As much as I love baseball, no sport gets further up its own ass when it comes to players being allowed to look like they're having fun. Take the bench-clearing brawl in yesterday's Brewers-Pirates game, sparked by Carlos Gomez taking time to admire what he thought was a home run. Words were exchanged, punches thrown, all over a little showmanship that—in the end—only hurt the Brewers.
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole explained what he said to Gomez over at third base. "I said, 'If you're going to hit a home run, you can watch it. If you're going to hit a fly ball to center field, don't watch it.'"
That's what really galls me. In a just world, do you know what a pitcher should be saying to a batter who strutted his way out of the box on a ball that stayed in the park? "Thanks." If anything, it should be Gomez's own teammates giving him shit for possibly squandering the chance at an inside-the-park home run. But this isn't about competition. It's about baseball's stupid "code," which may have served it well for a century, but now actively holds it back as other sports gain popularity.
Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi brings some heat today, blasting the self-proclaimed guardians of the game as anachronisms.
If Gomez's story sounds familiar, it should. Replace "Carlos Gomez" with "Yasiel Puig" or "Jose Fernandez," and the basic theme holds true: A Latin American-born player has become a star in the major leagues, and he's supposed to "tone down" his celebrations and remove the individuality from his game because "we don't do that here."
Well . . . why not? Because baseball's playing, coaching, executive and media establishments don't remember Joe DiMaggio pimping his home runs? Why do the old unwritten rules apply when there has been such profound change in the demographics of those playing — and watching — the game? Shouldn't our national pastime mirror the evolving desires of the U.S. ticket-buying public in the social media age?
MLB has, in fact, enhanced its marketing efforts on numerous fronts, seeking to draw fans and prospective players from new and more diverse populations. But what message do current players send when they discourage opponents — and even teammates — from performing in a way that would broaden the game's appeal?
I don't necessarily agree that the break with tradition has anything to do with the Latinization of the game—cocky, warpainted Bryce Harper rubs the old heads the wrong way as well. No, this is a full-fledged youth movement, something baseball desperately needs, but the "play the right way" generation is trying to smother it in the crib.
Gomez, one of the game's most exciting players, is no stranger to this sort of controversy. Brian McCann was there to greet him when he took too long rounding the bases on a home run last September. That time, Gomez was contrite. To his credit, he's done saying sorry:
"I'm not apologizing for nothing I did today. This is my job, I've been doing it for eight years like that. They know I play like that. It's not to disrespect nobody. So if they take it like that, they don't like it, that's fine, and I'm fine with it."
It's a culture clash, but it's also a marketing issue. My favorite moment of the MLB season so far was Carlos Gonzalez stopping to watch his home run off of Jose Fernandez, and Fernandez replying with a giant grin. My biggest regret was that MLB rules prevented the DL'd Adrian Beltre from chirping Felix Hernandez from the Rangers dugout. These are things—good-natured shit talk, friendly rivalries, the sense that players are sincerely enjoying what they do—that would make any young fan want to be a baseball player. Instead kids are being sent the clear message that Major League Baseball should be carried out with the humorlessness and sobriety of a 9-to-5.
In hockey, you can pump your fist when you score a goal. In basketball, you can scream after a dunk. In football, you can dance after a touchdown. In baseball, you're supposed to put your head down and jog. No emotion, no joy, and absolutely no fun allowed.
Polls and ratings show young people turning away from baseball in droves. That's a complicated issue, but this is surely a part of it: Children aren't dumb. They recognize hypocrisy. As little leaguers, they're told to "go have fun out there." They're told that major leaguers have the best job in the world, grown men playing a kid's sport. Then they see players actually playing with a kid's enthusiasm, and being upbraided, benched, or drilled for it. Why would any kid dream of playing a sport full of shamers and scolds?