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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #9: Bryce Harper tries to Make Baseball Fun Again

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

When Jose Bautista tossed his bat following his home run un Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS, several years worth of arguments about bat flips, fist pumps and other on-field celebrations came to a head. While everyone seems to agree that athletes doing great things is exciting and impressive, many in the game, in the media and in the fan base at large seem to believe that maintaining some standard of buttoned-down decorum is essential to baseball. It’s an odd conservatism that is far more pronounced in baseball than in any other sport.

As spring training got underway one of baseball’s brightest young stars weighed in on the matter. It was Bryce Harper, who gave an interview to ESPN in which he lamented the fact that, for some reason, the baseball establishment doesn’t seem to want players to enjoy themselves on the field:

“Baseball’s tired,” he says. “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. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun . . .

. . .  If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”

One read of that and it’s clear that Harper loves baseball, wants it to be exciting and was, in effect, merely adding his views to that long-standing debate about baseball decorum. His detractors, however, of which there were many, decided to focus on his use of the word “tired.”

Sergio Romo — himself a demonstrative on-field celebrator — told Harper to “shut up” or to find another job if he thinks baseball is “tired.”  Hall of Famer Goose Gossage claimed that Harper “doesn’t know squat about the game” saying that he should “look at the history” and “quit acting like a fool.” Even some random Rays minor leaguer felt it necessary to take the reigning NL MVP to task on Twitter for his alleged lack of fealty to the Baseball Gods.

A couple of weeks later Harper, as a joke, wore a “Make Baseball Fun Again” cap in the clubhouse, which set off another round of criticism, including some from outside the world of baseball. Talk radio hosts and fans in comment sections and on social media auto-piloted into their usual “Bryce Harper is a punk” schtick and talked about how There Are Proper Ways to Act on a baseball field. As if it was funeral. Or the site of a great battle.

As the season got underway the specific controversy died down, but battles over “playing the game the right way” or over young players speaking their minds, possibly out of turn, or over the cultural differences between American ballplayers and Latino ballplayers never seem to die. They pop up every week during the baseball season, manifested in glaring contests, fist pumps, home runs trots, purpose pitches and the particular cliches players use when talking to the press.

As I wrote in March, however, these battles aren’t going to last forever. In fact, you tend to see the arguing and controversy spike in any cultural clash closer to its resolution, when the losing side of that clash feels most threatened and under fire. The Goose Gossages, old baseball men and talk radio hosts of the world are raging against the dying of what they perceive to be the light. The Bryce Harpers of the world are merely giving voice to an emerging new normal. His detractors may have the loudest voices at times, but more people agree with him than disagree with him. More people think baseball is fun and should continue to be fun than believe that it’s an institution that depends on a certain set of rites and rituals.

Bryce Harper calling baseball “tired” in March was not the end of the world. But I do hope it represented the beginning of the end of baseball’s fixation on a certain sort of rules of decorum and deportment. Good riddance to it.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 11, Nationals 5: The Mets were down 4-2 heading into the bottom of the eighth and all they did was put up a nine-spot. The damage: a two-run Todd Frazier single, a two-run Juan Lagares double, a bases-loaded walk to Michael Conforto and then a grand freakin’ slam by Yoenis Cespedes. Ryan Madson was the most victimized in terms of runs allowed that frame with six, Sammy Solis put two on with walks, one which forced in the run, and both of the guys he walked scored, and  A.J. Cole gave up the salami. Anyone get the number of the bus that hit the Nats?

Athletics 12, White Sox 11: Who doesn’t want to watch nearly six hours of the White Sox and Athletics? At least this one was kinda exciting, with the A’s trailing 6-1, 9-4 and 10-8, before taking the lead and then giving up a tying run in the ninth before Matt Olson singled in Marcus Semien with two outs in the 14th for the win. There were 33 hits and 18 walks in this game, issued by 18 — EIGHTEEN — pitchers. James freakin’ Shields got the loss, pitching in relief. A total of 556 pitches were thrown. Lost in this was Yoan Moncada hitting his first career grand slam, scoring three times and driving in four, Olson finishing with four hits and three RBI, and Jed Lowrie driving in three. This wasn’t baseball. It was test cricket. They were stopping for tea on the field and should’ve broken the thing up over three or four days.

Braves 7, Phillies 3: One of the reasons the Braves signed Jose Bautista to play third base yesterday was the seemingly reasonable belief that Ryan Flaherty‘s hot start to the season is not sustainable. Perhaps he took some personal umbrage at that because last night he drove in four, three of which came on a three-run homer that put the Braves up 3-1 in the fifth and the fourth of which came via an RBI single to extend their lead in the eighth. Dansby Swanson homered, backing Brandon McCarthy‘s one-run ball into the sixth.

