The Mariners’ pitchers and catchers reported last weekend (I guess they need lots of extra practice), almost everyone else reports this weekend — baseball is almost back but we’re still a few weeks from even exhibition game play. Never fear, I have the perfect book for those of you who need a real-game-action-fix now: The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow with Michael Duca. (The book was released in 2010 so I’m a bit behind. Blame my brother who “meant” to get me this as a present last year, then never got around to sending it to me. He did get me two books this year, of which this was one.) Most baseball fans know of the existence of most of these rules, but few realize how far some players go to enforce them — nor how saturated the day-to-day business of the major leagues is with the business of teaching, following, enforcing, and (as sometimes proves necessary) breaking these unwritten codes.
The book is loosely structured around main elements of the code (“running up the score,” one of the more abstract rules, leads off the book in especially strong fashion) and presents a series of anecdotes illustrating the nuances of that element. Which, right there, is the draw for a baseball fan: this book is cover-to-cover baseball stories, most of which you have either not heard before or featuring new angles on an infamous incident (both the Piazza-Clemens feud and the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura “brawl” gain some interesting context here). Fans of baseball history should also rest assured the book frequently goes beyond material that could be replayed on ESPN Classic; stories reach back to the earliest days of organized baseball, in some cases illustrating the evolution of the game, in others showing how some things never change.
The book is by no means perfect. The section on cheating makes it clear that “do what you have to do to win” is ingrained in baseball culture, but fails to make a larger connection to how this mentality might have contributed to the rise of PEDs. One wonders if the chapter on running into the catcher would have been more than three pages (and quite so blasé about the risks catchers face) if the book had come out after Buster Posey’s injury (especially since the authors have ties to the Giants). After remaining largely neutral in judgment for the entire book, the final chapter descends into “things were better in the old days” moralizing, undercutting the validity of the authors’ arguments about the value of the code in today’s game with the kind of “you don’t know what you missed” generalizing I find particularly irritating as a child of the ’80s.
Those faults, however, are small compared to the amount of joy in discovering just why Rickey Henderson was more or less given a free pass despite his seeming disregard for the rules about stealing bases with a big lead, or reading an account of Ron Guidry thwarting George Steinbrenner’s attempt to discipline a teammate. Real major league baseball is still a few months away; reading The Baseball Codes will at least allow you to escape into mid-summer for a few hours.
P.S. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the brilliantly modernized “Hu’s On First?” routine created by Red Reporter.