Every sport is home to plenty of gatekeepers who preach about the “right” way to play the game, but it’s hard to think of any that attract more of that particular brand of stickler than baseball.
America’s Pastime is governed by a lengthy rulebook, but its players are also expected to abide by the “unwritten rules” that have frequently become a point of contention amongst fans and athletes alike.
It seems like we have mercifully moved on from the era where over-the-top bat flips were viewed as an invitation to get a pitcher to throw at you when you stepped up to the plate after hitting a home run, but players still need to avoid bunting during a no-hitter or stealing a base when they’re on the right (or wrong) side of a blowout if they don’t want to risk the same fate.
However, that’s just a taste of the many violations of unspoken sportsmanship guidelines with the potential to cause some friction on the diamond.
In 1990, we got to witness the fallout of one of those faux pas courtesy of a couple of iconic figures: Carlton Fisk and Deion Sanders, who butted heads during an incident that’s been largely forgotten to history but is worth taking a look back at based on how absurd the issue in question was in hindsight.
Why Carlton Fisk butted heads with Deion Sanders for violating one of baseball’s unwritten rules
Carlton Fisk needs no introduction for most baseball fans who know him best as the Red Sox catcher who famously “waved” a walk-off home run into fair territory during the World Series in 1975.
He was also an incredibly fiery competitor who wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with other players on the field—including Lou Pinella (who got punched in the face by Fisk after colliding with him at home plate) and Yankees catcher Thurmon Munson, who was Fisk’s mortal enemy prior to his tragic death in a plane crash in 1979.
You have to assume Fisk’s general disdain for anyone in a Yankees uniform played a role in what transpired when he faced off against them as a member of the White Sox on May 22, 1990.
That year, New York’s roster was home to Deion Sanders, who is one of the few people who can say they’ve been able to simultaneously pursue a career in the MLB and the NFL.
The fact that Sanders was able to pull double duty means the cockiness the man who was known as “Prime Time” was defined by was pretty justified—although it apparently did not sit well with Fisk.
That reality was manifested when Sanders declined to run to first base after grounding out, which is traditionally viewed as a somewhat egregious violation of baseball’s unwritten rules.
Sanders was 22 years old at the time, and Fisk—who’d been playing in the MLB for 21 seasons—took exception to that lack of hustle, which he viewed as disrespectful (especially because Sanders was largely unproven at the major league level and his presence on the Yankees roster was undeniably a bit of a publicity stunt).
The catcher wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure the next time Sanders stepped up to bat, and the fact that Fisk claims the outfielder drew a dollar sign in the dirt before telling him “The days of slavery are over” (an account Deion disputes) led to him confronting his opponent and the benches clearing before cooler heads prevailed.
That essentially marked the beginning and the end of their feud, but I can’t think of anything that encapsulates the sheer absurdity of baseball’s unwritten rules quite like that showdown.