Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s relationship with old-school baseball is complicated

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Pirates catcher Elias Diaz throws to first after getting the force out at home plate as the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo slides in hard during a game in Pittsburgh on Monday. Diaz’s errant throw to first allowed two runs to score. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Apparently, you get to pick and choose when it comes to old-school baseball. It’s a tricky path to walk, but I think I’m finally getting the hang of it.

Criticizing players who show too much emotion: bad. Sliding into defenseless catchers who are standing well in front of the plate: good.

To sum up, old-school baseball is backward and Neanderthal until, you know, it’s not.

That’s the only conclusion one can draw from Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s strident defense of Anthony Rizzo, who went out of his way Monday to slide into the right ankle of Pirates catcher Elias Diaz. Umpires ruled the play was legal, but Major League Baseball later ruled it wasn’t.

If you were seeking clarity, hahahahaha! This is baseball! Its gray areas are its problem and its beauty. The sport is going through an unsettled period brought on by a clash of cultures. One side wants fun. The other wants toughness/hustle/frontier justice.

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Baseball is conflicted, and Maddon serves as a good example of that fuzziness. It’s impossible to argue that anything about Rizzo’s slide to break up a double play was good for baseball. It could have ended Diaz’s career. But argue Maddon did, saying Rizzo’s slide ‘‘was a perfect play.’’

When baserunners try to break up a double play by sliding hard into second base, fielders can see what’s coming their way. They have an opportunity to protect themselves. Diaz couldn’t see Rizzo. And because of new rules instituted several years ago to protect catchers from just those situations, it didn’t occur to Diaz that he had any reason to worry about Rizzo. So he stood in front of the plate and threw the ball toward first. He fell in pain when Rizzo arrived, and the ball sailed into right field. Diaz received treatment after the play but stayed in the game.

‘‘I understand that there is old-school baseball, but we are not in old-school baseball anymore,’’ Diaz said.

No, we’re not, as Maddon has stressed through the years. He’s all for players celebrating home runs and pitchers celebrating strikeouts, even if that goes against the unwritten rules of the game (read: old-school baseball). He refers to people who embrace other unwritten rules as grumpy and out of touch.

It’s sometimes hard to tell if Maddon really believes what he’s saying or if he’s simply protecting his players. But if a Pirate had slid into Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, causing his knee to bend in a way that nature never intended it to, I’m guessing Maddon would have been railing against the injustice of it all. He insists he wouldn’t. I’ll get back to you when I find someone who believes him.

It’s not easy being Maddon, who borrows from the hipness quotient of players 40 years his junior but feels a deep connection with his old-school roots. It’s not a Maddon news conference without at least one reference to minor-league baseball in the 1970s. But he considers anyone who questions his ever-changing, analytics-driven lineup card to be unsophisticated.

I’m not sure if he believes that Bob Dylan’s age (77) makes him a dinosaur, but Maddon lives by a Dylan line, though he might not know it: ‘‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’’ Change is Maddon’s friend, as long as it helps him.

Exposing a player to the possibility of injury for no good reason doesn’t fit in with new-school sensibilities. The players are the show. They can’t be the show if they’re offed by a slide in front of the plate.

In April, Maddon defended Cubs second baseman Javy Baez when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle criticized him for tossing his bat high in the air in frustration after popping out. Hurdle said Baez didn’t show ‘‘respect for the game,’’ a baseball-y phrase many fans today ridicule.

Players should be able to show emotion, Maddon argued. Hurdle’s comment, he said, ‘‘reveals you more than it reveals the person you are talking about.’’ Meaning, I presume, that Hurdle still is living in the Middle Ages.

Maddon is smart enough to know that plenty of young players want to see the game lose its fusty ways. So when he praises Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s on-field exuberance, as he did last year, I see a shrewd manager letting a potential free agent know the Cubs would be a safe landing place for him.

The old-school response to an opposing player enthusiastically celebrating a home run is a fastball in the back the next time he comes to the plate. That’s offensive to a new generation of fans, players and managers who want to see the knuckle-dragging taken out of the game and more excitement brought in.

Someone needs to write a new book of unwritten rules, using ink — and not the invisible kind. Some of us, managers included, can’t keep track of what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. Or maybe we all need to go back to school. If only we could decide which one.

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.

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