Column: Save the chatting and play ball

Without the benefit of a lip reader it was hard to tell what

Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols found so funny when they shared a

laugh at first base during Game 4 of the National League

championship series.

Could have been some kind of inside joke between the two

slugging free agents to be. Perhaps even the idea that the

Cardinals would actually give up a piece of the team to keep

Pujols, surely a laughable notion on its own.

Or maybe they were just laughing about flouting baseball’s

fraternization rule on national television and getting away with

it.

Not that anybody gets punished anymore for yukking it up with

members of the other team. If they did, someone like Orlando Hudson

of the Padres would owe more in fines than he gets in salary for

the conversations he has with anyone who happens to stop at second

base.

But a rule is a rule. And there’s nothing ambiguous about

section 3.09 of baseball’s official rules.

”Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time

while in uniform,” it reads.

Go early to any baseball game, and you’ll see that rule broken

around the batting cage. Watch any game and invariably you’ll see

someone chatting on the basepaths with a member of the other

team.

But the Cardinals and Brewers are battling each other to get in

the World Series. It’s serious stuff, for both the franchises and

their rabid fans.

Watch Fielder and Pujols, and it seems little more than a

laughing matter.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time in baseball when

chatting up an opposing player on first base meant you weren’t

going to play first base anymore. Baseball fined players just for

talking with members of the other team, and players themselves made

sure their teammates understood the opposition was the enemy, not

their friend.

Think Ty Cobb was looking to make buddies when he sharpened his

spikes before running the bases? Would someone like Bob Gibson stop

to say hello to a first baseman they had just brushed back the

inning before?

Times have changed, sure, with players switching teams so often

now that they invariably have friends from other teams. They’re all

rich young men, too, who like nothing better than to hang out with

those of their ilk.

Save it for dinner after the game, though. There’s no laughing

in baseball – not when it’s between players from opposing

teams.

Joe Torre would certainly like to see it stop, though teams

didn’t seem to take his memo on the subject earlier this year very

seriously. The executive vice president of baseball operations is

old school in his belief that opposing players shouldn’t be hugging

each other and having conversations on the field.

Torre was manager of the Cardinals in 1992 when relief pitcher

Todd Worrell and first baseman Pedro Guerrero threw punches at each

other after Guerrero brought Chicago’s Sammy Sosa into the

clubhouse following a Cubs win. He immediately banned opposing

players from the clubhouse and told his players that fraternization

would not be tolerated.

Utility player Rex Hudler made sure Sosa and any other opposing

player understood.

”Anyone else comes in here again, they’re free game,” Hudler

said. ”Open season, baby.”

That kind of attitude seems to be mostly missing these days,

with players treating the game like it’s one big fraternity. Pujols

himself seemed taken back early in the season when his very public

hug before a game with Jim Hendry, then the general manager of the

Cubs, immediately prompted talk of the Cubs having the inside track

for Pujols once his contract with the Cardinals expired.

”He’s on the other side. I’m on our side. I just think it’s

kind of ridiculous,” Pujols said.

That may be true, but don’t blame fans if they think the line is

being blurred. They come to watch Pujols hit, not hug, and many of

them have trouble understanding just what there is to love about

the other team.

Pujols and Fielder are going to have a lot to talk about in the

offseason. They’re the biggest catches on the free-agent market,

and their new contracts likely will be among the richest ever in

baseball.

They’ll have plenty of things to smile about then, plenty of

time to share a few laughs.

For now, though, they should do us all a favor and just play

baseball.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or

http://twitter.com/timdahlberg