What we talk about when we talk about Yasiel Puig

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After reading one really, really bad Yasiel Puig column and one really, really good one this morning, I stopped to think about what really animates people about this guy. And I decided that, while it isn’t racism as we’ve come to think about it — I don’t for a second think that everyone who gets on Puig’s case is a racist or a bigot — there is certainly a barrier, borne of passive ethnocentrism, at work.

If you go back and look at the commentary about a young Roberto Clemente or, really, almost any other young Latin superstar in baseball history, you see a lot of the same things being said about them that are being said about Puig. Many of the actual words are different — I don’t think anyone these days actually calls them “hot-blooded” or anything — but there is this presumption, it seems, that most young Latin ballplayers are some breed of wild horse that needs to be tamed. Contrast this to young American ballplayers who mess up sometimes and are talked about as if they need to grow up. We assume age-appropriate immaturity in the latter that will inevitably be grown out of and assume culturally-determined otherness in the former that must be beaten out of them via discipline and disapproval.

It’s an unconscious thing, I think, fostered by the cultural differences, even if it isn’t necessarily inspired by them. I mean, take race out of the mix as the reason why someone may be critical of Yasiel Puig. Let’s call it an aversion to his youthful brashness and perceived arrogance. Bryce Harper had a lot of that said about him when he first hit the scene too. The cover of Sports Illustrated. The bold and unorthodox move to bypass the usual rites of passage in high school or college. The taunting of opposing pitchers in the minor leagues. Harper is getting endorsements and kudos all the time now, but a couple of years ago he was spoken of as Everything That Is Wrong With Kids Today.

Except we’ve seen a decided turn in the commentary about Harper since he burst on to the scene. We’ve seen it because writers and observers have gotten to know Harper, his motivations and his back story. The real person behind the image to which many had an initial aversion. We have met his family and know some about his religion. We’ve seen him interact with his teammates and elders in the game like Chipper Jones.  It has allowed us to change our perception about him.

That entire process is much, much harder with Puig. He doesn’t speak our language nor do most of us speak his. Because he’s from Cuba, his background is much harder to know and what we do know of it is told more like a fantastical tale than just a story of a kid growing up. We aren’t as privy to his interactions with elders in the game because we can’t necessarily understand his conversations veteran Latino players. There’s an otherness to his experience and maturation in the game which makes it harder to know him.

The result: stuff like references to him “jetting off to join a South Beach conga line for the winter. Party on!”  The conga is a dance that broke big in the 1930s. Would we have ever assumed a 22 year-old American would “jet off to Peoria, Illinois” to Fox Trot? Of course not. Because we know his culture and don’t make such ham-handed references. And because, before we ever think to, we work to understand him a little bit before we assume he was a monster.

Maybe Puig is the worst. Maybe he’s a jerk who is arrogant and untamed and in need of a good lesson. It’s totally possible. No one saying such things, however, has put forth any evidence justifying such a conclusion. Jimmy Rollins was fined for being late to the ballpark several years ago and I don’t recall anyone writing deep thought pieces about how he needed to be benched. Jeff Francoeur missed plenty of cutoff men when he played for the Braves due to the confidence he had in his arm and he was never pilloried for it.  Just recently, Adam Eaton slid into home when he hit a walkoff homer and no one carried on about it like they have with Puig.

People didn’t because it’s easier to know those players and their motivations. Because they’re easier to talk to after the game. In contrast, it is so very difficult to really get to know Yasiel Puig to see what makes him tick. For that reason people fall back on assumptions and generalities that are rotten with centuries of racial baggage, even if the people making the assumptions are totally unconscious that they’re doing it.

My suggestion: before concluding that Puig is a major problem in need of solving, figure out whether he’s a problem in the first place. That may take a bit longer and may require some extra work — and that, in turn, will keep you from writing a pithy column during a week when Puig is in the news — but it may help stop this dumb cycle of misunderstanding Latin ballplayers for large parts of their career.

Rob Manfred is prepared to implement a pitch clock unilaterally for 2018

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Rob Manfred has long been on record wanting to speed up the pace of play in baseball and, to that end, last year proposed a 20-second pitch clock. Pursuant to baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, he could not implement that unilaterally last year. However if, one year after a proposed rules change, no agreement can be reached with the union, he has the power to impose the originally-proposed change unilaterally.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic says today that he is prepared to do just that — imposing that pitch clock and a rule limiting mound visits — for the 2018 season. He further says that the players might very well allow him to do that, despite the fact that they and Manfred are currently negotiating an agreed set of rule changes.

