When Pablo Sandoval was hung high yesterday for his sin of Instagramming from the bathroom mid-game, those who found the whole thing ridiculous were treated to the same explanation time and again:
He broke the rules.
This is true. Pablo Sandoval broke both a team rule and a Major League Baseball rule by using social media during game time. In fact, players aren't even supposed to be on their phones starting 30 minutes before game time.
How many players do you think follow that rule? How many do you think come close? How many can say they spend their time in the bathroom staring at the stall walls without ever sneaking a peek at Twitter or Facebook or their emails or any of a million other things? How many managers care? How many would punish a player if he overheard him mentioning to a teammate he just got a text?
When it comes down to it, the difference between Sandoval's case and a thousand others that happen during the season is visibility. Ken Rosenthal hits the nail on the head here:
Whatever intent of MLB regulations, when you "like" someone on Instagram, it’s like smothering pine tar on your arm. Too obvious to ignore.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) June 18, 2015
The problem is that when a situation like this pops up there are too many appeals to "the rules," and too few people wondering why these are rules in the first place. Both in the "foreign substances" and social media cases, nobody is really going to deny that it happens. People aren't particularly upset that it does, either, as far as I can tell. But for some reason it becomes a problem when players don't do their part to uphold the charade. When the rule itself is less important than the appearance of the rule, that's a good sign that the rule is neither important, nor necessary.
So why do we still have these rules? The explanation tends to rely on extremes. If we don't have a rule against foreign substances, players will start beating the ball up so badly we'll enter another dead ball era. If we don't have a rule against social media, players will spend all game on their phones.
But this is less reductio ad absurdum than it is the slippery slope fallacy. Yes, if players are allowed to use their phones, they'll be more blatant about it. But it's hardly likely to become problematic. There's an exceptional amount of downtime in baseball, and a great deal of it is already spent not focusing on the game at hand, but putting gum bubbles on teammates hats, or even setting players' shoes on fire. Clearly we don't really mind if players aren't giving the game their utmost attention when they're in the dugout, since we love silly stuff like this. But God help them if they start looking like those kids these days staring soullessly into their phones. Now that is unacceptable.
Certainly it can become a problem for individual players. Case in point:
Pierzynski could be found staring at his phone while the pitcher gave off the appearance of being an emotional wreck just a few feet away. That incident paved the way for at least one complaint to management from a teammate.
But that's when it's time for individual intervention. In much the same way as a manager would step in if a player was rushing back to the bathroom every inning to jump on Twitter, or if their in-dugout antics went too far and started bothering their teammates. This is the job of a manager. Not policing what their players do with the downtime their bodily functions demand of them. Yes you can establish a set of rules that, if followed, will ensure no problems ever have a chance to arise. But you'll also be treating your players like children in the process, and likely earning their ire in the long run should push come to shove too often.
It's not just about the foreign substances or the social media, either. This is a problem that extends deep into baseball and baseball culture. Whether they're written or unwritten, this is a sport that seems dead set against having fun. Against acknowledging that, yes, baseball is a game. That the players are playing. You can take the game seriously while still allowing for fun, but not if you follow all the rules, written or not. Were you even aware that this is still on the books:
4.06 (3.09) No Fraternization
Players in uniform shall not address or mingle with spectators, nor
sit in the stands before, during, or after a game. No manager, coach
or player shall address any spectator before or during a game.
Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in
The whole damn league is going to have to skip a game if we're suspending all the players who broke that one the last time they played.
Hat tip to JoyOfSox for that, whose name is awfully appropriate. Because watching baseball should be about joy, and playing it should be too. It shouldn't be about following a thousand different rules that have no real impact on the game, half of which aren't even written down. If Chris Archer wants to kiss his damn bicep after recording a big out, he should be able to do that without having to worry he'll cost a teammate a broken rib. Rays fans can enjoy his antics, and it makes him a much better villain to root against for Red Sox fans. But when David Ortiz goes deep he had better be allowed to sidestep his way around all the bases so he can maintain eye contact with his vanquished foe the entire time.
Rules should exist for two reasons: to keep the game fair, and to keep the players safe. If a manager really feels they need to institute blanket rules outside of the basic things like "be on time," and "don't assault team employees" (looking at you, Manny), that's there call, but that's the path of the Valentine, and it leads to situations like the Sandoval one where a player is punished for something that didn't really hurt anyone. One where, for some reason, most people were criticizing the player for doing something they do every day to the detriment of nobody rather than the rules that outlaw it.