What’s the Big Flippin’ Deal?

mlbWhen Major League Baseball’s Spring Training rolls around every year, it reminds me that there are basically two kinds of people in this country: those who roll their eyes and think baseball season is never-ending; and those who wish baseball season lasted all year long. Count me among the latter. The offseason always seems interminable. The sights and sounds of baseball in the spring, as a harbinger of glorious summer days and brisk fall evenings at the ballpark, fill me with sheer joy.

Bryce Harper on the cover of The Mag, March 28 issue
Bryce Harper on the cover of The Mag, March 28 issue

Aside from the typical news briefing of rookie prospects, troublesome injuries, rotation depth, and early playoff prognosticating, what’s going on in baseball this March?

Well, an American team, the Tampa Bay Rays, played an exhibition game in Cuba yesterday, so that was cool. Hopefully it will serve as another step in improving relations between our countries, as well as garner attention for the economic and political situation that still suffocates the Cuban people. The Pittsburgh Pirates are planning on breaking out the old pillbox hats in some throwback games this year. Those were cute. And the reigning MVP of the National League, Bryce Harper, continues to voice his opinions on what many consider to be the stale, outdated unwritten rules of baseball.

In an interview with sportswriter Tim Keown for the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, Harper attacks the old-school thinking that players shouldn’t show emotion on the baseball field.

Baseball’s tired… It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair… there are so many guys in the game now who are so much fun. – Bryce Harper

Google “bat flip” and your entire first screen of images will depict a single event from last season: Jose Bautista punctuating a playoff home run with one of the most epic celebratory acts in baseball’s storied history. It was a big moment. So what was the big deal?

John Turbow’s book The Baseball Codes – Beanballs, Sign-Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime (2010), is one of my favorite books on the sport. In the chapter entitled “Don’t Show Players Up,” he recounts several incidents over the years in which pitchers, in particular, have taken exception to celebrations in the batter’s box.

Jason Turbow's The Baseball Codes (2010)
Jason Turbow’s The Baseball Codes (2010)

Admiring one’s own longball isn’t all that sets pitchers off. When Phillies rookie Jimmy Rollins flipped his bat after hitting a home run off St. Louis reliever Steve Kline in 2001, the Cardinals pitcher went ballistic, screaming as he followed Rollins around the bases. “I called him every name in the book, tried to get him to fight,” said Kline. The pitcher stopped only upon reaching Philadelphia third baseman Scott Rolen, who was moving into the on-deck circle and alleviated the situation by assuring him that members of the Phillies would take care of it internally. – Jason Turbow, The Baseball Codes (2010)

The implication here is that Rollins, in retaliation, should have expected a fastball at his head the next time he stepped up to the plate. And his teammates, well aware of Rollins’s transgression, are assuring Kline that they would deal with the rookie’s lack of respect. This is part of the internal, in-game self-policing that goes hand-in-hand with all the other unwritten rules of baseball.

Hall of Fame pitcher Rich “Goose” Gossage agrees wholeheartedly with preserving this mentality, and has gone on record blasting Harper for those recent comments.

Future Hall of Famer David Ortiz, currently Boston’s Designated Hitter, has recently opened up in support of Harper. Or, more specifically, against antiquated mindsets like that of Gossage: “This ain’t no old school. This is what it is in today’s day. You pull yourself together and get people out, or you pull yourself together and you go home. That’s what it is.”

Discussions about race and culture aside (and Gossage does come across as an old, racist white guy), it certainly seems as though pitchers, for the most part, are more sensitive to showmanship than batters. Could have something to do with the difference between a game-changing home run and an inning-ending strikeout, I suppose.

Personally, I have no problem with a greater infusion of cultural or youthful flair. But what happens if bat flips and fist pumps get more and more commonplace? What if the emotion in a moment is replaced by orchestrated celebrations, like that stupid Prince Fielder bowling ball nonsense? The last thing we need is the baseball equivalent of touchdown dances. Nobody gives a shit about those anymore. It’s not like you can penalize a ballplayer for unsportsmanlike conduct the way you can in the NFL or NBA, either.

So maybe we accept more flair. But the flair accepts continued beanballs from insulted pitchers. That, after all, is a weird part of The Code as well.