is why you come up with a plan in advance, but it’s a grim conversation — and an odd one. Five lives lost is insurmountable, but four you must bear. The 40-man is slightly discounted from the 25-man. You do have to play baseball again eventually. It’s rather icky accounting. But still, you think about death, knowing that if the awful moment ever comes, you won’t be able to think about anything else.

Baseball knows that some things aren’t your fault…
First, some things are not your fault. For instance, let’s say you are a professional baseball man, and your team is batting, and the bases are full, and you occupy third base. It is the bottom of the ninth. Very tense. The pitcher walks the batter, or hits him, or maybe balks. What fun! You just won, and winning is great fun. The best fun! But hold on, minor technicality. The rules say that the game is not concluded, and your team has not won, until you have touched home plate and your batting pal has touched first. That’s unsurprising. Touching home is a whole thing in baseball.

But wait. What if the ballpark is occupied by a bunch of bozos? What if those bozos are excitable? What if they rush the field? Now they’re in your way, and you have to touch home plate! Don’t fret. The comment on 5.08(b) tells us that if bozos (respectfully referred to here as “fans”) enter the field and block your way, the umpire shall award you your base. You still get to win. Baseball’s reasonable, after all, and you can hardly be expected to control excitable bozos.

Or maybe you’re a reliever, called in to face a batter mid-plate appearance, and he’s ahead 3-1. Or perhaps 2-0. 3-0. 3-2? Heck, even 2-1. That’s sure a tough spot considering you’re only there to be a helper, a janitor really, confronting a mess you didn’t make. But again, don’t worry. In this way, the game is reasonable. Rule 9.16 (h)(1) on Earned Runs and Runs Allowed says that if you come in mid-go and issue a walk to a batter with a “decided advantage” in the count, it, along with the batter, will be charged to the preceding pitcher. You give up a hit, that’s on you. And you know, you can live with that. That’s your mess. But that other thing, that prior bit of charity? You don’t even support those causes.

… but prefers you not take generosity for granted.
That said, good fortune doesn’t let you off the hook. Baseball doesn’t appreciate those who make poor use of presents. For instance, if you, a batter-runner, are awarded second base because the second baseman threw the ball into the stands, the comment on Rule 5.06(b)(4)(I) reminds us that you still have a responsibility to touch first on your way to second, or risk being called out on appeal. That you were awarded second makes no different. It’s a bit like family birthdays after you turn 22. You were already given one gift; it would be gauche to expect another.

It thinks the ideal version of a game ends 9-0.
Forfeits aren’t especially common in modern baseball. The last one occurred on August 10, 1995, when incensed Dodgers fans threw souvenir baseballs onto the field — not once, but three times — forcing the umpires to call the game for the Cardinals.

Some funny scorekeeping happens after a forfeit. The Rulebook definition of a forfeit states:

“A FORFEITED GAME is a game declared ended by the umpire-in-chief in favor of the offended team by the score of 9 to 0, for violation of the rules.”

The individual statistics from the game count; no 0-for-4 nights are forgiven. But baseball makes this odd choice. The final score could be anything. They’re making it up! They could keep it close, say 1-0. Or they could ground it in something real, awarding the winning team one more run than the forfeiting team actually scored, but they choose–they’re choosing!– to do this 9-0 business instead. It suggests an ideal baseball form: a game in which the winning team accumulates a run per inning, dominant but never too showy, while pitching a shutout. It’s a score that occurred nine times last year, though no team managed such a pleasing distribution of runs.

And just think — to get it, all you have to do is luck into some angry fans and a poorly conceived ballpark giveaway. Plato would envy enlightenment coming so cheaply.

This isn’t all of baseball. It isn’t April or October, the CBA or all 451 pages of rules across these tomes. But it is some of it, part of what stays constant through all the signal and noise. It’s part of the who of this pal of ours, this buddy it is so nice to see again, and get to know some more. How nice that our best friend can still surprise us, all these years later. Who knew his middle name was Irwin?

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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5 years ago

Fun article, thanks. If I recall correctly, Merkle’s Boner occurred because he didn’t touch his base after fans stormed the field. Maybe that is why they have now have a rule allowing the umpire to award the base when “bozos” enter the field.