Once again, the Fun Police are out in full force in baseball.
Heaven forbid a player should admire his home run for longer than the baseball code allows (as Derek Dietrich of the Reds did this season), or, gasp, flip his bat more flamboyantly than the code deems proper (as Tim Anderson of the White Sox blasphemed this past week).
Dietrich’s penance was a 93 mph Chris Archer fastball behind his back in his next at-bat. Anderson’s penalty was getting hit by a Brad Keller heater. And just like that, benches cleared, and the 2019 version of the never-ending debate over the evolution and application of baseball unwritten rules was back in full force.
I’d like to think people are coming around to the idea it’s OK to show emotion and exuberance in the course of a baseball game. In fact, not just OK, but desirable. I’m now in the “old fogey” demographic, but I just don’t understand why it’s acceptable to be demonstrative in virtually every other sport, but in baseball somehow it’s tantamount to treason.
Check that. After a lifetime in clubhouses, I do understand, more or less. No sport is more obsessed with ensuring players “respect the game” and “play the right way.” And that has been traditionally interpreted, by the participants themselves, as not showing up opponents with celebratory displays.
Yet the fabric of the game is changing. Those same clubhouses are now filled with players from a variety of countries and cultures, many of whom have dramatically different ideas about what are acceptable displays of emotion. In Korea and Japan, bat flips have evolved to an art form. In Latin America, the game is played with a zest and flair that would warrant a raised eyebrow – if not a high, hard one to the ear flap – in MLB.
Moreover, younger players from both here and abroad tend not to be as wedded to those traditional mores and values (though some certainly are). And when you have such a cultural and generational divide, well, you’re going to get these sort of conflicts arising every year.
You could say the real flash point for the renewed debate was Jose Bautista’s aggressive bat flip in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series for the Toronto Blue Jays.
If a home run that clinches a playoff-series victory doesn’t warrant a little flash and sizzle, I don’t know what does. But, of course Texas Rangers players took exception. The victimized pitcher, Sam Dyson, pretty much recited from the Joy Police textbook after the game to reporters:
“Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more. He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”
We’ve seen a million variations of this debate by now, to the point where we can recite all the talking points, right down to Randal Grichuk’s tweet this week in the wake of the Anderson incident:
“Guys are getting a little excessive on pimping HRs, on meaningless HRs too. Act like you have done it before, one time.”
But the new wrinkle is that the hierarchy of baseball is taking sides – and it’s not with the old-school scolds. MLB’s official account had a tweet of its own after the White Sox-Royals incident: “Keep doing your thing @TimAnderson7,” with the hashtag #LetTheKidsPlay.
That’s a reference to the ad campaign MLB launched during the playoffs last year, with Mariners great Ken Griffey Jr. as the spokesman. It mocked the unwritten rules by showing Giancarlo Stanton admiring a home run, Carlos Correa tossing his bat, Yasiel Puig wagging his tongue, Mookie Betts flexing, and Ronald Acuna Jr. celebrating a home run.
While disapproving audio from radio and TV broadcasts can be heard in the background, Griffey intones, “Don’t stop and stare. Don’t flip your bat. Respect the jersey.” Then Griffey turns around, hat characteristically backward, and drops the hammer:
“No more talk. Let the kids play.”
It’s a recognition by commissioner Rob Manfred that the sport needs to find a way to appeal to a new generation of fans. It’s why he is working so hard, with some radical proposals, on speeding up the pace of play (which traditionalists are also pushing back against). And it’s why he is trying to make it easier for players to let their personalities flow, without fear of retribution.
That hasn’t quite happened yet, but the times, they are a (slowly) changing. Cubs manager Joe Maddon eloquently put forth the counterpoint Friday when he told reporters why he doesn’t like bat flips:
“I would prefer that our guys would act like they’re going to do it again. I would prefer that the generation, the younger group right now, doesn’t need to see demonstrations like that in order to feel like they can watch baseball, that baseball is more interesting because somebody bat flips really well and (thinking) ‘I kind of dig it because if I watch it I might see a bat flip.’
“I’d prefer kids watch baseball because it’s a very interesting game and it’s intellectually stimulating. And when it’s played properly it’s never too long. I’d prefer kids learn that method as opposed to becoming enamored with our game based on histrionics. I’d prefer that, but it seems to be we are catering to that a bit.”
I would counter, however, that it’s not an “either or” equation. You can be intellectually stimulated by baseball and still want to see it played a little more crisply. And you can certainly get a kick out of excited players celebrating in a way that is de rigueur in the NFL and NBA (two sports, by the way, that have a stronger hold on the younger generation than baseball).
That’s exuberance, not histrionics. It doesn’t mean taunting your opponents, mind you. Neither Dietrich nor Anderson crossed that line. (Though Keller was suspended for hitting Anderson, and Anderson was suspended for his reaction once benches cleared.) It means conveying the crucial fact the game of baseball is actually fun – a reality that too many of the “it was a better game in my day” crowd of sourpuss commentators and analysts are burying.
Let the kids play, for crying out loud.