From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “Are Unwritten Rules Unethical?”

unwritten rules

The short answer is “No,” but the context of the question is fascinating, because it’s an example of the problem with unwritten rules generally. Unwritten rules are cultural norms, that’s all, and all cultures have them. They serve as manners, social balms and traditions that fill in the inevitable gaps and loopholes that formal, written rules inevitably leave uncovered. But cultures evolve, and extreme situations create exemptions where cultural norms no longer make sense.

No culture has more so-called unwritten rules than baseball, and this situation from two days ago triggered the question.

With the Chicago White Sox, currently with the best record in baseball, were ahead of the pathetic Minnesots Twins 15-4. The Twins, not wanting to waste a real pitcher on a blwo-out, turned to utility infielder Willians Astudillo to face the ChiSox in the final inning. Throwing a the classic “nothing ball” that most non-pitchers bring to the mound in such situations, Astudillo retired the first two batters but fell behind 3-0 to White Sox catcher Yermin Mercedes. On the next pitch, a lob to get the ball over the plate, Mercedes swung away blasted the 47 mph toss out of the ball parkfor a 16-4 lead.

The Twins broadcasters and many of the Twins players were offended, saying that Mercedes had breached the unwritten rule that says players shouldn’t try to “show up” the losing team in a rout. You don’t steal bases, you don’t sacrifice, and you don’t swing away at an “eephus pitch” to get a cheap home run. It’s essentially a Golden Rule based unwritten rule, though when it applies is a matter of dispute. Baseball teams have made up some very large deficits through the decades: a win is never a sure thing no matter what the score. Eleven runs, however, is certainly a big enough gap to make the rule relevant: the odds against a comeback are astronomical.

On the other hand, players are paid according to their statistics. Mercedes’ homer off of a non-pitcher will look the same in the record books as if Jacob DeGrom had thrown the ball.

But wait…there’s more! In the next game, an eventual 5-4 Minnesota win,Twins manager Rocco Baldelli andT wins reliever Tyler Duffey were ejected (they will also be fined and suspended) after Duffey threw a fastball behind Mercedes in retaliation for the “unwritten rule” breach. Baldelli, following the usual script, swore that the pitch was an accident, and that it was just a coincidence that his reliever scared the hell out of the same player who hit the controversial home run the previous night.

Then White Sox manager Tony La Russa announced that he agreed with the Twins throwing at his player, because Mercedes had broken an unwritten rule! This, in turn, was also an unwritten rule. Managers must not criticize their own players in public, and never, ever endorse the opposing team throwing at one of them. (I’ve never heard of any manager doing this.)

The White Sox did not take LaRussa’s violation well. Chicago pitcher Lance Lynn tweeted, “If a position player is on the mound, there are no rules. Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”


Unwritten rules are ethical if:

  • Everybody knows what they are
  • They have a legitimate purpose
  • It is understood that as there are always exceptions where written rules don’t apply, there are exceptions where unwritten rules don’t apply,
  • Everyone pays attention to the evolving nature of the culture involved, and
  • It is understood that unwritten rules exist to make a culture more reasonable and rational. If an unwritten rule doesn’t accomplish that, then the rule should be revoked.


Pointer: JutGory

7 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “Are Unwritten Rules Unethical?”

  1. You’ve done it to me again! Just as I was ready — 34ths of the way in on this post — to chastise you about certain unethical elements of unwritten rules and the Twins/White Sox debacle, you close with a 5-point list of how/when unwritten rules can be ethical. Blast you, anyway…

  2. Lance Lynn is with the White Sox, not the Twins (at least, today).

    Frankly, I kind of agree with Lynn. Yeah, you don’t kick someone when they are down, but you gotta put a pitcher on the mound.

    As for unwritten rules, perhaps the worst is the role of the Enforcer in Hockey. It might satisfy all of your points for unwritten rules, but I don’t like it. Enforcers keep people in line and protect players.

    That is why fighting is part of hockey.

    Closest analogy in baseball might be charging the mound.


  3. From today’s WSJ:

    Baseball Debates: Does Swinging on a 3-0 Pitch Threaten Civilization as We Know It?
    Some call it old-fashioned courtesy for a struggling opponent. Hitters want to hit.

    Baseball is always good for a few comically overwrought controversies per season, and the brouhaha of the moment concerns the Chicago White Sox, and whether or not rookie Yermin Mercedes desecrated the sport—or, perhaps, the entirety of human civilization—when he smacked a home run on a droopy 3-0 pitch from a utility player during a blowout win over the Minnesota Twins.

    Reactions to this appear to fall into two categories. The first reaction is, essentially, a shoulder shrug: He’s a hitter. I thought he was supposed to hit. If you don’t want him to hit, throw a better pitch. This was the reaction of some notable Major League ballplayers who supported Mercedes, including some of his White Sox teammates, as well as the 2020 National League Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer of the Dodgers, who tweeted: Dear hitters: If you hit a 3-0 homer off me, I will not consider it a crime.

    The counter reaction is: Look, this is about sportsmanship—the White Sox were cruising to victory, let the pitcher try to throw a strike, there’s no need to rub it in by bashing a garbage-time homer. This is, interestingly, the position of the White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who criticized his own player for an unlicensed 3-0 hack, and wasn’t fazed the next night, when a Twins hurler appeared to retaliate by throwing a pitch that sailed behind Mercedes’s back. “I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that,” the 76-year-old Chicago skipper said.

    (It might not rate well in our conflict-driven economy, but there’s also a third, decaffeinated take somewhere in the middle. It’s possible to think that 3-0 home runs in blowouts are a bit tacky, but also to have been thoroughly amused by Mercedes’s meaningless moonshot versus Minny. Complaining about home runs starts to sound like complaining about pizza.).

    As always, a sense of proportion is useful. If baseball players continue to swing at 3-0 pitches in blowouts, I don’t believe we’re going to wake up one morning, and the moon will have replaced the sun, the rivers and oceans will be filled with Mountain Dew and fire, and all the neighborhood dogs will be driving around in cherry red Camaros, cranking Meatloaf.

    I really don’t think that’s going to happen.

    But such is the habitual, growing tension over baseball’s “unwritten rules,” an assemblage of codes and edicts that provokes a few old school vs. new school feuds per year and fuels at least 4,000 hours of throaty sports talk show debate.

    If you follow baseball, you know there are all sorts of these unwritten rules. You’re not supposed to hit a home run and plod slowly around the base paths, it shows up the pitcher. You’re also not supposed to steal bases with a big lead; that’s also considered rubbing it in. You shouldn’t try to bunt when a pitcher’s deep into a no-hitter; it’s shabby. On it goes. Traditionally, these rules are enforced with baseball’s favored frontier justice: a fastball thrown near or at the offender during his next time at the plate…

      • Back in the day (my day) players were much more likely to tolerate, even support and expect, the unwritten rules, the playground justice, this episode typifies. That may well have something to do with the fact that in my day playing baseball was more a down-and-dirty, blue collar profession, often paying less than $10,000 a year, while now a risk of injury means endangering a career that pays more than that per game. In 2019 Max Scherzer earned $1.3 million per game pitched.

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