Hunter, Norris, and the unwritten rules: Payback's a pitch

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Bud Norris hit Torii Hunter in the ribs on Monday night. What do the unwritten rules of baseball say should happen next?

After Ian Kinsler parked a two-run shot into the left field seats at Camden Yards on Monday night, starting pitcher Bud Norris decided to park a fastball in Torii Hunter's ribs. Benches cleared, adult words were exchanged, and whether or not Norris hit Hunter intentionally is completely beside the point. We are firmly within the realm of baseball's unwritten rules now.

According to the unspoken code, Norris was exercising his prerogative as a pitcher to increase the "intimidation factor" by throwing at/around/near the next batter after the home run. But the code doesn't stop there, because - according to those same unwritten rules - it is now the Tigers' prerogative to retaliate. Actually, if you want to be more strict about following the unwritten rules, it's not just a prerogative, it's nigh unto an obligation. The code is fairly clear on this point, that unless a team wants to roll over and take a beating, they're duty bound to fight back.

The trick, however, is to retaliate and not get caught.

Last year, Fernando Rodney hit Miguel Cabrera, and Jim Leyland was quite clear in the post-game interview that someone was going to pay. Rick Porcello threw a pitch at Ben Zobrist the next day, and was suspended for six games. This, too, is part of the complicated code: umpires know about the code, and they're usually happy to abide by the code, but not if teams/pitchers are going to be blatant about what they're doing. There is little doubt that Leyland's explicit vow to get revenge is what resulted in Porcello's six-game suspension.

Perhaps that is why Brad Ausmus played down the Monday night incident, saying that he preferred to move on and focus on the next game. Ausmus said repeatedly during the offseason that he considers himself an "old school" manager, so it probably goes without saying that he's fully aware of how the unwritten rules work, and that there is still unfinished business to be dealt with - and he no doubt knows that saying something that explicit in an interview would be a bad idea.

As to how the retaliation will play out, the code is a bit fuzzy. It doesn't have to be the very next day, and even though Wednesday will be the last time these two teams face each other in the 2014 regular season, it doesn't even have to be this year, necessarily. Payback can, and sometimes does, take up to a year or more, depending on schedules, pitching rotations, standings, and the nature of the offense.

The unwritten rules are also unclear on who gets the pleasure of repaying the debt in cases like these. Normally, if a pitcher hits a team's superstar, it will be the other team's superstar who repays the debt and takes a fastball to the ribs. But Norris didn't hit Cabrera, he hit Hunter, so perhaps anyone in the entire Orioles lineup is considered "fair game" at this point. There is a general sense of "an eye for an eye" in the baseball code as well, and going beyond those limits virtually guarantees that there will be retaliation for the retaliation. Hunter was plunked in the ribs, which typically would warrant an Orioles hitter being pegged on the arm, torso, or leg. Perhaps even a "near miss" would be enough to send the message and end the matter, whereas if a Tigers pitcher retaliates by hitting an Orioles batter near the head (or is even perceived as coming too close to the head), then the matter is far from settled, and it will be the Orioles' turn to send a message.

Payback must also be strategically managed. Ausmus would be foolish to let one of his starting pitchers carry out "the hit" and risk ejection. That would quickly put the game in the hands of the Tigers' often-unpredictable bullpen, and let's face it: the unwritten rules do take a back seat to winning games. Retaliation is most safely placed in the hands of a relief pitcher, especially if the game is in later innings and the score is such that there isn't a win or a loss on the line.

Will the Tigers retaliate? Almost certainly. Will it be tonight, and will it be Drew Smyly who is given the responsibility? Perhaps, but Ausmus is undoubtedly smart enough to keep things low on the radar. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that someone in the Orioles' lineup will get plunked tonight, but only if the game is well in hand, and only when a Tigers' reliever is on the mound.

Aren't the unwritten rules fun?

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