Commentary

Baseball's Code in full play

Chipper Jones, Jamie Moyer, Cole Hamels, Bryce Harper and the unwritten rules

Updated: May 8, 2012, 1:15 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Baseball is never more fun than when it's being breathtakingly stupid. The idea of some amorphous set of insider rules -- The Code -- dictating what happens on the field is among the game's most endearing traits.

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AP Photo/Margaret BowlesBeware of the wrath of Jamie Moyer.

Where would baseball be without childishness, perceived slights, vigilantism, paranoia and rampant irrationality? Where would it be without the purveyors of old-school morality, the on-field nuns who take on the collective role of policing rules only they understand? More important, where would the rest of us be without all this Code Kabuki?

Of the two current issues on the table, the most representative of the species is the nasty cane-waving incident between 49-year-old Jamie Moyer and 40-year-old Chipper Jones. On Saturday, Moyer believed Jones committed a major violation by relaying signals from second base to Brian McCann with the Braves trailing 6-2 and a 3-0 count to McCann.

This set Chipper's blood to boiling. He hollered at Moyer on the field and stayed in a spluttering rage after the game and ultimately sent word through the Rockies that he'd be happy to meet Moyer, providing Moyer was interested. Evidently, he wasn't.

Jones had some great lines. He said Moyer was paranoid because he used to play for a team (the Phillies) that routinely stole signs. He said, "I mean, dude, we don't need signs, especially for him. I mean, my goodness, every pitch is 78. Come on."

It's a violation of The Code to trash a guy's abilities, and it's also a violation to trash a player's former team and bring up transgressions committed by a third party. However, and here's why baseball needs the hall monitors: It's perfectly acceptable to do both of those things if you believe you have been the victim of a Code violation yourself.

Once a line has been crossed, every other line ceases to exist. For every overreaction, there's an unequal but opposite overreaction.

Consider it from Moyer's perspective. If Jones -- or anyone else, for that matter -- is telling the hitters whether he's throwing a changeup or a changeup, Moyer has no defense. Unlike almost every other pitcher in baseball, Moyer can't fire a major league level fastball at the offender's rib cage. The end result is frustration, the root of most Code violations.

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AP Photo/Richard LipskiScouts weren't surprised Bryce Harper got plunked.

Then we have the case of Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels and the 93 mph fastball he planted in Bryce Harper's back. What Hamels did was childish and indefensible, but it was also perfectly understandable. The only thing surprising about it was that he was the first one to do it -- in Harper's eighth game. On April 29 at Dodger Stadium, before Harper's second game in the big leagues, a National League advance scout told me, "I wouldn't be surprised if he gets drilled a couple of times, just to see how he reacts."

Harper reacted by not reacting. He tossed his bat to the side, ran to first and eventually stole home on a Hamels pickoff throw to first. It doesn't get much more old school than that.

The violation that earned Harper a fastball to the tailbone exists in the invisible margins of the unwritten rule book, but it goes something like this: His reputation for exuberance, cockiness and eye-black preceded him. In fact, he might have set a record of some sort by being victimized by The Code before he even had a chance to figure out what it was. Maybe it's the ultimate compliment for a 19-year-old: He was grandfathered in.

But Hamels, who was hit in the leg his first time up, committed a cardinal sin when he admitted he hit Harper intentionally, and refused to apologize for it. Given its ephemeral nature, The Code justifies almost anything in baseball, except the truth. You never admit you were out if you're called safe, for instance, and you never admit to hitting a guy on purpose. Hamels' reward: a (mostly meaningless) five-game suspension. In the other clubhouse, Jordan Zimmermann said he wasn't trying to hit Hamels, a claim nobody on earth would ever believe, but Zimmermann won't be missing any games because of it. In baseball, it pays to avoid the truth.

The unequal and opposite overreaction in this case goes to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who elevated The Code to a kind of diamond curse. He called Hamels "fake tough" and said, "He doesn't know who he's dealing with." Rizzo's tirade was the most inappropriate front-office rager since last year around this time, when Giants GM Brian Sabean went berserk criticizing the Marlins' Scott Cousins for running into -- and injuring -- Buster Posey.

So, with all these role models behaving badly, what shall we tell the children? You start by telling them all of this honorary sheriffin' is going on without Tony La Russa around to flash his badge. And then you tell them we're barely into the second week of May. There's a chance things could really get good.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com