Unwritten rules are like buzzwords and fashion: they die slow deaths. It takes generations. Rangers manager Chris Woodward is 44 years old and broke into the big leagues in 1999. Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. is 21 and broke into the big leagues in 2019.
The intersection of how they learned to play baseball made for controversy Monday. Tatís swung at a 3-and-0 cookie with the bases loaded with his team up by seven runs in the eighth inning. Woodward grimaced at the audacity of it.
Neither one is wrong. I loved Woodward’s response: “The norms are being challenged on a daily basis, so–just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right.”
Don’t make Woodward out to be some “get-off-my-lawn” baseball traditionalist. He understands a game with more home runs than ever before and a game that needs to sell its entertainment value, not just the beauty of the sport, is changing.
The rules of engagement are this: always hustle, and don’t do anything to intentionally insult your opponent. Competing is not an insult. If you are in the batter’s box, you are competing. The pitcher on the mound with the baseball in his hand is competing. This is Big Boy baseball. I’d be more insulted if an opponent pitied me and stopped trying.
In Woodward’s day, players deferred more to the scoreboard. The game was played very differently with a big lead. Not every game was televised. Not everybody was blasting opposite field home runs. Not every game was reduced to a highlight or meme shared on social media.
Here’s how unusual was Tatís's grand slam. Since pitch data has been available since 1988, nobody had ever hit a 3-0 pitch for a grand slam in the seventh inning or later with his team ahead by four runs or more. The Padres were up, 10-3.
Ah, but it’s not as if somebody didn’t try to do what Tatís did. It’s the wonder of baseball: just about every time you think you see something new, there is a historical thread somewhere in this big crazy quilt of a game.
On August 15, 1996, the Baltimore Orioles led the Oakland A’s 10-3 in the eighth inning. The bases were loaded. Oakland rookie pitcher Jay Witasick began the inning thusly: home run, walk, single, single. Up stepped Rafael Palmeiro, who already had a home run, single and three RBI in the game. Witasick fell behind, 3-and-0.
Palmeiro was sitting at the exact same juncture Tatís faced: Up 10-3, eighth inning, 3-and-0 count, already with a home run in the game. And Palmeiro, 24 years ago, made the same decision Tatís did: He tried to hit a home run.
Only he failed. Palmeiro popped up to third base.
The next batter, Bobby Bonilla, knocked in two runs with a single. Baltimore won, 18-5.
The next day news accounts in the San Francisco and Baltimore newspapers made no mention of Palmeiro swinging on 3-and-0 with his team up by seven in the eighth inning. That’s something else that has changed: In a world full of shouting every reaction must be cranked up to 10 in volume.
In 32 years of pitch data, those are the only two instances in which a batter put a 3-and-0 pitch into play with the bases loaded and his team up by more than five runs in the seventh inning or later. Palmeiro and Tatís. That’s it.
It’s a good bet it won’t be 24 years before it happens again. Chris Woodward doesn’t have to like it, but he understands it.