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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.

The Yankees set up “The Judge’s Chambers” cheering section for Aaron Judge

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The Yankees aren’t well-known for going all-in on goofy, fan-friendly fun. While some organizations are happy to jump on new and even silly or ephemeral trends for the yuks of it, the Yankees have tended to keep things rather businesslike when it comes to promotions and things. They’ve always played the long game, assuming — not always unreasonably — that their brand is best defined by the club’s history and greatness and quiet dignity and stuff.

Aaron Judge and his breakout rookie season is changing things. His fast start has caused fans to dress up in judge’s robes and stuff, so the team is having fun with it. They’ve set up a special section called “The Judge’s Chambers,” complete with a jury box vibe:

 

Fans will be selected to sit in the special section, which is in section 104 in right field, right behind where Judge plays, and will be handed foam gavels with “All Rise” written on them. To be selected at the moment it’d help if you wear one of those judicial robes with Judge’s number 99 on the back or his jersey or an English judge-style powdered wig. Going forward, the Yankees will also use the section for groups and charity events and stuff.

Judge is on a 58-homer pace right now. It’s unlikely he’ll keep that up, but he certainly looks like the real deal. And, for the Yankees and their fans, he’s giving them the chance for some real fun.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Twins 14, Orioles 7: Baltimore jumped out to a 5-0 lead and led 6-2 after four but then the Twins started bashing. Actually, it wasn’t so much bashing as the ten runs they scored between the fifth and sixth innings all came without the benefit of a homer. Max Kepler and Miguel Sano did homer at other times in the game, however. Kepler drove in four. Sano and Eduardo Escobar each knocked in three. Minnesota even scored on a balk. This game had a bit of everything. Adam Jones hit a homer. It was his 125th dinger at Camden Yards, giving him the all-time lead in that park. The old record holder: Rafael Palmeiro.

Yankees 4, Royals 2: Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius and Chris Carter all went deep as the Yankees beat Jason Vargas. Vargas had a 1.01 ERA through his first seven starts. In his last two he’s allowed nine runs on 11 hits in ten innings. Both of those games have come against the Yankees, though, so maybe it’s more them having his number than him turning into a pumpkin.

Rockies 8, Phillies 1: Top prospect Jeff Hoffman got called up for a spot start and struck out seven over seven three-hit, one-run innings. Nolan Arenado hit a two-run homer. Philly has lost 18 of 22.

Reds 5, Indians 1: The Battle for Ohio Begins. With the loss, Cleveland is in the early lead to be stuck with Ohio. OK, I kid — I’m an Ohioan, I can do that — but I don’t know for sure what the winner gets. It’s either some cup or a trophy or maybe they get to cut in line at Cedar Point or something. Anyway, Scott Feldman was sharp, allowing one run and striking out nine in six innings, and Scott Schebler homered for the third straight game. Great Scott.

Angels 3, Rays 2: J.C. Ramirez outdueled Jake Odorizzi and the Angels broke a 2-2 tie on a Jumbo Diaz wild pitch in the seventh. Five total runs scored and 12 hits between the teams over nine innings yet this game went three hours and thirty seven minutes. Eleven walks and 20 strikeouts is the likely culprit. Sounds like a slog.

Braves 5, Pirates 2: Welcome to Atlanta Matt Adams. The newest Brave hit a two-run homer in his second start since being acquired from the Cardinals and Brandon Phillips hit his 200th career homer. Center fielder Ender Inciarte had a career-high five hits for the Braves who were not fooled at all by Gerrit Cole. Meanwhile, Mike Foltynewicz and four relievers held the Buccos in check.

Giants 6, Cubs 4: Joe Panik homered to lead off the game and doubled twice. Not to lead off the game, though. It’d be impossible to do all of that in one plate appearance. Brandon Belt and Justin Ruggiano homered as well, also in their own distinct at bats. There are rules here.

Astros 1, Tigers 0: A combined one-hitter in a bullpen game. The bullpen game was necessitated by a pinched nerve in Dallas Keuchel‘s neck. Brad Peacock got the start and allowed only one hit and two walks with eight strikeouts over four and a third. Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Ken Giles went the rest of the way for a combined four and two-thirds perfect innings. Michael Fulmer only made one mistake in walking George Springer to lead off the game and then giving up an RBI double to Jose Altuve. Otherwise he scattered eight hits and allowed only that one run in seven innings. That, however, was enough to lose the game.

Diamondbacks 5, White Sox 1: Zack Greinke struck out a season-high 12, allowing only one run in eight and two-thirds. Daniel Descalso hit a three-run homer in the fourth that provided all of the cushion Greinke needed.