- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

NEW YORK New York Mets outfielder Joe McEwing didn't have it easy during his first full season in the big leagues. Not for the first six weeks, anyway.

"I had to get Eric Davis coffee every day when he walked into the clubhouse," said McEwing, who came up with the St. Louis Cardinals. "I did it for about a month and a half. After that, he knew how much I appreciated the game and respected him. He called me up to his room and had me sized up for four suits."

That was during the days when rookies were supposed to be seen and not heard. McEwing often found himself walking on eggshells around the clubhouse.

"The biggest thing when you're a rookie is you respect the people who came before you and don't say a word until you're pretty much spoken to," he said. "That's how I was raised in the game. When I was first called up, I was scared to leave my locker. I didn't want to get in anybody's way, didn't want to tick anybody off."

But if the soft-spoken, well-mannered McEwing is the model rookie, his is a dying breed in today's game. Many veterans grouse that baseball has changed considerably since they first came up. Younger players, they say, are more presumptuous than ever before.

"It's definitely gotten more lax," said Mets pitcher Steve Trachsel. "By my fourth or fifth year, rookies started getting a lot more vocal about things. I remember a lot of veterans' eyes would just pop out and they'd say 'Did he just say something?' It's like that all around the league now."

That's not the only baseball convention to go the way of the dodo. Once upon a time, there was no greater commandment than protecting your team's hitters. Pitchers claim to still abide by the rule religiously, but then last week, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds complained that his pitchers weren't retaliating enough when he was getting plunked. That's no innocent accusation, but then again, Bonds' complaint in itself was a violation of another unspoken rule: What goes on in the clubhouse stays there.

At first glance, baseball's unwritten rules can seem cut-and-dry: Don't bunt, steal or swing away on a 3-0 count in a blowout. Don't show up the pitcher if you're a hitter, the hitter if you're a pitcher, or the umpire if you're either one. Go hard into second base on a double play and, if a brawl breaks out, get your butt off the pine and onto the field.

But in practice, the informal do's and don'ts of baseball etiquette are only slightly less inscrutable than a sideline report from Eric Dickerson. ("Unwritten rules?" pondered Mets pitching coach Charlie Hough. "I can't even keep track of the written ones.") As the line between acceptable and unacceptable has blurred even further, more and more questionable behavior has gone unpunished, either for the sake of gamesmanship or, increasingly, showmanship.

"The gray area has definitely gotten bigger," said Mets first base Mookie Wilson, who played from 1980 to '91.

To bean or not to bean?

For all the mystery surrounding many of baseball's unwritten rules, Philadelphia Phillies reliever Dan Plesac said there's one that remains crystal-clear to most pitchers.

"When one of your hitters gets hit and you feel it's intentional, the best way to take care of it is to retaliate and hit their best hitter," said Plesac, an 18-year veteran.

The code transcends even friendships, added Trachsel.

"If you have to drill a guy, you might be upset that he's your friend, but you still do it," Trachsel said. "Mark Grace used to say all the time, 'I know I'm getting hit even though I'm taking the guy out for a couple beers after the game.'"

Still, game situations can often dictate otherwise. In the late innings of a close ballgame, revenge could cost more than a pitcher is willing to pay. "I don't like to hit guys," said Philadelphia starter Brandon Duckworth. "You're just putting another guy on base."

In those situations, Plesac conceded, "maybe you take care of business the next day. Or two days later."

Or, if you're the Mets, two years later.

Last week's interleague rumble with the Yankees at Shea was the Mets' first chance to exact some payback from old nemesis Roger Clemens. The Rocket, you will recall, beaned Mets catcher Mike Piazza during the 2000 regular season, then hurled a broken bat at him in that year's World Series.

But by the time the day of reckoning finally rolled around, whatever honor was at stake was lost in the farce of it all. The pregame hype surrounding the matchup was more befitting a steel-cage wrestling match than the national pastime.

So when Shawn Estes' first pitch to Clemens sailed well clear of his backside, of course it could only be viewed as a gigantic letdown. That night, former Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Dibble berated Estes on ESPN for failing to honor his duty to teammates.

But to hear Estes who was a Giant, not a Met, when the conflict was first born talk about the risks of pitching a batter inside, it seems entirely likely that it was no accident that he missed Clemens.

"Primarily guys have stayed away and come in when they had to for effect," Estes said. "I've always been a guy who did it for effect [rather than to intimidate]. It's a question of how bad would you feel [if you ended a player's career]."

Such empathy for the opposition is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just try explaining it to Larry Bowa, the throwback, Earl Weaver-style manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

"I know if somebody throws at one of our players, then something's going to happen," Bowa said. "You've got to stick up for your teammates. I'll take a loss to get the point across."

Bonds would appreciate Bowa's philosophy. After getting pitched inside during a recent series with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Bonds told reporters that if his teammates wouldn't protect him, he'd have to protect himself. He may have a point Giants hitters have been hit with a pitch three times as often as Giants pitchers have hit opposing hitters.

Then again, Bonds may have lost whatever credibility he had on the issue of baseball's unwritten rulebook when he went public with his gripe.

"That's something you got to keep in-house," said Minnesota Twins outfielder Jacque Jones. "When you're having family troubles, you don't bring outsiders into it."

Bonds' outburst fits another of the game's trends, one that has seen more and more current and ex-ballplayers air their team's dirty laundry to the media. Between Ken Caminiti's public speculation that half of all ballplayers use steroids and Jose Canseco's promises of an upcoming tell-all book, the code of silence that once governed ballplayers' interactions with the media also seems to be disappearing.

