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Review: The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow

May 21, 2012

The Baseball codes claims to offer an insight into the “unwritten rules of America’s pastime.” This may seem like a slightly odd subject for review on this site. After all, unwritten rules generally refer to things like how to treat your team mates, how to behave in the locker room, and things that don’t really relate to the rules of the game at all. After all, if they were important enough to enforce with regards to how the game was really played, they’d probably end up written down somewhere, wouldn’t they?

Some portions of the book do, in fact, deal with the matters listed above. The entire last section is devoted to etiquette regarding team mates. When to join a fight (always), when to talk about a no hitter in progress (never). And some similar sections are scattered throughout the book. For instance, an entire section on how to behave when you’re getting pulled off the mound. These are interesting topics, and in that regard, the book offers some great insight to a world that most of us would never see into. Any professional athlete enters into a sort of fraternity. There aren’t many people who can do what they do, and even fewer who then live the life they live: the constant travel, the unrelenting pressure. Seeing how these people choose to handle themselves among themselves is a peek into a sub-culture that’s fascinating in itself. These sections are well written, and the personalities of the players telling the stories shine through. A lot of the anecdotes Turbow cites are probably common knowledge to baseball historians (I wouldn’t know, I am certainly not one), but they’re well told and put into a context that even a relative stranger to the game can understand.

But for my purposes, the most interesting sections come when he starts talking about the ways that you treat your opponent. The book is essentially about the house rules that the players’ fraternity agrees upon, and House rules usually indicate that something in the game is broken. Money gets put onto Free Parking because it’s fun to get money, and so little else in Monopoly is fun. Baseball is pretty fun, and although it does have other design goals particular to the business that is a game played professionally, it meets most of those goals pretty well. But seeing where the unwritten rules are place allows us to see where some of the gaps may lie.

A lot of the unwritten rules are, indirectly at least, related to the ways the players conduct themselves over repeated games. To detour briefly into economic decision theory, it’s well established that players will act differently during repeated games than they do during the non-repeated versions. Yet the rules of baseball, and in fact most sports, are firmly tied to a single iteration of the game. So how does one determine what is and isn’t appropriate when they aren’t playing the game? How long is it appropriate to hold a grudge against another player? As mentioned, the fraternity of baseball players is small, and you’re going to encounter a lot of teams and players again and again. Since nothing in the official rules specifies any of this, the unwritten rules will need to suffice. All these topics are covered in more or less detail, in chapters like “Protect Yourself and each Other”, “Retaliation”, and “The Wars”.

The chapters about retaliation are some of the most interesting material I’ve read in a long time, and probably merit a future post dedicated purely to that topic. But in a game where there’s very little opportunity for direct interaction between many players, enforcement of the unwritten rules falls almost exclusively to the pitcher, who can say some very specific things with ball placement, far beyond the considerations of simply a strike or a ball. There’s a great deal of nuance in when it’s appropriate to send those messages, and how each player or team interprets what’s being communicated. For an informal system, there seems to be a surprising amount of consensus on both sides for when hitting the batter is deserved, and when it isn’t. Un-justified aggression is rare, since it simply sets up your own team-mates for retaliation.

Several chapters are about, essentially, how to elegantly break the official rules without drawing the ire of other players. The chapter title “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” summarizes this pretty succinctly. From sign stealing to spit balls, a lot of activities that are either against the rules or generally considered poor sportsmanship are actually par for the course among the players. There’s an arms race aspect to it: it’s your job to break the rules and it’s your opponent’s job to catch you. There’s another game being played on top of baseball, and everybody knows it. There’s also a sense of mutually assured destruction here: since everybody’s playing, everybody has dirt on everybody else, and that cuts off informing the umpires as a valid response except in the most egregious cases. Again, it comes to in-game enforcement but the pitchers to make sure everybody stays in line.

There’s so much material in the book that I’m not coming close to doing it justice. There’s a short chapter on dekes, pretending to catch a ball that isn’t there to fake out a runner, that’s a fascinating reminder of just how a player will find holes in any rule set to work to his own advantage. And as I mentioned, the stories themselves offer a great taste of history and are full of larger than life personalities that we expect from our professional athletes. Although it never approaches the game from an explicit game design perspective, there are lessons therein that any game designer would do well to learn. Additionally, it’s simply engaging and well written, and I’d recommend it to virtually anybody with even a passing interest in baseball or game design.

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