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Bryce Harper knows how to read the unwritten rules
Updated 5/8/2012 7:57 AM ET
Bryce Harper had six hits, several highlight-reel catches and throws and enough publicity to make a Hollywood heartthrob envious, but he wasn't a true big-leaguer until Sunday night.

At least that's the way Cole Hamels felt before the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher planted a 93-mph fastball in the lower back of Harper, the Washington Nationals' 19-year-old rookie.

"I was trying to hit him," Hamels said after the game, quite the revelation at a time when NFL bounties and NHL playoff fights are part of the daily sports diet.

COLUMN: Lopresti: Hamels' honesty refreshing MORE: Hamels called classless by Nationals GM MORE: Hamels suspended five games by MLB

"It's something that I grew up watching," said Hamels, who was suspended by Major League Baseball for five games Monday. "So I'm just trying to continue the old baseball."

Translation: Welcome to the big leagues, rookie.And, by the way, we think you're a little too big for your britches.

Hamels didn't need to explain he was enforcing his interpretation of the game's unwritten rules, a traditional and generally accepted code understood by players, managers and umpires.

"This is the code at its deepest and most ingrained levels" says Jason Turbow, who authored The Baseball Codes and maintains a website to discuss events such as Sunday's. "It is the confluence of ability and pride and hype and the concept that all men must earn their successes."

Sunday's showdown is the talk of baseball, a collision of tradition and modern sensibilities. Unlike their predecessors, today's players know following the code means risking suspensions and fines.

With that backdrop, the most shocking part of the events to baseball folks was that Hamels owned up to it. All you would have gotten from such veteran hard throwers such as Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens was an icy glare.

Clemens did something similar to then-rookie J.T. Snow during a game in 1993.

"I remember coming up to the plate," said Snow, now a special assistant for the San Francisco Giants who was hitting .408 with six home runs after his first 15 games for the California Angels. "Clemens threw a fastball over my head. I didn't say anything. I just watched him come halfway toward the plate, get a new ball from the umpire, and he smiled. That was old school."

It seemed to have its desired effect. Snow hit .108 over the next six weeks and was demoted to the minor leagues.

A batter's response to the code can speak volumes, a sentiment echoed by Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, who tweeted: "Hamels hits Nats Harper! My rookie year, Gene Mauch brought in Turk Farrell. He knock(ed) me down 3 times on 3 pitches. You gotta get back up."

Harper did.

Harper gets it

He might be the youngest player in the major leagues, but not only did Harper pay his dues in Hamels' eyes, he also proved to all of baseball that he gets it.

After taking his base without a glance at Hamels — the old guard much prefer that to charging the mound — Harper aggressively raced to third base on a single by Jayson Werth. Then when Hamels attempted a pickoff throw to first, Harper stole home.

If that wasn't enough of a message, Harper batted three more times against Hamels, hitting a single and a double and pushing a drag bunt, a tactic often intended to rile pitchers.

Afterward, Harper wouldn't be drawn into the frenzy.

"No clue," was his response to why Hamels hit him.

"He's a great guy, great pitcher, knows how to pitch," Harper said of Hamels, 28, the 2008 World Series MVP off to a 4-1 start this season. "He's an All-Star. It's all good."

Even if Sunday's game hadn't been on national TV, the message would have spread to every clubhouse by now: Harper won't be intimidated and won't handle such situations with a sense of entitlement.

"He proved everything he needed to tonight," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said.

It even seemed "all good" with Hamels, who won't appeal his suspension and probably will start one of four games the Nationals play in Philadelphia on May 21-24.

"I think it could be a really good rivalry," Hamels said of National League East opponents that play in ballparks 135 miles apart. The Nationals (18-10) are atop a division dominated by the Phillies of late.

That a message beyond Harper was being sent wasn't lost on Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who called Hamels "fake tough" and the incident "classless, gutless" in an interview with The Washington Post.

"(Hamels) thinks he's going to intimidate us after hitting our 19-year-old rookie who's eight games into the big leagues?" Rizzo told The Post. "He doesn't know who he's dealing with."

For Harper, hitting .308 with five doubles in his first eight games, it's part being a rookie, part being not just any rookie.

It doesn't soften his indoctrination that he was a Sports Illustrated cover boy at age 16. That he accelerated his high school graduation so he could be drafted a year early and, after being the first pick in the 2010 draft, that the most famous moment in his 129-game minor league career was blowing a kiss after hitting a home run.

"When I walk out of the stadium, I'm the nicest guy in the world," Harper said last week. "When I'm playing, I'm playing hard. I have a passion to play this game. When you see my attitude, it's when somebody comes after my team. I want my teammates to know I have their backs."

Teammates at the time of the kiss-blowing backed up Harper.

"The pitcher was showing us up the whole game," said Taylor Jordan, then a Hagerstown (Md.) Suns pitcher. "Bryce finally tattooed one and showed him he's not the only one doing something out there."

But home runs at the major league level might not make the purpose pitches disappear. Gary Sheffield, a nine-time All-Star, said he — and others around the game — noticed when Harper flipped his helmet off his head on his first major league hit.

Like Harper, Sheffield was a 19-year-old rookie, and he recalls staring at the ground after responding to Nolan Ryan's brushback pitch by hitting a double.

"I'm pretty sure over time he'll calm down," Sheffield said of Harper. "But I think he'll keep getting hit for a while. Pitchers have got to make sure they establish their presence, too. You don't want a young kid hanging out over the plate. … I think the only way to handle it is what he did. You can't start chirping. If you do, you only make it worse."

That's more of the code: Nothing demonstrative when you strike out a batter. The same goes when you hit a home run, or you can count on just what Harper got from Hamels your next time up.

Yes, baseball's different.

George Tsamis, who had pitched part of the 1993 season for the Minnesota Twins, was in the Class AA Southern League in '94. Someone on the opposing bench was ripping him about his low-velocity pitches. Finally, Tsamis stepped off the mound and challenged the player to come out of the dugout.

It was Michael Jordan— just doing what he'd always done in basketball during his experiment in the minor leagues.

According to the code

One thing that does translate between sports: perceived benefits for stars. How many referees would call Jordan for traveling?

That's the kind of treatment that seemed to concern Hamels.

"I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really small and you didn't say anything just because that's the way baseball is," Hamels said Sunday. "Sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old school."

The Nationals did take care of things according to the code.

When Hamels batted in the third inning and tried to bunt, Washington's Jordan Zimmermann hit him on the leg. Intentional? Zimmermann said no; MLB seemed to agree, and he was not suspended Monday.

Umpire Andy Fletcher issued warnings to both teams that any further shenanigans would result in ejections.

The timing of Fletcher's warnings was no accident. Harper got hit. The Nationals got their payback. The teams had policed the incident, just the way they prefer. All the warning does is emphasize the next part of the unwritten rule: Case closed.

"That's the way it should work," Hamels said.

Not so fast, Snow said: "Hamels was trying to prove that he was old school and tough, and then he comes out admits what he did. All he proved is he's not old school."

The best part, Snow said, is how Harper responded.

"He didn't say a word," Snow said. "He just came back and stole home.

"Now, that's old school!"

Contributing: Bob Nightengale in Phoenix

Posted 5/7/2012 9:23 PM ET
Updated 5/8/2012 7:57 AM ET
The Nationals' Bryce Harper, shown May 1, took getting plunked in the back in stride Monday, eventually scoring by stealing home plate.
By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
The Nationals' Bryce Harper, shown May 1, took getting plunked in the back in stride Monday, eventually scoring by stealing home plate.

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