Keller vs. Anderson: With suspensions in, let’s interpret baseball’s unwritten rules

Royals pitcher Brad Keller talks about outing, altercation with White Sox

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller talks about his start against the Chicago White Sox and the benches-clearing altercation that started when he hit Tim Anderson with a pitch at Guaranteed Rate Field on April 17, 2019.
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Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller talks about his start against the Chicago White Sox and the benches-clearing altercation that started when he hit Tim Anderson with a pitch at Guaranteed Rate Field on April 17, 2019.

Here’s the problem with baseball’s unwritten rules: They’re unwritten. 

And since the rules aren’t carved onto stone tablets, different people interpret them differently, and that can cause problems.

Take the Brad Keller-Tim Anderson incident that took place in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s Royals-White Sox game, for instance.

This particular incident actually started in the fourth inning of that game. Let’s go back and take a look.

Showing up your opponent

Somewhere high up on the Ten Commandments of Baseball is this: “Thou shalt not show up thy opponent.”

That’s pretty vague and can cover a multitude of sins.

Subsequent events would suggest the Royals thought Anderson broke this commandment when he hit a home run and then threw his bat. It’s been described elsewhere as a bat flip or bat spiking, but it was really more of a bat javelin throw.

Anderson then doubled down on his original sin and yelled something at his teammates and also had words for Royals catcher Martin Maldonado before he left the plate.

But it’s not only what Anderson did, it’s when he did it: the fourth inning.

If a player hits a walk-off home run, he’s pretty much allowed to lose his mind as he rounds the bases; walk-offs are a big deal. But hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a yet-to-be-decided game doesn’t qualify.

As the ever-blunt former Royals catcher Jason Kendall once said of players who hit a single and then point to the heavens in thanks, “If God was helping you, why didn’t He make it a triple?” Not everyone agrees about what’s worth celebrating and when it’s appropriate to celebrate.  

After Ian Kinsler criticized Latin players for over-celebrating during a World Baseball Classic, then-Royals Brayan Pena and Christian Colon pointed out that exuberant celebration is part of Latin culture. And as long as the celebration was directed toward a player’s teammates, not a player’s opponent, Pena and Colon didn’t think it was disrespectful.

On the other hand, Tim Anderson is from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


So that was Anderson’s crime; how about his punishment? Not MLB punishment — that was handed down on Friday — but on-the-field justice.

If you believe in old-school justice, a pitcher who wants to retaliate has to do it in the right way.

A pitcher never throws at an opponent’s head because that’s life-threatening and possibly career-ending. If a pitcher develops the reputation as a “head-hunter,” his own teammates may be upset: if it’s the American League, they’re the ones who have to go to the plate and face possible retaliation. It’s not unheard of for a headhunter’s teammates to tell him to knock it off before he gets someone hurt.

But once again the unwritten rules have been interpreted differently in different generations.

Sal “The Barber” Maglie got that nickname because he was known for “close shaves.” Apparently Don Drysdale credited Maglie for teaching him the art of the brush-back pitch; they didn’t call it “chin music” because the pitches came in around the knees.

But National League pitchers who employed brush-back pitches at least put their heads where their fastballs were, by going to the plate themselves.

See? This is why the unwritten rules can get complicated; there are always exceptions and sub-clauses.

It’s safe to say that these days everybody’s making too much money to risk permanently injuring an opponent and perhaps being permanently injured in retaliation, so Keller retaliated in the currently acceptable way.

He threw a fastball below the shoulders and behind Anderson: a fastball behind a hitter will cause him to back up — right into the fastball’s path — and keeping it below the shoulders prevents serious injury.

Anderson got hit in the wallet and at that point had two choices: accept his punishment and go down to first base or charge the mound. But, like too many players in today’s game, he tried to split the difference. 

Huffing and puffing

Anderson is the one responsible for clearing the benches and did that by taking a step toward the mound.

A step toward the mound is supposed to be intimidating and indicate the hitter is thinking about charging the pitcher, but it’s what old-school players call a “Tommy Toughguy” move.

Guys who really want to charge the mound do it in a sprint; guys who don’t really want to charge the mound, but still want to look tough, do it in a saunter.

Casually moving in the generally direction of the mound gives the catcher time to get between the hitter and the catcher — which Maldonado did — and gives the hitter an excuse for not charging.

That step toward the mound triggered the benches to clear. If things got serious, the White Sox and Royals needed to support their teammates, which in most cases is another “Tommy Toughguy” move, this time by an entire team.

In most baseball brawls, nobody really wants to fight.

Brawls are a good way to get hurt — usually by someone falling on a player, rarely by a punch — and fined. But the unwritten rules say everybody has to come out onto the field and show their willingness to fight.

I once asked a player what he and his teammates did when they really didn’t want to fight and he said you find your best friend on the other team, grab each other’s jerseys and make dinner plans.

Once Anderson got a crowd between himself and Keller, he became much more aggressive and animated because there was no chance he’d actually have to fight.

Here’s another old-school term: “huffing and puffing.”

Guys who were held back by a single hand on their sleeve when they could have charged the mound suddenly become mad-dog killers when they have enough people in between them and their opponent.

Had Anderson simply taken his punishment and base without all the huffing and puffing, the benches would not have cleared.

The alibi

After the game, Keller stuck to the old-school playbook and said the pitch “got away” from him. A pitcher can’t say, yeah, I hit that guy on purpose and if he ever shows me up again I’ll hit him again,” because that can lead to larger punishment from MLB.

So everyone sticks to the “it got away” alibi even though anyone who knows what he or she is looking at holds a different opinion.

And speaking of different opinions, Pete Grathoff has posted a mash-up of the incident with the Chicago and Kansas City announcers’ perspectives, which were about what you’d think they’d be.

Depending on which broadcast a fan listened to, Anderson was pure as the driven snow or got exactly what he deserved.

But there was moment when a Chicago announcer — it sounded like Jason Benetti, not Steve Stone — went over the top about Anderson’s ejection: “That’s insane. Getting thrown at, you’re in danger, of course you’re going to be mad.”

Tim Anderson was never in danger unless his brains are located in his backside. On the other hand, the Chicago announcers know Anderson better than I do, so maybe they had a point.

The people who defend bat-flippers, crotch-grabbers and huff-and-puffers usually say the player is just being himself and adding some excitement to the game. A Chicago announcer — once again it sounded like Benetti — said the Royals had to retaliate because “fun” is not allowed in baseball.

I’m guessing the fans in attendance had more fun when the benches cleared than they did during the rest of the game combined. And if Anderson gets to have fun, be himself and add excitement to the game, so does Keller.

Mark your calendars: The Royals play the White Sox in Chicago again on May 27.

Should be interesting.

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