Why? Because, Rosenthal says, if they step aside and let Manfred do it by himself and the rules changes prove unpopular, he’ll take the blame for it:

If enough players oppose the changes, they could absolve themselves of responsibility and allow Manfred to force the issue by introducing the two key elements of MLB’s plan: a 20-second pitch clock and reduction in mound visits. The onus then would be on Manfred to deal with any public fallout and unintended consequences the new rules might trigger.

I’m not sure, based on the story itself, if that’s just Rosenthal’s speculation or if it’s actually a potential union strategy to do nothing and let Manfred own the rules changes. If it’s the latter, though, it’s a monumentally stupid strategy. For a few reasons.

The first and biggest reason is that it is not a union’s job to play public relations games. It’s a union’s job to make workplace conditions as good as possible for its membership via bargaining. Rob Manfred is required to engage with the union on these rules changes for a limited time and is doing so, apparently in good faith. The union, while not possessing great leverage here, has at least some ability to put its two cents in on a rule that impacts all of its members and could, conceivably, make the rules a bit better for them. Barring that, they could at least attempt to obtain some sort of concession in another area in order to get their agreement to the rule. Blowing the chance to have input on work rules because of a chance to win a public relations fight is an abdication of responsibility for a labor union.

Second: there is not going to be any sort of public relations win for the union regardless of what happens. Indeed, to even think there could be one is to ignore what has happened with every rules change in baseball history and how they have played with the public.

No matter how much some people complain about a change in baseball — and some people love to complain — most folks eventually get used them. The DH rule just celebrated its 50th anniversary. People moan, but it’s just part of life. Same with interleague play and divisional realignment and expanded playoffs and no-pitch intentional walks and the takeout slide rules and everything else. The complaints about such things are loud, but they’re not deeply felt or widely felt by any but a handful of self-proclaimed traditionalists. The game chugs on and most people get used to it without there ever being the kind of P.R. fallout that puts egg on the league’s face or which puts the players in some better light. If the pitch clock rule is imposed, people will complain a lot and lot of ink will be spilled about it, but it won’t do anything to substantially harm the league let alone help the players.

That speaks to a larger historical lesson about public relations and players, of course: they’re almost always going to be seen as the bad guys by fans, no matter what they do.

Owners abused their power for a century and fans didn’t care. Starting in the 1960s, when the players finally began to effectively assert their leverage, the players were cast as greedy mercenaries. An owner gives out a foolishly large contract and the player is blamed for taking it. The owners band together in an illegal scheme to harm the players’ interest and the owner who orchestrated it is inducted into the Hall of Fame. The DH rule gets imposed and players who excel as designated hitters are viewed poorly by the writers and the public when it comes time to consider their Hall of Fame case. A new rule gets implemented to deal with slides and it’s not “The Rob Manfred slide rule” it’s “The Chase Utley Rule.” The players are the visible ones. They bear the brunt of just about anything that happens.

Which is to say, if the pitch clock creates some weird situations or controversies, the players involved in those situations and controversies are going to be the ones to take the blame. Just imagine a Dodgers-Giants game that turns on some weirdness involving Madison Bumgarner taking too long to deliver a pitch to Yasiel Puig, forcing in the walkoff run. Imagine that both Bumgarner and Puig saying the other was to blame. Imagine that the umpires messed up the application of the rule. You think Rob Manfred is going to catch hell for it as opposed to the players and the umpires involved? Hell no. Giants fans will yell that Puig did something that should’ve caused the clock to be reset. Dodgers fans will blame Bumgarner for taking too long. It’ll dominate the news for a couple of days but it won’t be the league and its owners taking crap for it.

Against that backdrop, why in the heck would the union try to win some P.R. battle? Screw the P.R. battle. Union leadership — including Tony Clark and the player reps — should negotiate for the best rules possible for the players they represent and let the public relations chips fall where they may.

Will they do that? Based on how the last few management-labor battles have gone, I don’t have a lot of confidence. In recent years the union has seemed far more focused on relatively short term and picayune concerns while trying not to look like the bad guys to fans. Meanwhile, the meat and potatoes labor issues which sometimes require a union to take unpopular stances in the long term, big picture interests of the players have been dominated by the owners. Ask the free agents who can’t find a team because the luxury tax is far lower, compared to revenues, now than it was 15 years ago and is serving as a defacto salary cap. Ask the guys who are being lowballed because of the qualifying offer.

It appears as though we’ll have a pitch clock in 2018 one way or another. The players need to decide pretty quickly if they’re going to have some say in that process or if they’re going to allow themselves to be marginalized in the management of the game even more than they already have been.