Reading the Unwritten

Last week, the LA Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks got into a tiff. The fight was instigated by Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy (who, by the way, has a history of hitting batters) and Dodger's starter Zack Greinke (who, by the way, broke his collarbone in a fight he instigated in April). You can read about the whole thing here, but the result was a bench-clearing brawl that got twelve players and managers suspended and/or fined.

What is most interesting to me about the whole ordeal is that the brawl didn't result from the hitting of batters (which happens not infrequently), but the so-called "unwritten rules" about hitting batters. ESPN's Jayson Stark has a really nice analysis, that details the two understandings. Basically, it boils down to three things:

  1. The Diamondbacks knew Greinke was going to try to hit Kennedy in retaliation for Kennedy's earlier plunked batter, but
  2. He tried multiple times, which was a no-no, and
  3. The Dodgers didn't think taking multiple tries was a no-no

This type of thing is shockingly common in baseball. Not just the hitting of batters, but the mis-understanding of the "unwritten rules." Last year, in the same weekend, Jamie Moyer hit Chipper Jones (in Jones' last season), and Cole Hamels hit Bryce Harper (in Harper's first season). Both rules simultaneously followed and broke the "unwritten rules," which Tim Keown calls The Code. The moral is, the unwritten rules exist, but everyone has a slightly different copy.

Myth and Ceremony, Inhabited

Tim Hallet and Marc Ventresca's 2006 Theory and Society article (JStor link), helps us understand why this might be the case. In a nutshell, the accepted sociological view is that organizations (in this case, teams) all follow the same set of normative codes (institutions, or, in this case, the unwritten rules).

This type of thing is shockingly common in baseball. Not just the hitting of batters, but the mis-understanding of the "unwritten rules."

However, in their article, Hallet and Ventresca argue that organizations (teams) actually interpret and apply institutions (the unwritten rules) differently, based on local-level (team-level) interaction. The written rules have different meanings or applications based on their context. Thus, the same set of written rules (a hit batter takes a free base) can be interpreted and applied in a number of similar, albeit not identical ways. The Dodgers/Diamondbacks situation illustrates this perfectly. In that case, a hit batter meant the same thing to everyone ("payback"), but was applied and carried out differently by different people. To the Dodgers, payback was payback, no matter how many tries it took. To the Diamondbacks, you only got one shot at payback, and trying four times was in bad taste. Similar meaning, different style of application.

What interesting is that these code breaches do two things. First, they solidify team bonding, because they reinforce the local-level standards. But, organization theory says, somewhat ironically, they also reinforce the bond between all players following the code. In other words, even though the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks have different styles of unwritten-rule following, they both have an unwritten rule book, which includes retaliatory pitching. Furthermore, this unwritten rulebook is exclusive to Major League Baseball, and thus unifying to its members. So now, the next time you're thinking about baseball, you'll have something to think about thinking about baseball.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user marttj.