Apparently there are certain times when flipping a baseball bat is acceptable and certain times when it is not.
It's discerning the subtle difference between the two that highlights Major League Baseball's dual system of governance that relies on both written and unwritten rules.
Unfortunately, past negligence in managing the game's integrity through the official rule book has produced an environment that now supports verbal and physical intimidation to enforce the game's growing number of unwritten rules.
Unlike the NFL, which uses targeted, well-articulated rules to legislate behavior in professional football, the governing body in baseball appears to believe that a more laissez-faire system is more efficient, despite its propensity for misinterpretation.
During a game between the Brewers and Pirates on April 20, Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez flipped his bat out of frustration while watching what he thought would be a routine fly ball carom off the outfield wall for an extra-base hit.
Rather than simply proceeding with the game, Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole decided to berate Gomez for what he believed to be a showboating move by the Brewers' star outfielder.
The result of the heated exchange between Gomez and Cole was a bench-clearing brawl that saw three players ejected—two from the Brewers and one from the Pirates.
A key element in this situation obviously revolves around the judgement call made by the two teams in interpreting the intent of Gomez in flipping his bat. And if you doubt how imperceptible Gomez's action was, look no further than the response by the television announcer who asked during the scuffle, "What prompted this?"
Clearly, even this veteran sports announcer hadn't seen anything wrong with the actions of Gomez until a frustrated pitcher decided to let his emotions get the best of him over a trivial matter.
How, in fact, can the motive of a bat flip be accurately deciphered by merely observing the motion?
Gomez struck the ball perfectly for the purposes of this analysis because his hit could easily have been a home run, an extra-base hit or a fly out—and the difference between those three unique outcomes was separated by only a few inches.
It's impossible to say which perception of intent was truly correct, because each was ultimately dependent on an unknown future outcome.
Had the ball indeed left the yard, would the Pirate players have bit their tongues while Gomez rounded the bases because flipping the bat in that situation is acceptable?
This situation is a perfect example of how MLB has failed to successfully legislate the rules in their sport, leaving an environment that is too often characterized by uncertainty. The entire episode takes on an even more troubling complexion when one considers the subsequent suspensions issued by MLB.
Somehow, Carlos Gomez received a longer suspension than the two players, Travis Snider and Russell Martin from the Pirates, that ran out to physically confront him. Amazingly, Gerrit Cole, the player that verbally instigated the fight in the first place, wasn't suspended at all!
Misguided suspensions such as these arguably perpetuate an already dysfunctional culture in the league with regards to the gray area of unwritten rules.
In assessing these penalties, MLB has basically decreed that breaking an unwritten rule of the game is a more serious offense than verbally or physically trying to enforce the rule through intimidation after the fact.
This judicial process also completely ignores the central issue, which is that the interpretation of the purported offense was completely subjective in the first place.
The hypocrisy comes into play when one considers that MLB spends a great deal of time addressing its supposed desire to remove brawling from the game. Anthony Witrado of Sporting News reported that MLB senior vice president of public relations Pat Courtney said of the subject, "We do not support brawls and speak to on-field personnel each year to discuss the issue. Brawls are against our rules and there are repercussions for those who are involved in them."
The heart of the contradiction is the fact that MLB claims it is against brawling, but it then issues lighter suspensions to those players that instigate brawls versus players that flip bats at the "wrong" time (i.e. break unwritten rules of the game).
MLB representatives would likely argue that Gomez and teammate Martin Maldonado were given heavier suspensions because they threw punches during the melee. In the case of Maldonado this may be accurate, but in the case of Gomez the question becomes a lot foggier.
Gomez was confronted by hostile members of the Pirates and did nothing to instigate the situation. His actions could easily be labeled self-defense.
Those instigating the formation of an aggressive mob should be punished to an equal, if not greater, degree than the player who is perceived to have broken an unwritten and mostly trivial "rule."
By punishing the instigators to at least an equal degree, the league would have a much better chance of snuffing out future brawls.
If this were the NFL, the league would probably just implement a rule that resulted in a 15-yard penalty and associated fine anytime a player flipped a bat. Problem solved. This action would also remove subjectivity from the equation and would correspondingly reduce the need for players to self-arbitrate the game.
The poorly timed bat flip is only one example many other unwritten rules in baseball that are often addressed through intimidation. All of which fall under the general umbrella of playing baseball "the right way." The latter quote being a popular phrase used in the sport to imply that a player or team follows not only the written rules of the game but the unwritten ones as well.
The fact is the league could probably govern its sport a lot more effectively if it incorporated all the rules deemed critical into the actual rule book.
That rational and relatively straight-forward approach would not only ensure that the game is played "the right way" on its own, but it would also remove the need for verbal or physical aggression on the part of the players as a method of enforcement.
Likewise, if a rule isn't deemed important enough to be a part of the official rule book, that particular action should not be targeted by a player or group of players that don't believe a certain behavior matches their personal vision of how the game should be played.
The same type of approach works for pitchers that throw near the head. Subjective interpretation should be removed from these situations, and any pitcher locating a pitch near a batter's head should be immediately removed from the game.
A pitcher that does so on purpose is arguably dangerous to the same degree as one that does so because of control issues. Both examples represent a threat to player safety and should be removed from the field of play.
Until leaders in professional baseball clean up these and other inconsistencies, there will continue to be periodic episodes in which differing interpretations of unwritten rules result in unnecessary violence. This is especially the case if those that break the unwritten rules are dished stiffer penalties than the vigilante-like players seeking to mete out "justice."
The current commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, is set to retire in January of 2015. One can only hope that this long-tenured baseball executive will initiate a movement to address these pervasive issues before he departs from the sport.
Otherwise, it might be a very long time before we see any progress on this urgent initiative as a rookie commissioner would likely be far less equipped to handle such complex and deeply embedded issues.