- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2011

Without the benefit of a lip reader it was hard to tell what Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols found so funny when they shared a laugh at first base during Game 4 of the National League championship series.

Could have been some kind of inside joke between the two slugging free agents to be. Perhaps even the idea that the Cardinals would actually give up a piece of the team to keep Pujols, surely a laughable notion on its own.

Or maybe they were just laughing about flouting baseball’s fraternization rule on national television and getting away with it.

Not that anybody gets punished anymore for yukking it up with members of the other team. If they did, someone like Orlando Hudson of the Padres would owe more in fines than he gets in salary for the conversations he has with anyone who happens to stop at second base.

But a rule is a rule. And there’s nothing ambiguous about section 3.09 of baseball’s official rules.

“Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform,” it reads.

Go early to any baseball game, and you’ll see that rule broken around the batting cage. Watch any game and invariably you’ll see someone chatting on the basepaths with a member of the other team.

But the Cardinals and Brewers are battling each other to get in the World Series. It’s serious stuff, for both the franchises and their rabid fans.

Watch Fielder and Pujols, and it seems little more than a laughing matter.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time in baseball when chatting up an opposing player on first base meant you weren’t going to play first base anymore. Baseball fined players just for talking with members of the other team, and players themselves made sure their teammates understood the opposition was the enemy, not their friend.

Think Ty Cobb was looking to make buddies when he sharpened his spikes before running the bases? Would someone like Bob Gibson stop to say hello to a first baseman they had just brushed back the inning before?

Times have changed, sure, with players switching teams so often now that they invariably have friends from other teams. They’re all rich young men, too, who like nothing better than to hang out with those of their ilk.

Save it for dinner after the game, though. There’s no laughing in baseball _ not when it’s between players from opposing teams.

Joe Torre would certainly like to see it stop, though teams didn’t seem to take his memo on the subject earlier this year very seriously. The executive vice president of baseball operations is old school in his belief that opposing players shouldn’t be hugging each other and having conversations on the field.

Torre was manager of the Cardinals in 1992 when relief pitcher Todd Worrell and first baseman Pedro Guerrero threw punches at each other after Guerrero brought Chicago’s Sammy Sosa into the clubhouse following a Cubs win. He immediately banned opposing players from the clubhouse and told his players that fraternization would not be tolerated.

Utility player Rex Hudler made sure Sosa and any other opposing player understood.

“Anyone else comes in here again, they’re free game,” Hudler said. “Open season, baby.”

That kind of attitude seems to be mostly missing these days, with players treating the game like it’s one big fraternity. Pujols himself seemed taken back early in the season when his very public hug before a game with Jim Hendry, then the general manager of the Cubs, immediately prompted talk of the Cubs having the inside track for Pujols once his contract with the Cardinals expired.

“He’s on the other side. I’m on our side. I just think it’s kind of ridiculous,” Pujols said.

That may be true, but don’t blame fans if they think the line is being blurred. They come to watch Pujols hit, not hug, and many of them have trouble understanding just what there is to love about the other team.

Pujols and Fielder are going to have a lot to talk about in the offseason. They’re the biggest catches on the free-agent market, and their new contracts likely will be among the richest ever in baseball.

They’ll have plenty of things to smile about then, plenty of time to share a few laughs.

For now, though, they should do us all a favor and just play baseball.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg