"The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime," by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, provides just what you'd expect. Released this spring, the book (Random House, $25) is a few hundred pages of baseball stories, mostly about grown men getting ticked off at each other for violating the sport's traditions and etiquette.
Of course, there is a lot of gray area in there, like just how lopsided of a game is too lopsided to be stealing bases? Or who is allowed to bunt for a hit when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter? Or who is allowed to even say the words "no-hitter" while the game is in progress?
We've all wondered about these things and had plenty of debates about them, but Turbow and Duca have provided 260 pages worth of opinions from the men in uniform about those sometimes-murky unwritten rules.
(Before I go on, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll mention that Turbow and Duca are members of the San Francisco Bay Area media community, and I've shared the press box with them many times. I even discussed with them a lot of the ideas that wound up in this book, although you wouldn't know by the alarming lack of recognition I got. Anyway, I wouldn't be recomending a book I didn't like, even if I knew the guys who wrote it. I'm not that nice of a person.)
Turbow and Duca spent about six years on this project, interviewing hundreds of major leaguers and combing through loads of other articles and books to get the bottom of some of the issues that surround the way major league baseball is played. What they ended up with was more like two books, which left a lot of material that they are parsing out on a daily basis in their blog. The blog is essentially an ongoing supplement to the book, taking a look at examples of baseball's unwritten rules that crop up every day.
The recent spat between Alex Rodriguez and Dallas Braden was just such an example. Although the rule about not running over the pitcher's mound was a little-known one (so much so that it didn't make it into the book), Turbow was ready with examples from his research within hours of the event.
As for what's in the book, the mouthful of a title pretty much describes it. The first section deals with such on-field issues as running in lopsided games, taking out middle infielders with aggressive slides, slow home-run trots and even how a pitcher should treat his manager when he comes to take him out of the game.
The next section, titled "Retaliation," is the juicy stuff that mostly deals with pitchers throwing at hitters for violations of unwritten rules from the first section.
The section on "Cheating" is one of the most interesting, because that's where a lot of that gray area can be found. Sign stealing, for example. Just about everyone agrees that it's perfectly acceptable for a runner at second to try to discreetly let the hitter know what pitch is coming, but if the other team finds out about it, they are expected to stop or face the consequences.
It gets even more murky when you consider sign-stealing from outside the field. Having someone with binoculars in a center-field scoreboard relaying pitches to his hitters is a no-no, but you'd be surprised at the number of stories of such things that Turbow and Duca unearthed. The 1951 Giants, who are now infamous for using such methods to overtake the Dodgers in the pennant race that ended with Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round the World, are just the tip of the iceberg.
The entire context of the "cheating" section, which also gets into spitballs and corked bats, gives the reader the impression that major leaguers are expected to do whatever it takes to get an edge, whether or not it's within the rules. This quote from former manager George Bamberger is particularly telling:
"We do not play baseball. We play professional baseball. Amateurs play games. We are paid to win games. There are rules, and there are consequences if you break them. If you are a pro, then you often don't decide whether to cheat based on if it's 'right or wrong.' You base it on whether or not you can get away with it, and what the penalty might be. A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor."
Although there was no specific mention anywhere in the book about steroids, I couldn't help but think about that as I read through the sections on cheating and saw all the underhanded methods that all sorts of legendary players used to get an edge. Here is a quote from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, taken from a 1961 magazine article: "I've been in pro baseball since 1914 and I've cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game. You've got to cheat. If I'd played strictly by the rules, I'd have been home feeding my bird dogs a long time ago instead of earning a good living playing baseball for 47 years."
The authors make no attempt to condone or condemn any of the players' actions, from sharpening spikes to throwing beanballs. They simply present, in entertaining detail, hundreds of examples to show you how those who play the game believe it should be played.