Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Unwritten Rules and the Spirit of the Game

The MLB All-Star Final Vote for the National League team was not the Yasiel Puig landslide that many – including myself – predicted.

The Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman won the final place on the roster, gaining an incredible 19.7 million votes, just ahead of the Dodgers’ Cuban sensation.

Over 15.6m people voted for Puig so talk of a backlash against him would be an exaggeration, but there are signs that some are not so enamoured by his style of play, views on which range from him being exciting and flashy to plain arrogant.

The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Ian Kennedy and Miguel Montero were critical of Puig’s play this past week, not surprisingly perhaps with them being division rivals. Puig is adamant that he’s just playing the way he has always done from his time in Cuba and some of the comments about him are reminiscent of the clucking among the baseball chattering classes at the exuberant celebrations by the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic this past Spring.

A player’s behaviour is judged against the fabled ‘unwritten rules of baseball’. Like any set of values, they mean different things to different people and often seem bizarre to outsiders. You might think it would be easier for all concerned if the unwritten rules became written; however the first Ashes Test showed that things aren’t quite so straightforward.

Since 2000, the Laws of Cricket have included a preamble that codifies the idea that cricket “should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game”.

The preamble understandably doesn’t cover every eventuality, which leaves them open to interpretation. Section 5 states that it is against the spirit of the game “to indulge in cheating or any sharp practice” (what a wonderful nod to antiquity those last two words are) and gives a few examples, such as “(a) to appeal knowing that the batsman is not out”.

With that in mind, is it cheating to stand your ground as a batsman after being given ‘not out’ by the umpire, knowing that you had blatantly hit the ball and should have been out? In such a situation, England’s Stuart Broad decided to stay where he was, prompting much debate on whether this amounted to cheating and/or was against the spirit of the game.

Bringing it back to baseball, what’s most interesting about this example is how the Decision Review System (i.e. instant replay in baseball terms) impacted upon the process. Umpire Aleem Dar made an inexplicable error in not giving Broad out and the whole point of using technology in sport is so that important games do not turn on howlers by officials.

MLB is likely to introduce an expanded form of instant replay for the 2014 season and this first Ashes Test has highlighted some of the complexities baseball will have to face.

Firstly, whatever replay system is brought in will not be perfect and mistakes will still be made. England felt hard done by on two review decisions on Thursday (Australia’s Ashton Agar not being given out when he was on 6 and England’s Jonathan Trott being given out LBW despite his insistence he had hit the ball), so tight calls will always cause controversy and the equipment (or more specifically it’s use, in the case of Trott) is not completely fool proof.

Secondly, if the replay system is there, how should a review be instigated? In cricket, each team has two challenges. Australia burned their final challenge by taking a chance on a ‘not out’ decision and therefore could do nothing to reverse Dar’s dreadful mistake with Broad. If the aim is simply to get the big decisions right, should challenges have any place in it? There’s an argument that an off-field umpire should spot potentially dicey decisions, call down to the field so that play doesn’t re-start and then review the play.

Thirdly, if you have team challenges, how many should they get? In the wake of the Broad debate, the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew proposed that a cricket team should only get one review as that way they would be more likely to save it for the genuine umpiring error rather than taking speculative punts on marginal decisions.

If each baseball team got two challenges per game and the only penalty for an incorrect challenge was to lose one in that game, would we end up having four challenges in every single MLB game with teams using them because they are there? It’s very likely that we would and the result would be 60 challenges per day when all teams are playing. Whether that’s a price worth paying for – potentially – getting more decisions correct remains to be seen, but it doesn’t sound an appealing prospect to this baseball fan.

Finally, bringing this back to the opening gambit, what effect will instant replay have on the unwritten rules of the game? Naively, I had assumed that the greater use of technology – not just through instant replay but simply through incidents being highlighted – would leave players no hiding place and therefore less likely to wrongly claim a catch or similar. The Broad example suggests that the opposite may be true, that if the opposition burns their challenges and/or the technology doesn’t find you out then you’re entitled to take whatever luck comes your way.

Let’s propose a scenario: a player is wrongly called out on the basepads and his team has used up its challenge(s). The fielder knows full well that he had dropped the ball and hadn’t tagged the baserunner out and we all see this on the replay. Has the fielder cheated by giving the impression of making the play? Will keeping quiet in that situation contravene an unwritten rule or will the greater level of inspection mean that whatever you can get away with is fair game?

Perhaps we’ll have to wait for next season, and a disputed catch in the outfield by Yasiel Puig, before we find out.

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