It's not too much to expect a minimum standard of conduct from our professional athletes, whether you're the guy standing in the batter's box or sitting in the stands. You don't expect someone to go off and fire a baseball at someone for no reason, and you don't expect a linebacker to have negotiated a price on the head of an opponent in the week before a game.
Pretty standard stuff. We know there's some wiggle room in there, because we'd be stupid to think pitchers don't let personal problems seep onto the field, just as we'd be stupid to believe a sport as commercially violent and high-paying as football wouldn't have renegades who take the common practice of targeting players to the logical level of bounties.
So when the Indians' Ubaldo Jimenez uses his gifted right arm to send a personal message to the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, you might shake your head at the immaturity but understand how it can be possible. And when it's revealed that the Saints put dollar figures on incapacitating select opponents, you might wonder how they could be so flagrant as to get caught. The what isn't in question, only the how.
But what if Tulowitzki were out for the first six weeks of the season with a broken wrist? What if the $10,000 reportedly offered by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma to his teammates for an injury-producing shot on Brett Favre had been delivered? Would that change anything?
The social fabric frays. Humans get in the way. What's good for the ego (Jimenez) or what's good for the team (Saints) gets mixed up in a swirl of misguided intentions. Someone can be targeted for getting a contract extension (Tulowitzki) or simply for being good (anyone with a Saints-induced price on his head).
It's a big week for etiquette and protocol. Roger Goodell was originally scheduled to hear the appeals of Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton on Tuesday, a day after saying he will allow the Saints to hire Bill Parcells as their interim coach. Big of him, of course, to allow the team to make its own hire. His response on that matter -- "They need to make those decisions and we'll move forward" -- makes it sound as if part of him wants the Saints to ask him for a list of two or three league-approved replacements. It also seems to give the Payton appeal a poor prognosis.
Luckily for Tulowitzki, it looks like he'll play Opening Day, but give Jimenez an A for effort. He apparently has a beef with Tulo that dates all the way back to the beginning of spring training -- nearly six weeks, for those questioning Ubaldo's patience -- and he made sure his former team knew he wasn't going to have to wait any longer.
After all, Tulowitzki defended his team after Jimenez complained about Colorado's decision to trade him rather than extend his contract. And since the Rockies extended two players (Carlos Gonzalez and Tulowitzki), Jimenez's words were interpreted as a shot at them. Most of the fiercest feuds, it's safe to say, can be traced back to money. And childishness.
Rockies manager Jim Tracy is one of the most mild-mannered, considerate men in sports, let alone baseball. He is thoughtful, polite and generally calm. But on Sunday, he was a big pot of boiling rage after the Jimenez incident, becoming a combination of Lou Piniella and Keith Moon.
He called the act the "most gutless act I've seen in 35 years of processional baseball." That's saying something, since he's probably seen thousands of instances in which a pitcher threw at a hitter and then pretended to be surprised. Jimenez skipped the surprised part, choosing to drop his glove and run toward the plate a split-second after the ball smacked Tulowitzki's elbow.
Baseball's social contract has way too many notes in the margin, but it does do a pretty good job of weeding out the baseball-related crimes from those concocted in the deepest recesses of someone's head. There's a difference between knocking a guy off the plate -- even drilling him in the ribs -- because of a breach of baseball etiquette and hitting him to address a personal vendetta.
Jimenez, to hear Tracy tell it, broke baseball's code. He's baseball's version of a Saints player, only without the cash reward (presumably). Tracy called for a suspension, and MLB agreed; on Monday, Jimenez was docked five games.
It's a small price to pay for breaking the unwritten rules -- a price that might have been far steeper had Tulowitzki been seriously injured. Often, the "code" provides the skirt behind which many pitchers hide. If a guy rounds the bases too slowly after a homer, he's fair game. If a guy slides too hard into second, he's fair game. If a guy takes too long to get into the batter's box, he's fair game.
Football has no need for such a quirky code. When the game runs on viciousness and aggression, there's no need for arcane rules to dictate savagery. The boundaries are wide and uncluttered, and it takes something seriously sociopathic to exceed them. Maybe that's why the NFLPA has informed members of the New Orleans Saints that criminal prosecution is possible in the wake of Operation Bounty. The concept of bounties isn't unprecedented -- Buddy Ryan, anyone? -- but the extreme response from the league definitely is.
The NFLPA's move is undoubtedly standard lawyering, but there's a message: Humans do crazy things, and there's always a chance -- slim as it might be -- for real-world implications to intrude on a silly game.