Twins 2, Indians 1: When you’re playing on backup generators you probably want to conserve energy, but hey, sometimes games go 16 innings and you need to keep the lights on for five hours and thirteen minutes of play. That’s baseball. Jose Berrios and Carlos Carrasco dueled for seven scoreless innings and the teams’ relief corps fired bullets for six more before each team broke through for a single run in the fourteenth. Two innings later the Twins got to Josh Tomlin, a starter pressed into service, with an Eddie Rosario single, a Jason Kipnis error that allowed the runner to make it to third and and then a walkoff single from Ryan LaMarre, scoring Rosario. Following Francisco Lindor‘s homer on Tuesday night, Rosario getting to celebrate the winning run made it a couple of great games for Puerto Rico natives.

Pirates 10, Rockies 2Josh Bell drove in three runs and the Pirates rattled off 13 hits in all. The Rockies are last in the NL in hitting. Which is totally what you expect from the Rockies, right?

Tigers 6, Orioles 5: Machado hit a walkoff homer to win a game in which the Orioles played. Unfortunately for O’s fans it was Dixon, not Manny, and Dixon plays for Detroit. That came after a wild eighth and ninth, in which each team scored three and Luis Sardinas tied it with a solo shot off Shane Greene before Machado’s heroics. Miguel Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario and John Hicks also homered for Detroit. The O’s have lost five straight.

Rays 4, Rangers 2: Jake Faria allowed one run over six innings to get his first win since last July and the Rays rode a three-run sixth inning, powered by Daniel Robertson’s RBI double, C.J Cron’s RBI single and an Adeiny Hechavarria‘s sacrifice to victory. Play of the game, though, came from this Rays fan, who reached over the railing to grab a ball, interfering with a ball in play, and then reached into his pocket to throw back a different ball:

I’m struggling to think of what, exactly, his plan was when coming to the ballpark yesterday. Did he think he’d catch some historic ball in a rando Wednesday Rangers-Rays game and had the decoy to throw off the people he expected to mob him? What was going on in this dude’s head? Either way, the play was called a double due to fan interference and the fan was moved to a different section and given a warning. To be fair, it probably would’ve been a double anyway. He now has a super valuable, I’m sure *looks at the box score* Renato Nunez ball to call his own. He can probably retire off of that bit of swag now. Or something.

Brewers 2, Reds 0: Zach Davies tossed six and a third three-hit shutout innings and Eric Thames hit a two-run homer for all of the game’s scoring. Thames has abused the Reds recently, having hit a two-run shot off of them the day before. He has 58 homers in his career. Eleven of those have come against Cincinnati. He didn’t have the play of the day, though. Christian Yelich did, snagging a ball that first hit off of Hernan Perez‘s glove:

 

Blue Jays 15, Royals 5: Teoscar Hernandez had four hits, including a two-run home run, finishing a double short of the cycle and Curtis Granderson hit a grand slam and the Jays swept the Royals and sent them to their eighth straight defeat. Toronto, meanwhile, is off to its best start since 2009.

Giants 4, Diamondbacks 3: Arizona came back from a 2-0 deficit in the eighth and ninth to force extras but Brandon Belt‘s two-run homer — his 100th career dong — broke the tie in the tenth and the Giants held on to break their four-game winning streak.

Red Sox 9, Angels 0: Boston continues its scorching hot start, moving to 15-2 on the season. Rick Porcello continues his own personal hot start, moving to 4-0 and dropping his ERA to 1.40 with six shutout innings. Mitch Moreland and Rafael Devers each drove in four, Devers via a grand slam and Moreland via two RBI singles and a homer of his own. J.D. Martinez went 4-for-5 and knocked one over the fence as well. The Angels, who came into this series pretty hot themselves, have been outscored 19-1 through the first two games of the series.

Astros 7, Mariners 1: Gerrit Cole allowed only an unearned run in seven innings of work and the Astros’ bats woke up with a six-run seventh inning. George Springer and Marwin Gonzalez each drove in a couple, Carlos Correa and Brian McCann each knocked in a run and the seventh scored on an error.

Dodgers 13, Padres 4: The Dodgers sweep the Padres behind a ten strikeout night from Kenta Maeda and a shellacking of Padres starter Luis Perdomo. Corey Seager went 4-for-5 with three driven in. Max Muncy, who I am not convinced is an actual baseball player as opposed to a character played by, I dunno, Peter Falk in a light Neil Simon-esque comedy from the 1970s, hit a homer.

Cardinals vs. Cubs — POSTPONED:

In the twilight glow I see them
Blue eyes cryin’ in the rain
When we kissed goodbye and parted
I knew we’d never meet again
Love is like a dyin’ ember
Only memories remain
Through the ages I’ll remember
Blue eyes cryin’ in the rain