When no lead is safe

It was almost Ben Davis all over again.

Through the first six innings of the Mets' interleague game with the Twins last Thursday, Trachsel had been perfect. Then, on his first pitch of the seventh, Minnesota's Jones squared to bunt, his body leaning down the first base line in a clear attempt at earning himself an infield hit. He failed to make contact and, after hearing a chorus of lusty boos from the Shea Stadium crowd, swung away on the second pitch and grounded out.

Trachsel's bid for perfection didn't last much longer anyway Cristian Guzman's single to center ruined it one at-bat later. Had it not become a moot point, Jones' bunt attempt might have generated comparisons to a more controversial moment from last season, when Davis, then with the Padres, bunted his way aboard to spoil Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling's perfect game. After the game, the Diamondbacks were livid.

"I've always heard that after the fifth or sixth, you earn your way on," a surprised Curt Schilling told reporters after the game.

Arizona manager Bob Brenly's post-game comments were even more biting: "Ben Davis is young and has a lot to learn."

The rest of baseball has been slow to adopt Arizona's perspective. "They just wanted to see a perfect game," dismissed Plesac.

Then, after Jones' bid for a bunt single last week, Mets manager Bobby Valentine had nothing but praise. "It's a good play," he said, "if you can get it down."

Valentine's players felt the same way.

"In a one-run game," outfielder Roger Cedeno said, "you have to understand."

But what about in a three-run game? Or five-run game? When Rickey Henderson, then with the San Diego Padres, stole second base in the seventh inning of a 12-5 ballgame last season, Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes threatened that he would have him thrown at the next time he came up to hit. But given the explosive comeback capabilities of most teams (last season Cleveland rallied back from 12 runs down in a game against Seattle) the old rules regarding common baseball courtesy may no longer apply.

"We're playing in the era now of the lively ball, smaller ballparks, guys are bigger and stronger," said Plesac. "It's nothing to score four or five runs in an inning now. So when do you stop running? It used to be four or five runs, now it's eight or nine runs."

Not-so-grand theft

Stealing signs is a trickier business. While picking off signals from a third base coach is generally considered sportsmanlike "if your signs are easy enough to get picked up, then you deserve to have them stolen," said Trachsel picking off signs from the catcher is generally less kosher. Still, that hasn't stopped countless players throughout history from seeking a competitive advantage.

Last year, several members of the old New York Giants confessed to stealing signs during the 1951 season when they won the National League pennant. Bobby Thomson, who hit the famous 'Shot Heard 'Round the World,' denied that he knew what pitches were coming in his famous at-bat.

"Stealing signs is nothing to be proud of," he told a reporter.

Maybe not. But when it comes to distinguishing between cheating and competing, what's unfair can still be fair game.

"Stealing signs has been a part of baseball forever," Wilson said. "Some pitchers take exception to that. I don't necessarily agree with it. Hey, if they can pick up the signs, more power to them because I'm sure going to try to pick up one."

Playing dress-up

Six years after the fact, Cedeno still hasn't gotten over the trauma. Sitting in front of his locker in the Mets clubhouse last week, Cedeno reluctantly relived the shock (or was it shame?) of his initiation while a rookie with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"They dressed me up," he said, his face suddenly turning sour, "like a woman."

Cedeno is able to laugh about it now a little bit, anyway but he can still barely bring himself to describe the torture that Raul Mondesi, Eric Karros and the rest of the Dodger veterans subjected him to in 1996.

"I had to walk to the stadium in the middle of the day," he said with another wrenched expression, "dressed up like a woman."

Rite of passage? For Cedeno, it was more like ultimate indignity. But at least he was not alone in his humiliation. Dressing up the rookies is a baseball tradition that happens every year, often around Sept. 1, when rosters expand to 40 players and a handful of players get their first promotion to the big leagues. Among the more fetching ideas: the Kansas City Royals last fall dressed their call-ups as Hooters waitresses.

"We had them in the shorts and tank tops," recalled Royals reliever Dan Reichert, leaving the rest of the getup to the imagination.

In the past, there was usually a punishment for any rookies who didn't submit to the hazing.

"It was best to just do it and get it over with than fight it," said Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn. "Then they'd do something to you everyday cut your clothes up, stuff like that."

It's all part of reminding rookies to know their role. Vaughn said Clemens didn't have a conversation with him for the first three years Vaughn played in Boston. By the time Vaughn had become an everyday player and earned a locker along the famed left-side wall in the Red Sox clubhouse, he had won Clemens' respect and the two became friends.

"Nowadays it's different because of salaries," Vaughn said. "Unless you're with [the Mets], the Yankees, or another veteran team, there's only four or five clubs like that. The rest of the teams just have four or five veterans and the rest are young guys."

With fewer veterans, there's no one to pass on the art of "playing the game like it's supposed to be played," in Reichert's words. The rookie who is unafraid to volunteer his opinion in a clubhouse meeting is probably more likely to dance his way around the bases after hitting a home run.

"When I played, veterans had the first seat on the bus, first seat on the plane, and rookies took what was left," Wilson said. "I think the guys who were rookies didn't carry the torch, for lack of a better term."

"The game has changed, but no matter how much we screw it up and we screw it up a lot it will always be there," he added.

And while some customs may go extinct, not all of baseball's traditions are likely to disappear. Despite the league's best efforts at cracking down on discipline, the classic bench-clearing brawl isn't going away anytime soon. Not in baseball, where old habits die hard and grudges die even harder.

Anyone wondering just how long they can last need only consult Bowa.

"In baseball?" he said gruffly. "Till you die."

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