There's an ebb and flow to baseball's unwritten rules, much like there's an ebb and flow to the game itself over the course of a game or a season. Weeks can pass with hardly a peep about players disrespecting each other, followed closely by a spate of incidents involving spiteful actions, retaliation and, sometimes, fisticuffs.
Baseball recently hit a sweet spot in this regard, thanks almost single-handedly to
The Washington Nationals' outfielder has been at the center of no fewer than eight Code-based controversies over the past seven days, all of which could have been avoided with a little more cognizance and a little less recklessly wild ego.
"The Code," of course, refers to the moral standards by which players police themselves and each other. They are expected, in this gentleman's game, to avoid running up the score through aggressive means; to handle their business within the context of the team, not the individual; and, above all, to respect each other on the field of play.
I spent nearly five years researching and writing
The more I researched, the more the lines of demarcation became increasingly stark about what is generally acceptable within the boundaries of fair play, and what is not. Never once did I encounter such a blatant spate of disregard for the Code, in such a consistent manner, as that shown by Morgan over recent days.
It was his ill-fated mound charge on Wednesday night (some might also call it ill-considered, given that the 6-foot, 175-pound Morgan had to square up against 6-foot-8, 230-pound Marlins pitcher
Virtually all of it was grounded in the Code. A quick timeline:
In this case, the league quickly levied a seven-game suspension. Morgan, claiming a misunderstanding, has appealed the decision, and at least one fan has
There are two sections of the Code at play here. One says that a runner should only try to take out a catcher when the plate is blocked so sufficiently that a slide would likely lead to an out. Even more importantly is the rule that says to never let personal vendettas get in the way of the team's success. In this case, Morgan's circuitous rout away from the plate was all about inciting violence -- Riggleman posited that Morgan was angry about his demotion, and took it out in any way he could -- and not at all about adding to his team's run total.
Riggleman was angry enough to call his player out in public, after apologizing to both Anderson and Cardinals manager
He then benched Morgan for the series finale, under the auspices that the outfielder had become too prominent a target for the Cardinals to safely take the field.
It's frequently the case, of course, that whenever players feel the need to delineate the fact that they're being "professional," they're actually being anything but. (Code violation: Never call out your manager in public.)
Morgan, in fact, cited the unwritten rules in his own defense, saying that Riggleman "just basically did a cardinal sin. You don't blast your player in the papers."
Unless, of course, his behavior has deteriorated to the point where the manager feels he has few other options.
Unlike his last collision at the plate, Morgan did not go out of his way to reach his target, but consensus held that he would have been safe -- with the go-ahead run, no less -- had he slid. (See previous Code citation about running into catchers. The Marlins then won with a run in the bottom of the frame.)
When he took the field for the bottom of the inning, Morgan again got into it with fans, this time being caught on tape cussing them out. (See previous citation regarding fan interactions.)
Any one of these items can constitute a distraction in the clubhouse. The sum of them, especially coming as they did in the span of a week, reads like the linescore of a borderline sociopath. (Morgan, wrote one poster to a
Which leads us to Wednesday's firestorm.
It didn't take great insight to recognize the target on Morgan's back. The Code mandates retaliation for any borderline slide (in this case clean, but unnecessary) that injures a player.
When Volstad drilled him, it could have ended there. The pitcher went about things properly, hitting Morgan on the waist, and Morgan reacted appropriately, tossing his bat aside and heading to first without a word.
This moment illustrates the true power of baseball's unwritten rules. The Marlins had an ax to grind, they responded in kind, and the situation should have been diffused, allowing both teams to move on.
Key words: "should have."
Morgan, not content to take his punishment sitting still, stole second on Volstad's next pitch, then stole third on the pitch after that. The Nationals were down 14-3 at the time.
One of the prime unwritten rules mandates cessation of aggressive offensive tactics such as stolen bases and sacrifice flies when holding a big lead late in the game. In this case, however, Washington was behind, and it was only the fourth inning. The Code still holds, to a degree, although under ordinary circumstances a player's own teammates care more about him staying put in that situation than does the opposition.
Morgan's steals, however, were a clear message to the Marlins, conveying that he neither appreciated their treatment of him, nor respected their right to do what they did. There was no other way to take it.
"That's the only reason we tried to go after him a second time ..." Marlins third baseman
Just like that, hostilities were reignited.
The next pitch that Morgan saw, in the sixth inning, sailed behind him, and he hesitated for just a moment before charging the mound. At that point, a rarity in baseball occurred -- a fight that involved actual fighting. The Marlins, particularly first baseman
Through the hostility, only one Code-based fight infraction stood out, and it had little to do with Morgan. The first guy on the pile after Morgan and Volstad was Nationals first base coach
Should Morgan be given any sort of pass in this situation, it's for the fact that his response to being drilled -- the stealing of back-to-back bases -- fell within the boundaries of reason; Florida was holding him on, which is frequently taken as a tacit green light for base runners.
Also, even more importantly, the Marlins had taken their shot earlier in the game. Between Morgan's steals and the injury to his catcher, Volstad can hardly be blamed for wanting to get in another blow -- but Morgan's assumption that it was one too many is not unreasonable. In the middle of the fight, Riggleman could be seen mouthing the words "one time" to Florida manager
"I understand they had to get me back a little bit," said Morgan to the media. "It's part of the game ... I guess they took it the wrong way. He hit me the first time, so be it. But he hit two other of our guys?" (Volstad did indeed hit three batters on the day.) "All right, cool. But then he whips another one behind me, we got to go. I'm just sticking up for myself and just defending my teammates. I'm just going out there and doing what I have to do."
Doing what he had to do, of course, is up for interpretation. Saying that there's a case to be made for his viewpoint on one of the incidents leading up to the fight is far from saying that the guy has not been wildly, unassailably, dangerously out of line for the better part of a week.
When it's a leadoff hitter with a .317 on-base percentage, who led the league in being caught stealing last year and is on the way to doing it again, the margins are considerably tighter.
Watch out, Nyjer Morgan. There aren't many people in your corner right about now.