There’s something delightfully hardcore in the earliest key example of a professional baseball game played under protest.
In Game 2 of the 1885 World Series—before it was really the World Series, before there was even an American League, but still, in its early form, the World Series—down by one run in the sixth inning, Charles Comiskey’s St. Louis Browns felt that the umpire made an unfair call against them. So Comiskey threatened to simply pull his men off the field. They weren’t going to play, not like this, not under this ump making these calls. It worked. The call was reversed, and the game went on … until the ninth, which saw another bad call against the Browns. This time, Comiskey made good on his threat. He yanked his team off the field.
Which, by comparison, makes modern protests look decidedly stuffy and toothless. There’s no chance of a team coming off the field. There’s no threat to stop playing, let alone anyone gutsy enough to actually make good on one. A game played under protest looks exactly the same as any other. There’s no functional or technical or aesthetic difference. There’s only a principled one—”principled” used loosely, as it’s rarely framed as anything defending the integrity of the game or the rulebook or any other institution. It’s usually much more basic than that. It’s usually, “I do not like this, I am mad, I am right, you are wrong, let the record show it.” These are the principles behind the protest (“protest”), and it is very seldom more than this. Which is fine! Those, indeed, are principles. And they’re all that is needed for the manager to tell the ump that he believes him to be wrong and is not going to stop the game, is not going to make a big fuss, but is going to play—under—protest. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the foot-stomping of an aggrieved teen, or the let-me-talk-to-your-supervisor of a huffy customer. The stakes may not always be particularly high, but they feel high, and, anyway, it’s not so much about the stakes anymore. It’s about the principle. I do not like this, I am mad, I am right, you are wrong, let the record show it.
The protest is not always purely performative, of course. It can lead to something. It just usually doesn’t. There have been 15 successfully upheld protests in major league history—first in a weird incident involving fans using their straw hats to distract hitters in 1913, most notably in the pine tar game in 1983, and most recently after a poorly handled weather delay in 2014. These, however, have been few and far between.
Alex Cora’s protest on Wednesday does not seem likely to join them. The Boston Red Sox manager grew frustrated in the eighth inning of today’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, as he watched a series of swaps made by opposing skipper Kevin Cash. The frame began with Rays lefty reliever Adam Kolarek retiring the Red Sox’s Sam Travis. With right-handed Mookie Betts up next, though, Cash wanted to have a righty on the mound. But he didn’t want to yank Kolarek, as there was another lefty behind Betts. So Cash pulled his first baseman, moved Kolarek over to 1B, and called to bring in righty reliever Chaz Roe. He retired Betts, and Kolarek came back to the mound to finish the inning.
This isn’t the first time that Cash has pulled something like this—remember watching Sergio Romo play 3B? Or Jose Alvarado at first?—and while it’s not an especially common move, it’s certainly not unheard of. (If it sounds like a loosely retooled version of the Waxahachie Swap, it is.) It’s all perfectly legal, so long as the team gives up its designated hitter when the pitcher leaves the mound to play a fielding position. But Cora wasn’t immediately sure that Cash had done this, and so he came out to talk to the crew chief, Angel Hernandez … and 20 minutes of conversation later, there was plenty of turmoil and a game under protest.
Cora’s protest, like most, seems rooted more in confusion and frustration than in any specific reading of the rules. It’s simply the principle of the thing—but, then again, what else do you need?