Cross words were exchanged. The benches cleared. Officials had to step in between the clubs to separate them. The hitter has reportedly received death threats in the days since.
All because a guy broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules.
Here’s the setup: In a Double-A minor league game on Tuesday night, centerfielder Matt Lipka of the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder pushed a bunt up the first base line with one out in the ninth inning of a game against the Hartford (Conn.) Yard Goats. Lipka, flashing good speed, hoofed it down the line for a single.
Why was that significant? Because the Yard Goats — a classic minor-league team name, by the way — had a no-hitter going.
As you may or may not know, you’re not supposed to bunt to break up a no-hitter. It’s one of those aforementioned unwritten rules.
As Lipka crossed first safely, the Hartford first baseman turned and looked at him with an expression that could be clearly translated as “Go to hell.” Chaos broke out from there, as the benches cleared and players barked at one another. One could surmise they weren’t exchanging their favorite Pinterest recipes.
A Thunder source told NJ.com that Lipka received multiple death threats on social media following the game.
Etiquette isn’t a bad thing. One might even suggest that following a certain standard of decorum prevents a great many confrontations. But, I’m sorry, a great many of these unwritten rules are pointless. Baseball is littered with them, and that very fact underscores why the game is frequently viewed as being the least progressive, the least modern, of all the major sports.
Don’t swing on a 3-0 count. Don’t steal a base when you have a big lead. (How big is too big?) Don’t make the first out at third base. Don’t talk about a no-hitter during a no-hitter. Don’t stand and admire your home run. Don’t over-celebrate a strikeout.
Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
So, we’re asking baseball players to follow subliminal messages to the (invisible) letter, and then we’re surprised whenever one rebels? Perhaps a better endeavor would be to question why some of these unwritten rules are a rule in the first place.
To its credit, Major League Baseball has at least tried to knock some of the mud off its cleats in this regard. The league unveiled a marketing campaign this year featuring the slogan “Let the Kids Play.” It essentially attacked old-school conventional wisdom, flipping on its ear the idea that bat flips should spark a beanball outbreak.
“That (outburst of revelry) is certainly what we’re trying to celebrate,” MLB senior vice president of marketing Barbara McHugh told the Associated Press earlier this year.
Still, many traditionalists have dug in their heels against such change. Baseball carries more than a century’s worth of tradition with it, and nothing in the game progresses overnight. (Not even a hundred overnights.) Many a manager will still instruct his pitcher to deliver a chin music warning following what they might perceive as an overly showy reaction to a home run or big hit.
It’s that yin-yang tug of war, that internal conflict, that not only stunts baseball progress but creates confusion among those that play the game. You can’t tell me that among the few dozen millennial ballplayers who rushed on the field the other night, there weren’t at least a few that were saying, “Are we really doing this?”
Look, anger can be justified. In 2016 when the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista slid in to second base against the Rangers, with both cleats and ire raised, he absolutely deserved what was coming to him. Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor administered Bautista with an unscheduled facial, and the Toronto slugger never ambushed another infielder’s knee caps the same way again.
But a bunt is a bunt. It’s not something devious or underhanded. If it’s a worthy strategy with one out in the first inning, why shouldn’t it also be OK in the ninth?
I mean, consider these other factors. When the defendant Lipka laid down his bunt, his team trailed only 3-0 on the scoreboard. Trenton needed baserunners. If he gets on, he turns the lineup over and gives his club a better shot at a win.
He also had a .176 batting average coming into that at-bat. He’s a career minor leaguer trying to find his way, trying to scratch out a hit. Plus, watching him bust it up the line, it’s clear he has some speed. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to use what God gave him? Why should he stop doing whatever he can to get on base?
One other nugget: the Yard Goats’ starting pitcher was out of the game. Hartford’s closer had entered, and the team was trying to complete a combined no-hitter. Personally, I’m not sure that should really matter, but it’s not like Lipka ruined a shot at history for the starter. The starter still hasn’t given up a hit in that game.
Besides, aren’t the fielders supposed to be ready for anything? If you’re on top of things, a bunt is nothing more than free out. The fact that Lipka bamboozled the defense should be celebrated as a shrewd piece of hitting, not decried as some sort of affront to the Almighty Game.
Again, I’m not anti-decorum. There is absolutely a place for it, all across the sports spectrum.
Don’t talk in the golfer’s backswing. Dribble out the clock when you have a big lead and the shot clock is off. Same holds true for the Victory Formation in football.
But if you’re a ballplayer and you want to try to bunt your way aboard, I say knock yourself out. It shouldn’t matter if it’s Spring Training in the Cactus League or the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. It shouldn’t matter if you’re up 10 or you’re down 10. And it shouldn’t matter if the other team is chasing history or not. You don’t play for that team.
In the end, if breaking an unwritten rule is really that big of a deal, allow me to offer a suggestion.
Write it down.