Tim Kurkjian Writes About Baseball's Unwritten Rules

Download Audio
In baseball, those who disrespect the game are punished in a particular fashion... (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
In baseball, those who disrespect the game are punished in a particular fashion... (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Tim Kurkjian is one of the country’s most experienced and respected baseball writers. But long before he joined ESPN, back when he was following the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Star, Tim broke one of the game’s unwritten rules.

"I rode on the Orioles’ team bus in 1980 once, and I just sat in the first seat that was available, which was Earl Weaver’s — the manager’s — seat on the bus," Tim recalls. "And I had one of my veteran writers say, “Tim, you’re not sitting there. Nobody sits there except for the manager.”

Tim didn’t know he’d broken one of baseball’s unwritten rules. How could he have known? The rule was unwritten.

Baseball's Unspoken Etiquette

There’s considerable disagreement about the particulars of some of those rules, but players learn early that it’s bad form to bunt in an attempt to break up a no-hitter. Lots of pitchers regard the mound as territory that belongs exclusively to them, so woe to the hitter who gets thrown out at first and runs across the pitcher’s mound on his way back to the third base dugout.

Tim Kurkjian says nobody knows when the first of baseball’s unwritten rules was invoked, or who did it, or even what it was. But over time, one general principle has emerged at the center of the mysterious particulars. That principle gets passed down from veterans to rookies, whether the veterans and rookies are players or sportswriters. It goes something like this:

"Well, if you as a player do anything to disrespect another player or another team or the game, you are going to pay for it, one way or another," Tim says.

Really? Does that mean an opposing player who feels he’s been disrespected might poison the disrespecter’s Wheaties? Or scratch the guy’s name off the lineup card?

The answer, according to Tim Kurkjian, is no. The consequence of breaking an unwritten rule is simpler than that, less sneaky, and more painful. He illustrates his point with a story:

"So, many years ago, Ed Farmer was a relief pitcher, and Wayne Gross was a pedestrian hitter, and Gross hit a home run off of Ed Farmer. And he took his sweet time running around the bases, and Ed Farmer was just furious at Wayne Gross," Tim says. "So he vowed, 'I’m gonna get back at that guy.' But the problem is, being a reliever and the other guy being just an ordinary player, he didn’t face him again for three years. And at that time, three years later, he was his teammate.

"So in the first batting practice of spring training one year, Ed Farmer hit Wayne Gross right in the back with a 90 mph fastball during batting practice as teammates. So Wayne Gross looks at Ed Farmer and screams at him, 'What was that for?!' And Ed Farmer said, 'That was for three years ago!' And Wayne Gross said, 'OK, we’re even now.'"

The unwritten rule rules. And according to Tim, who’s collected stories about this phenomenon, three years … that ain’t nothin’.

"Stan Williams was a pitcher in the big leagues, and a pretty good one for a long time. And he used to carry a list of names in his cap during games," Tim says. "Someone asked him once, 'What are those names for?' And he goes, 'Oh, those are the guys I have to get.' And he said, 'Why do you keep them in your cap?' And he said, 'So I don’t ever forget any of them.' And the same Stan Williams, I just recently learned, actually hit a guy on purpose in an-old timers' game because he never had a chance to 'get' him during their regular season career. Only in baseball, Bill."

"Well, if you as a player do anything to disrespect another player or another team or the game, you are going to pay for it, one way or another."

New Tools For Disrespect

Maybe so. But even in baseball, times change. Or at least technology does. The bats are still made of wood, of course, and the ball will always be hard enough so that when you get hit with a pitch, it’ll hurt. But today’s Major Leaguers have at their fingertips tools to express their disrespect that Tim Kurkjian couldn’t have imagined back in 1980, when he sat in Earl Weaver’s seat on that bus:

"Adam Dunn, who used to play in the Major Leagues, told me that someday somebody is going to take out his cell phone out of his pocket, and he is going to text somebody as he’s running around the bases on a home run and say, 'Hey, I’m running around the bases right now! I just went deep in a Major League game!' Adam Dunn said, 'I just hope I’m not even alive when that happens, because I won’t be able to take anything like that.'"

I’m with Adam Dunn on that one. Though the transgression would seem to call for response more creative than plunking the cell phone guy the next time he came to the plate, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t the more creative pitcher sabotage the batter’s fantasy team by stealing his password and dropping all the good players? Or maybe by texting the hitter’s credit card number to everyone on the team and inviting them to go shopping?

Nah, Tim’s probably got it right. Next time that hitter came up, the pitcher would probably hit him … right in the pocket where he kept that cell phone.

You can learn more about baseball’s unwritten rules in Tim Kurkjian’s new book, "I’m Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies."

This segment aired on October 1, 2016.


Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live