A Year in Essays - 4/24/2022: Unwritten Rules


A lot of talk about unwritten rules in sports lately. I have to laugh about the hypocritical purity of anyone talking about the “gentle” arts of professional sport. We are long past the time when we can pretend that pro sports are about anything but making the most money possible and the way to do that is dominance.

The latest great offence comes from the SF Giants of MLB. In a game against the Washington Nationals where the Giants entered the ninth inning trailing 1-0, they proceeded to score six runs to take a commanding lead. Their crime against the “unwritten rules?” At 6-1 up, the base runner on first dared to steal second and then to try to score on a single before being thrown out at the plate. How dare the Giants try to “run up the score” like that? The unwritten rule is that they should have… what? Stopped trying to score during a big rally? Tipped their caps with a hearty, “Well, we have ours, gentleman. No need to make you feel bad about the whole thing?” The Giants had just proven that a team can score a lot of runs in an inning and the Nationals had another at bat to go. Why would they have taken their foot off the proverbial brake?

The thing about unwritten rules is that they presuppose a kind of give-and-take that doesn’t exist anymore if it ever did. I doubt Ty Cobb would have declined to steal that base. Heck, he would have gone up spikes high even if his team were up 12-1. Look at Pete Rose, the Great Competitor, destroying catcher Ray Fosse in a meaningless All-Star Game. These players would say you play, or you don’t. There is no concept of going easy. And this was before a time when an extra stolen base or run scored may be worth millions of dollars for the player.

Sports is controlled cheating. The reason we have rules is that teams cannot be trusted to do the right thing without them. Doubt that fact? Try playing a game of pickup basketball sometime. The best sportsmanship we can expect or hope for is that at the end of the day, no matter how rough the going is, the two sides line up and shake hands. Even at the professional level, it’s just a game. Somehow, though, I don’t think the Nationals will be shaking hands with the Giants anytime soon.


A Year in Essays - 4/9/22: Cricket Calls

Let’s talk some cricket – four words I never thought I’d say. Cricket is my new fascination, having discovered a channel on my cable package that shows the sport (or commentary about it) 24 hours a day.

In point of fact, my fascination goes back much further. In 1978, freshly scrubbed and graduated from high school, I traveled to Scotland and England with my brother for the only boys out vacation of our lives (not strictly true, we had a short jaunt to Pittsburgh for a baseball game much later). It was June, so the British weather was spotty at best. There were a few pleasant days – our jaunt to Cambridge was sunny and bright, but for the most part we faced the bracing English (and Scottish) mist for much of our time abroad. For museum and bookstore folks like David and me, it was no big deal. Contrary to the old song, in foggy London town, the British Museum had not lost its charm. But on one foul day, it was too rainy even for that esteemed institution, so we stayed in our hotel room, munching pork pies and drinking orange squash. English television was (and remains) a mystery, and the only remotely captivating event I could find was a cricket Test Match – the English national side against someone (I don’t remember whom). England were batting and seemed, to my limited knowledge to be doing well. I settled down as David read and dozed, intent on learning the rules of this mysterious game.

I knew cricket existed because I had British and Indian friends, and I was obsessed with the Avengers (the British spy show, not the Marvel superheroes) and other British TV. But all I knew before was the shape of the bat and the ball and a rough idea of the layout of the field. It was no easy task to piece together the language and the rules of a game jumping midway into a broadcast meant for aficionados. What is an inning? What is an over? Why do the batters (‘batsmen’) run sometimes and not others? Why are some hits worth six points and some four? Why does the bowler (I got that term quickly) change out every few balls – six, as it turns out? Why does he sometimes raise his hands in triumph when nothing appears to have happened? I did fairly well in the four or so hours spent on that gloomy day. It helped that I had a hero to catch my eye – legendary all-rounder Ian Botham was just rounding into form and that day he hit for over 100 runs before looping a ball in the air and being caught out. By now, I had lost interest, David was restless, and the rain had abated enough for us to go outside in search of entertainment.

That was the last I had thought of the sport except for occasional exposures (the T20 World Cup Cricket was being played on Eurosport when we cruised to Austria and Hungary not long ago, so I caught a few short-form matches). Now suddenly, Cricket is a daily presence. My original interpretations of the rules were actually quite good (for a neophyte) and I’ve honed a lot more of the information. I can speak intelligently about batmen’s production rates, about extras and ‘no-balls’, about bowlers’ efficiency. I can even tell you a bit about strategy, although I’ve yet to learn the fielding positions. Those come next.

But every time I see the batsmen set in his (or her – I love the women’s game!) crease and the bowler makes his run-up, I think back to that gloomy hotel room, rain pouring outside, a small television crackling, Ian Botham swaggering, and my brother fussing in the background.