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Shut Up and Play Baseball

When I was in sixth grade, the last year I played baseball and was any good at it, I was playing first base in the late innings of a close game. A batter on the opposing team drew a walk, as sixth-graders so often do, and when he got to first base, the first base coach started giving him instructions.

I was standing behind the bag, maybe 10 feet away, when the first base coach said the following in a normal conversational tone: “Ok, go on the second pitch.”

He didn’t whisper or anything, just used a normal inside tone with an opposing player clearly within earshot. So I did what any 11-year-old would do. I screamed as loud as I could, “He’s stealing on the second pitch!”

The coach looked at me like I had made an unsavory remark toward his daughter. “What’d you do that for?” he asked.

“I’m right here,” I said. “I can hear everything you say.”

To my amazement, the kid attempted to steal on the second pitch anyway. Our catcher, who hadn’t thrown out a would-be basestealer all year, threw him out by five feet.

The moral of this story is that if you’re going to be an idiot on the baseball diamond, you deserve whatever comes to you.

As many of you may have read, the Phillies have been accused of stealing signs and warned by Major League Baseball. Bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer allegedly trained a pair of binoculars on the Rockies’ catcher Monday night and relayed the signs to Shane Victorino later on via the bullpen phone.

Now, I think the use of binoculars is a bit much. I also think that Mick Billmeyer sounds like the name of someone who spent the 1980s shoving Anthony Michael Hall and John Cusack into lockers in John Hughes movies.

But I have no problem with stealing signs as such. Isn’t the whole point of having signs to gain an advantage by deceiving the offensive players? If your signs are so transparent that they can be decoded by a baserunner or coach, get better signs. If your signs are for the catcher to call out pitch type and location and the other team “steals” them, can you complain?

I’ve had it up to here with the “unwritten rules” of baseball. While it is against the rules to use electronic equipment to relay signals to players, sign stealing is not outlawed by MLB, which in my mind makes it not only the right but the duty of major league ballplayers to try to steal the opposing team’s signs.

Mick Billmeyer and Shane Victorino are both paid by the Phillies to do one job: help the team win more games. If they don’t exhaust every option available to them within the rules to achieve that end, they’re not doing their jobs.

On ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast Monday, Seth Everett praised Rays manager Joe Maddon for not pinch-hitting or calling a bunt in order to break up Dallas Braden’s perfect game. I think he should be criticized for following the game’s “unwritten rules.” Maddon’s job is to help the Rays win, not to be an accessory to a great story and a historic moment if it costs his team a chance to win. Having not had a baserunner through 7 or 8 innings, Maddon should have tried to get a man on base at any cost.

I can really live without Braden, who, his perfect game notwithstanding, is trying as hard as he can to come off as a class-A nimrod, pitching a fit because A-Rod took the most convenient path back to first base. I think that Braden, by treating us to a hall-of-fame panties-in-a-twist moment over a trivial offense, exhibited worse sportsmanship than A-Rod did by absentmindedly violating a made-up rule that the vast majority of fans didn’t know existed in the first place.

Sign stealing has been part of baseball since the beginning—that’s why we have signs. If it’s okay to try to gain the tactical advantage by deception and surprise, it ought to be okay for the opponent to try to eliminate that edge. Willie Mays was renowned as a legendary sign-stealer—anyone want to talk about his lack of respect for the game?

On Slate magazine’s excellent (and I do mean excellent, I’d recommend downloading it right now) podcast, Hang Up and Listen two weeks ago, Mike Pesca (I’m 90 percent sure it was him and not his NPR colleague Stefan Fatsis, but it was one of the two) suggested that baseball players, because they are not allowed to fight, hit, or throw balls at one another, take out their pent-up aggression by creating and enforcing these elaborate rules. It’s created a sanctimonious culture that mainstream sportswriters, in their ongoing effort to prove to pro athletes that they “get it,” have perpetuated.

Here’s my response. Let’s knock off the bullshit and play baseball. Quit whining about someone stepping on your mound. Don’t like that someone bunted to break up a no-hitter? Throw him out at first. Don’t like that someone’s stealing signs? Rotate to another set.

Here’s the complete list unwritten rules I’d have for players if I were dictator of the world. A major league baseball player should, in this order:

• Try as hard as he can to help his team win through any legal means

• Display good sportsmanship and try not to show up the other players whenever possible. Expressing one’s happiness, excitement, anger, or disappointment is fine, just don’t act like a jackass.

• Have fun and entertain the fans

So while Mick Billmeyer should probably leave his bird-watching glasses home (until the Phils go to St. Louis next—then he can say he was just trying to get a better look at the Cardinals, amirite?), there’s no crying in baseball. I’m not glued to the TV to watch you enforce a heraldic code of chivalry, people. I’m glued to the TV to watch you play some ball.

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