No, the Bautista-Odor fight wasn’t “great for baseball”

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I’ve seen a lot of sentiment since yesterday afternoon that the Jose BautistaRougned Odor fight was supposed to have great meaning of some kind. More to the point, that it was actually good for baseball. I don’t think it was bad for baseball — it was just a thing that happened, just like fights have happened in baseball for 150 years — but to say it was “great for baseball” seems odd to me.

C.J. Nitkowski of Fox thinks it was great for baseball because it “created buzz” and jacked up the TV ratings. If you saw some of his tweets yesterday, you learned that it was also great because it, somehow, put “nerds” in their place. I don’t fully understand what Nitkowski was getting at with that, but it had something to do with the slide rules and people wanting baseball players not to get injured which, I guess, he considers to be a bad thing. You’ll have to ask him about that.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post thinks it was great for baseball for another reason: there’s too much friendliness in the game, in his view, and it’s better when opponents hate each other. As New York writers always do, Sherman makes something that has nothing to do with New York about New York and uses it to explain how upset he is that Yankees players are friendly with David Ortiz now instead of hating him like the Epic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry allegedly demands. Never mind that the grand old days of the rivalry he describes are, like, 12 years old and no one is left on those teams from that time except for Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. Never mind that the rivalry past 2004 or so, the last time the Yankees and Red Sox met in the playoffs, is primarily a creation of fans and the media and that the players don’t care at all anymore and likely didn’t care as much as people like to think they did.

These takes have one thing in common: for them to make coherent sense, players have to play roles to satisfy an audience rather than be actual human beings with feelings. Bautista and Odor are buzz-creators or rivalry-stokers here as opposed to humans who got caught up in an emotional thing and let their aggression take over for a few minutes due to some provocations that made sense to them in the heat of the moment. No, they were serving the audience in some way and, not only that, they had to! For the good of the game!

This is all artificial nonsense. Baseball players are people. Their job is to serve the audience when they play baseball. While there were aspects of what happened yesterday that were in and of themselves entertaining (mostly because no one got hurt) it’s not their job to serve fans and the press with that stuff and the fact that they did didn’t Mean Anything Big And Important. It was just a thing that happened. Players likewise can be and should be friends with one another if they choose to be without it harshing the buzz of some columnist who misses what he got to write about over a decade ago. Not saying Odor and Bautista ever will be, but if they do a commercial goofing on their fight this fall, we will not have lost anything by their antipathy being diminished.

I don’t know. I read stuff like what Sherman and Nitkowski wrote and I wonder whether the people who think like that view players as people with agency or mere characters in a drama. I wonder, if Bautista and Odor issue statements apologizing to one another today or make that commercial one day, if guys like Sherman and Nitkowski will be sad. More than anything else when I see stuff like this I think about all of the weird and unfair gladiatorial expectations we place on athletes and remember exactly where it comes from.

Crowd honors Jose Bautista in his last Blue Jays home game

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Jose Bautista ran onto the field on Sunday afternoon, alone, in what was likely his last hurrah as a Blue Jays player. The 36-year-old outfielder signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the club prior to the 2017 season and is not expected to get his $17 million option picked up for 2018. During Sunday’s series finale, he got a fond farewell befitting a decade-long career as one of Toronto’s most prolific hitters, drawing standing ovations every time he stepped up to the plate.

The Blue Jays came out swinging against the Yankees, building an eight-run lead on Teoscar Hernandez’s first-inning home run and a smattering of hits and productive outs from Darwin Barney, Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales. Bautista supplemented the drive with his own RBI single in the fourth inning, plating Hernandez on an 0-2 fastball from reliever Bryan Mitchell.

Later in the inning, he nearly scored a second run on a Kendrys Morales two-RBI single, but was caught at the plate on the relay by Starlin Castro.

It’s an encouraging end to what has overwhelmingly been a disappointing season for the Toronto slugger. Entering Sunday’s finale, he slashed .201/.309/.365 with a franchise single-season record 161 strikeouts in 658 plate appearances, numbers that somewhat obscure the six straight All-Star nominations, four MVP bids and 54-homer campaign he once enjoyed with the team. Even a bounce-back performance in 2018 likely wouldn’t command a $17 million salary, but there’s no denying his impact on the Blue Jays’ last 10 years, from his signature bat flip to his tie-breaking home run in the 2015 ALDS.

The Blue Jays currently lead the Yankees 9-2 in the top of the sixth inning. Expect a few more standing O’s before the end of the game.

Why more baseball players don’t kneel

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Bruce Maxwell was the first baseball player to kneel for the National Anthem. There may be others who do so, but I don’t suspect many will. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that the protests we’re seeing in the NFL today, and will see more of once basketball season begins, will not become a major thing in baseball.

Some will say it’s because baseball or baseball players are more patriotic or something, but I don’t think that’s it. Yes, baseball is a lot whiter and has a lot of conservative players who would never think to protest during the National Anthem or, for that matter, protest anything at all, but I suspect there are many who saw what Colin Kaepernick and other football players have done — or who have listened to what Steph Curry and LeBron James have said — and agreed with it. Yet I do not think many, if any of them will themselves protest.

Why? I think it mostly comes down to baseball’s culture of conformity.

Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. Even if you are the consensus number one pick, you do your time in the minors. Once there, conformity and humility is drilled into you. This happens both affirmatively, in the form of coaches telling you to act in a certain way and passively, by virtue of all players being in similar, humbling circumstances. Bus rides, cheap hotels, etc. In that world, even if you are ten times better and ten times richer than your teammates, you fall in with the crowd because doing otherwise would be socially disruptive.

The very socialization of a baseball player is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Bryce Harper was a more or less normal minor leaguer, but since he got their earlier by bypassing his final years of high school, he was thrown at and challenged in ways no other minor league stars are. It does not take much for a guy to be singled out for punishment or mockery and even the superstars like Harper are not on solid professional ground as long as they’re still in the minors. Indeed, between a player’s education, as it were, in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through, and by then few are willing. They’ve been conditioned by that point.

Even budding superstars can be roundly criticized for the tiniest of perceived transgressions or the most modest displays of individuality. Think about all of the “controversies” we have about the proper way to celebrate a home run or run the bases. If that’s a cause for singling out and, potentially, benching or being traded or being given a shorter leash, imagine the guts a baseball player has to have in order to do something like take a knee during the National Anthem. A guy with multiple MVP Awards would likely be in an uncomfortable spotlight over such a thing, so imagine how brave someone like Bruce Maxwell, who has barely 100 games under his belt, has to be to have done it.

CC Sabathia, a 17-year veteran, spoke out yesterday, but I suspect he won’t kneel for the National Anthem when he lines up with his teammates before the Wild Card game next week. Other ballplayers will likely wade into the fray in the coming days. But I suspect baseball’s very nature — it’s very culture — will keep ballplayers from following in the footsteps of the many NFL players who took a knee today.