Sports

'The Baseball Codes': Attention Baseball Fans, This Book Will Eat Your Life

The cover of 'The Baseball Codes'.

hide captionThe Baseball Codes is an entertaining, exhaustive look at baseball's unwritten rules, seen from inside the game.

Major League Baseball spring training is currently underway, which means the Detroit Tigers and MLB's other, lesser, 29 teams are sweating it out in camps across Florida and Arizona. It's an exciting time to be alive, and in a perfect world, we would all get two weeks of vacation to properly enjoy the season. But what can you do? Some people have weird priorities.

I take baseball season pretty seriously and like to enjoy the game across several media platforms. I watch games on TV, or course, but also listen on the radio via
MLB.com, watch alarmingly comprehensive DVD collections, track box scores on the Internet and play many baseball video games, some impossibly realistic, others less so.

A new book hitting shelves this week had sidetracked my for the last few days to that most analog of media, the printed page. The Baseball Codes, by Bay Area sportswriters Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, is a frankly incredible book — a history and analysis of baseball's insular culture of unwritten rules, protocols and superstitions, assembled over the course of 10 years.

I've read a lot of baseball books in my day, including everything typically included in the unofficial canon, and I can say without hesitation that this is one of the all-time greats — a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The book's subtitle, Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime only scratches the surface.

Unwritten rules, both familiar and less so, after the jump.

Turbow and Duca have done an incredible thing here, interviewing hundreds of baseball players, managers, coaches, trainers, owners, journalists and broadcasters to assemble a comprehensive history of baseball culture.

More than any other sport, baseball has a long list of unwritten rules that are passed down from player to player, and mostly kept out of general circulation. Getting at those rules is all about storytelling, and the authors have included some of the best storytellers in the business. The list of names is too long for any sampling to be adequate, though I must note that baseball godfather Sparky Anderson — manager of the world champion 1984 Detroit Tigers — spins several great yarns. I walked past Sparky once, in the bowels of old Tiger Stadium, and was too starstruck to do anything but yell, "Sparky!" He tipped his hat and smiled.

Some of the unspoken rules detailed in the book will be familiar to casual baseball fans: You don't steal a base with a big lead late in the game. You don't mention a pitcher's no-hitter while it's in progress. Stealing signs is a sanctioned form of cheating, but if you're caught out, you must stop (for the rest of that game, anyway).

Others, though, are so arcane that even many rookie big-leaguers may be unaware: Don't step between the catcher and pitcher en route to the batter's box. Don't argue with the manager if he pulls you for a relief pitcher. And always join your teammates in a bench-clearing brawl — even if you have to run out from the clubhouse shower, as one famous big leaguer did, sporting only a towel and a cigar.

The 294-page book is remarkably dense, with the stories piling up, one after another, each gathered from one-on-one interviews done over the years as these two baseball writers made their way around the game. One amazing facet of the book, revealed in the acknowledgments, is that the authors used only about 25 percent of the material they collected.

I can't say enough nice things about this book, which belongs on every fan's shelf, and I really don't say that lightly. The final chapters are, for baseball fans of a certain intensity, quite touching, as Turbow and Duca lament the deterioration of old-school baseball ways in the face of modernism, media and money. More and more players, as fans know, are chasing individual stats, big free-agent contracts and the SportsCenter highlight reel.

But it's like Yogi Berra said: "There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em."

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