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Blue Jays vs. Rangers brawl: Is it time to scrap some of baseball's unwritten rules?

Sunday's brawl between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers has put baseball's unwritten rules of retaliation back in the spotlight.

Culture of retaliation divides players, fans and journalists

Rougned Odor laid a pretty serious right hook on Toronto's Jose Bautista. (Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press)

He punched him in the face so hard it hurt watching on your couch. 

All because Blue Jays beast Jose Bautista smashed a three-run home run into the stratosphere in a big playoff game last October, and as he began his jaunt to first, he tossed his bat into the air.

Bautista would later say he didn't think about what he was doing, it was just an emotional reaction to what was the biggest home run of his career. 

But the Rangers, and many baseball purists, felt Bautista violated an unwritten rule of the game by showboating in front of his opponents.

The seventh-inning dinger in Game 5 of the American League Division Series was the beginning of the end for the Texas Rangers' playoff run, and they didn't forget about what became known as "the bat flip," harmless as it was.

Rangers pitcher Matt Bush tucking a 96-mile-per-hour fastball into Bautista's side in the eighth inning of Sunday's game in Texas was the first reminder.

Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor punching Bautista into the Middle Ages after an aggressive slide into second was another. 

Blue Jays head coach John Gibbons later called the punch "gutless."

It certainly went beyond the usual pushing and shoving that makes up most Major League "brawls." A Wall Street Journal analysis last year found that in one year with 32 bench-clearing fights, only about five punches were thrown.

This punch was violent. It was emotional. It was real. The benches quickly cleared and pandemonium reigned. Jays Kevin Pillar and Josh Donaldson ran out to the chaos like a pair of berserkers.

Jose Baustista drilled by pitch, and after a hard slide into second base the dugouts emptied 0:47

Pillar later called it "a unique situation," and said when punches are thrown "you gotta go out there and do what you think is right."

Some might say it was all preordained, written in the unwritten rules of baseball: the bat flip required retribution.

Others argue the violent shot to Bautista's jaw is a jarring example of why it's time for baseball to ditch its rules of retribution. 

The same code of unwritten rules, informal as it is, could also be used to argue the pitch that cracked Bautista in the ribs justified retribution, hence his late, aggressive slide into second base on a double-play ball.

But such a slide is a no-no in baseball, according to some people's interpretation of the code, Odor was then justified to go after Bautista.

And when the melee was finally broken up and the Jays took the field, it probably didn't surprise many hard-core baseball fans when pitcher Jesse Chavez plunked Rangers star Prince Fielder in the thigh with his very first pitch. Because, say it with me now: It's in the code.

Odor's right cross cost him an eight-game suspension from the league. Gibbons got three games for his role in the chaos. 

'The codification of respect'

"The big question coming into the season was what happened, the flip, was it enough to merit retaliation?" says Jason Turbow, co-author of The Baseball Codes.

Yeah, it seems so. Though many questioned why Texas waited until Bautista's last regular season at bat against them to smoke him with a fastball.

In many ways, unwritten rules are a fundamental part of baseball, at the very soul of the game. They're what Turbow calls "the codification of respect on a baseball diamond."

Bautista went into second base with an aggressive slide, and got up expecting confrontation. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Interestingly, an in-depth 2014 ESPN piece on the rules concluded that "every one of them is debatable and fluid and arbitrary."

The rules about retaliation are ostensibly meant to keep the playing field even.

"It's behaviour that's been built up over literally generations that enforces respect between players and organizations," Turbow says.

"It's part of the game" is a common refrain, one that's also heard often in the endless national debate over whether two men fist-fighting on skates is good for hockey. It's self-policing and prevents over-officiating, the thinking goes.

Shane Coal, a former college player who now coaches with the Ontario Royals, an elite youth team, says fewer games got out of hand when players, not umpires, dealt justice. He also explained that unlike sports like hockey, football, or rugby, baseball offers few opportunities "to let them know you're there."

"It doesn't always make sense to people and it could seem juvenile, but when you're on the field it makes for a better game, less of the umpires trying to control everything all the time," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar, left, was among the first to come to Bautista's defence. (Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports)

But there's another side to the debate that seems to be gaining some momentum. It suggests grown men earning multimillion-dollar salaries who are potentially trying to hurt one another over what are usually petty squabbles is a bit archaic, and perhaps there are better ways to handle disputes.

John Lott, for example, a seasoned Toronto sportswriter who contributes to Blue Jays Nation and Vice Sports Canada, called retaliation a "tradition that's unfortunate."

"Retaliation sets a rotten example. It is easy and crude," he wrote in a recent blog post, adding teams should resist the "impulse to lower themselves to the level of an opponent who's behaving like a petulant child."

Former pro pitcher-turned author and broadcaster Dirk Hayhurst wrote for Deadspin that most players and fans have no idea where the rules originated, their purpose, or why teams stick to them. And each team seems to have its own version of the code.

Jose Bautista was fired up after he was punched in the jaw, and seemed to want another shot at Rougned Odor. One analyst said it looked as though Bautista was initially preparing for a shoving match. (Getty Images)

"Baseball's unwritten rules justify hypocrisy, stupidity, and injury," he writes.

Washington Nationals all-star Bryce Harper has suggested some of the unwritten rules are getting a bit stodgy and worn for a new generation of players and fans. Players should be allowed to celebrate and express themselves, he said in a widely circulated interview that angered at least one aging hall of famer.

Not surprisingly, Harper is a big fan of Bautista's bat flip that so angered the Rangers.

"What an incredible moment for baseball, just as a fan of the sport," Harper told ESPN. "I mean, how many NFL or NBA or Olympian or any athletes — they all know about the Bautista bat flip, because it's incredible, because it's out there. He put it out there. It's fun. The emotion was amazing."

In the past two or three years, Turbow says, some players like Harper have "shunted" the old rules "to the wayside," and he thinks it's possible baseball's culture of retribution can change.

"One thing about the unwritten rules … they are always shifting," he said. "Baseball norms are never the same from season to season."

About the Author

Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based writer and photographer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. When he's not angling for stories, he's probably flyfishing for trout.

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