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Madison Bumgarner vs. Carlos Gomez: an unwritten-rules showdown

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When is it okay to curse yourself for missing a pitch, and how much can you do it before the pitcher is shown up?

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

My favorite things to write around here are the reviews of unwritten rules. They're silly, but they somehow capture the spirit of baseball. As in, look, this is all silly and the sun is going to run out of hydrogen one day. But if you focus very narrowly on this one subset of a sliver of a game, that's a subset of a sliver of a fraction of a pinch of what's going on in the world, everything can seem so very important. There are rules, ethics, mores, conventions ... why, it's like a little tiny society, and we've watched it grow with us over the last century.

My biggest fear, then, is what to do when the unwritten rules run out. I can't keep writing about players stealing with a big lead, so this series will die one day. It bums me out.

And then one grown man yelled at another grown man for yelling at himself. Yes, the unwritten rules will run out of hydrogen, but like the sun, we don't have to worry about it just yet. The unwritten rules will outlive us all.

The first grown man in question is Madison Bumgarner, noted redass. He wants baseball to be an orderly universe, with everyone playing like ants, quietly grinding away at their mortality for the greater good of their team and/or queen. Head down, mouth closed, eyes focused. He's Grampa Simpson yelling about Joe Namath's wild hair and spirit, and praising the rigidity of Johnny Unitas's haircut in the same breath. And yet Bumgarner is wild and wooly himself, much more Burning Man than I think he realizes. He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back to protecting those unwritten rules.

The other grown man is Carlos Gomez, who is still an indie-label Yasiel Puig, even if he's had a gold record by now. Dude plays with flair, and the screaming of rigid, sensitive types from the other dugout only makes him stronger. While we knew that Puig and Bumgarner were eventually going to yap at each other (and will for the next decade, give or take), we probably should have seen Gomez and Bumgarner steaming toward each other on the same track.

Here's what happened:

The unwritten rule in question: Just how demonstrative can a hitter be when reacting to a pitch he just missed? Bumgarner's done this before, mind you.

"You're not that fucking good," our hero cries to Alex Guerrero, an amalgam of the redassery of Don Drysdale, the profane anger of Lewis Black and the evaluative powers of Bill James.

If you think this all sounds silly, well, you realize they're trying to hit a ball with a stick and then run around and touch squares, right? This kind of question is the pulsing heart of something that shouldn't be alive in the first place. And I'll answer for Bumgarner. He believes hitters should shut up when they're in the box, they should keep their hands down when they round the bases and they should speak only when spoken to. He would prefer the entire baseball universe to be populated with Theon Greyjoys, all crushed into subservient Reeks, timid and entirely pliable.

I don't have to answer for Gomez. He answered for himself.

I was (upset) because I waited for that pitch and I'm supposed to hit it and I missed it ... I was (mad) at myself, so he can't be looking at me. He's not my dad.

The words that were replaced with the brackets were probably "pissed," but I'm still holding out hope they were something like "super-shitty pony-pissed." You can't prove they weren't, based on that article. And "he's not my dad" is a five-tool comeback. Good work.

The slight is this: By reacting like you just missed your pitch, you're implying that the pitcher screwed up. You're not only implying that the pitcher screwed up, but that the pitcher's performance is now the benefit of luck. His final line will always have that invisible asterisk next to it. Sure, he pitched great, but don't forget that he screwed up with that one pitch, and the hitter knew it. An overly demonstrative reaction to a just-missed pitch most certainly does reflect on the pitcher's failings, even when it's the hitter who technically screwed up the most.

Baseball's great because we get to construct one-on-one narratives better than we would with any other sport. Other than penalty shots and kicks, there's nothing in team sports that really comes close. One pitcher, one batter and events unfold after that. Except, the batter usually doesn't care about the pitcher. That's the unwritten truth. His adversary isn't the man on the mound, but a little white sphere that moves and darts and speeds. They're frisky buggers, these spheres and they're becoming increasingly elusive. The spheres usually win. Even when the run-scoring environments are inflated, the spheres usually win.

So the reaction from Gomez -- or any hitter, really -- isn't a reflection of what the pitcher didn't do. It's a nod to the overwhelming superiority of the sphere. Baseballs usually don't get hit well. That's the default. Everyone's agog with Bryce Harper right now because he's hitting a home run in nine percent of his plate appearances. With the other 91 percent, he's thinking about the pitches he missed. If he just missed, why, he might have a reaction to that swing.

This would seem to err on the side of Gomez, and it does. But don't forget the part up there where the reaction still reflects on the pitcher. He's right to be annoyed, and that means there something of a spectrum at work.

Okay: Staring at the hitter, then throwing an inside cutter on the next pitch, using the perceived slight as fuel and motivation.

Not okay: Yelling "you're not that fucking good" as the hitter rounds the bases. When I miss a platform and fall to my death in Action Video Game 3, I curse myself out, even though I suck at video games. Happens.

In this context, Bumgarner is learning, at least. This is an improvement over last time. I'll give him a 5 for getting annoyed in the first place, but that score credits him for not being the one to start the yelling for once. Plus, he uses this stuff to his advantage. If he's not grumbling, he's not as focused.

Gomez gets a 2 because, hey, it was a crappy pitch and he just missed it. So he was a little more demonstrative than other hitters might have been. Somehow the game will go on.

And so will the unwritten rules, bless them. Keep yelling at each other for rules you just made up, baseball people. I have a family to feed.

SB Nation video archives: Baseball's unwritten rules (2013)