If you’ve followed my posts on my other site, BaseballOnMyBrain.com, you know that I often talk about how to watch the game and that a baseball game is so much more than just an isolated incident, but rather compares to an episode of a soap opera, drawing on things that happened not just yesterday but possibly weeks, months or years ago. To the uninitiated, or those who just don’t have a deeper level of interest in baseball, this is hard to explain. Many people show up to the ballpark and watch a game while thinking that it is just a single game without giving much thought to what it draws on in the past or how it might affect the future. Likewise, they might also miss subtleties and nuances within the game that are a a mix of rules, showmanship, and what Jason Turbos and Michael Duca refer to as The Baseball Codes, the title of their new book from Pantheon Books.
As they explain right out of the gate, trying to write a book like this is difficult, because the codes of on- and off-field behavior in baseball are both fairly guarded by players, managers, and those in the game, and they come and go as the game as a whole changes. Turbow and Duca start by breaking down “the code” into four distinct categories: on the field, retaliation, cheating and teammates. Under each of these four umbrella headings fall several more specific chapters, each loaded with examples from throughout baseball’s history of how the codes have been implemented, developed, refined and as is the constant theme, overstepped by players who were either too young and green – and often uninformed – to know better, or by players too wrapped up in the moment. Not surprisingly, the book looks at many of the flashy instances of how the code comes into play pitchers throwing at hitters and bench clearing brawls — and the events that lead to these kind of events: staring too long at a home run, running up the score, or as seems to be the case often throughout the book, doing anything against Nolan Ryan.
The career strikeout leader’s name comes up throughout the book as one of the last examples of players that lived up to the code and had the tenacity to enforce it with a fastball. For me however, the strength of the book came from some of the lesser known aspects of the code that get enforced. For instance, I have no tolerance for fans who boo when pitchers throw over to first base – I understand that it’s not the most exciting part of the game, but as Turbos and Ducat so wonderfully explain, there are many benefits to be gained from it – and not just in keeping a player close to the bag. A well placed pick-off that ends up coming down on a runner’s bare hand or into his face are friendly reminders that some aspect of the code may have been violated along the way.
Suffice to say that with 23 chapters, the examples of how the code gets carried out are plentiful, and will leave you much better informed as to its role in baseball once you finish the book. At times, the copious amount of examples that Turbos and Ducat bring in seemed to weigh down the book, but by the end it becomes apparent that this is one of the best ways to illustrate their points. The pair let players, managers and broadcasters do much of the talking in the book, either through direct interviews or by recapping published quotes. By doing this, they get the reader as close to the situation as possible, especially given how hard it can be to get players to fess up when the code calls for them to do something such as hit a batter.
The book is better executed than Ross Bernstein’s The Code, published in, which tackled the same topic. While checking in at nearly equal page counts, The Baseball Codes feels much tighter and better put together. The readability is very good, with succinct chapters that should have no problem keeping your attention. Like many baseball books, The Baseball Codes is a good book for the fan who wants to watch the game at a deeper and more informed level. To take the subject matter to the ballpark is a different matter though – as being informed about a topic and actually being able to see it being carried out are two different things, and something that for most fans is almost impossible except in hindsight.