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Baseball’s old-fashioned unwritten rules hold back the modern game

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Dave Martinez seemed to be lamenting the end of something sacred. There were no clouds inside the Washington Nationals media room on Saturday afternoon, so Martinez wasn’t yelling at them. He didn’t take a sip of prune juice before starting a back in my day rant and never warned fellow manager Gabe Kapler and the San Francisco Giants to leave his lawn.

But when asked how he felt about competitive baseball, Martinez ended with what sounded like a resignation. The major leagues no longer quite resemble the game he burst into decades ago, when Martinez was hailed by mentor Joe Maddon for playing The right way.

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time, but the game has changed. So obviously [the Giants] do things differently,” Martinez said.

He was referring to how San Francisco recently flaunted baseball’s unspoken rules. Sigh, these rules.

Next to Grandpa’s booze and a Bing Crosby record lie the leather-bound volumes of baseball’s imaginary rules: hit a home run, then run robotically around the bases. If your team is big late in the game and you get a pitch to hit on a 3-0 count, you better keep that bat on your shoulder. And as an additional article to this last rule, once the lead exceeds the eighth inning, stop competing all together.

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The weird thing about those books that rule a game so rigidly and can fill shelves upon shelves? The pages are blank. Nobody took the time to write these rules. If you know, you know. And yet, if teams or players decide to play by their own rules — as the Giants did in the ninth inning Friday night when infielder Thairo Estrada aggressively tried to add another run to their lead 7-1 – offended parties are allowed to fuss and yell and act like they’ve just dissolved their mom.

This particular rule is somewhere in the empty book, too.

Martinez knows the game is changing. But because these rules persist, it’s not changing fast enough. Even as baseball attempts to stomp into 2022 by marketing shape-shifting stars like Shohei Ohtani or future MVPs like Juan Soto, the game has firmly planted the other in the 90s — the 1890s.

Have you ever watched ball players before a match? Beyond the ropes and seemingly in a fantasy world, their hobbies are enviable. They never seem to be in a hurry. They take it easy and perform the same warm-up routines they used to as Kiwanis Club Little Leaguers. They make boredom glorious.

Yet during the actual game, under the heat of a lazy, bright sun, these summer boys can sometimes get tense, chained to last century rules and undermine the thrill of competition.

During all his years in the majors, Alcides Escobar is considered an infield veteran. But in real life, he is only 35 years old. He should never be mistaken for a grumpy old man, but he was there Friday night yelling at the Giants dugout after Estrada tried to play the game to the Finals. Estrada was sent off, which should have been fair enough, but that didn’t appease Escobar. He had to defend the rules.

After the match, Martinez only shared terse phrases about Estrada’s dashing play. But the next morning, tempers cooled, he explained his philosophy of playing with a big lead late in the game.

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“We will not try to increase the score. I’ll just say that. I don’t really believe it. But you know, it’s not a rule. We all understand that. But guys who’ve played the game long enough – and I know their veteran players [over] there very well; I respect them a lot,” Martinez said as a smile crept in. “You might want to ask them about it.”

Five years ago, when Martinez buttoned up a Nationals jersey over a dress shirt and red tie as the new manager, he was hailed for his old-school mentality. He even dropped the names of the elders he learned from, being proud of those lessons.

“I had really good teachers back then,” Martinez said in 2017. “I learned to play the game the right way.”

These professors probably gave him his tattered opus of the rules. But nowhere in this book is a baseball team told to stop hitting at all costs because the Nationals certainly didn’t in their July 2018 rout of the New York Mets. They won a laugh, 25-4, and had no mercy on the Mets when infielder Jose Reyes took the mound. Instead, they showed respect: When Reyes threw big, juicy, greasy steaks on the plate, the Nats ate. When a professional is on the mound, you don’t treat him like a reject from junior college. You keep knocking.

Also, the unwritten rulebook doesn’t say anything like returns should be prohibited.

While a comeback like the Nationals needed on Friday rarely happens, when it does, the achievement can be a historic footnote in a championship season. No one who was around Nationals Park on September 3, 2019 will ever forget that night, when Washington scored seven runs in the ninth to beat the New York Mets, 11-10. Perhaps the Mets should have continued to pile on top of that frame to prevent the Nationals from making the biggest ninth-inning comeback or later in franchise history. Or maybe they were too busy following the rules.

There was no magic like that here for the Nationals on Saturday when the Giants won Game 2 of the series, 5-2. The final score was reasonable, so luckily no rules were broken. Instead, thousands of fans showed up, soaked up the sun, relaxed and had a good time cheering on their 6-11 baseball team.

Certainly, for many of those fans who fell in love with the game as children, the allure of baseball may be a nod and nod to simpler times. But for those of us in the stands who have moved on and continue to expect progress, baseball remains held back by the governance of rules that don’t make sense.