Baseball players are, generally, “sticking to sports”

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Jayson Stark has an interesting article up over at ESPN talking about how baseball players are not talking about politics these days. The upshot: while people in general seem somewhat consumed with politics lately and while basketball players and coaches have not hesitated to talk about the unique and extraordinarily interesting state of U.S. affairs, baseball players are, well, sticking to baseball:

Welcome to baseball in 2017, a year like no other in our nation. In the NBA, coaches and stars take regular aim at the policies of the new president of the United States, from the executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to plans for building a massive wall along the Mexican border. But in Major League Baseball — where locker rooms feature a multicultural melting pot of athletes, many of whom could be directly or indirectly affected by those policies — what you hear (or don’t hear) is the careful sound of political silence.

Stark notes a couple of exceptions — Sean Doolittle of the Athletics is one — and talks to a lot of people around the game and speculates why most do not. And like I said, it’s interesting. But I don’t think it’s a huge mystery, either.

All athletes, entertainers and anyone else who relies on the public for their well-being have an incentive not to aggravate their audience. As Michael Jordan once famously said, Republicans buy sneakers too, so why would anyone want to go out of their way to alienate them? Yet, as Stark notes, many in the NBA — and in Hollywood and other public-facing businesses — have been outspoken about politics in recent months. I suspect it’s because things are so crazy right now that the usual incentives to keep one’s head down are simply not strong enough.

In baseball, however, there is a difference: the code of the clubhouse and clubhouse cohesion. Separate and apart from what fans might think, baseball players are far more preoccupied with not rocking the boat internally. Of making themselves the center of attention or of putting their teammates in a position where they’ll be asked hard questions. While this dynamic exists in all sports to some degree, I don’t think it’s unfair to say it’s exponentially more prevalent in baseball. They’re in that clubhouse far more often than NBA players are in their locker room and the basic culture of the game strongly encourages a certain sort of conformity. Not a conformity of ideas, mind you — guys think all manner of different things — but conformity of decorum. A ballplayer in 2017 simply has no strong incentive to take a singular stand and many incentives not to.

You may think, given that I tend to be politically outspoken around here and on social media, that I have a problem with this. I don’t, really. People all operate within systems and communities and I’d never suggest that a ballplayer speak up about something simply for the sake of speaking up about it. They have their business and futures and family to take care of and no one is in any position to judge them for taking the course they choose to take.

But it does not mean, of course, that we should not pay attention when a player does decide to speak up, no matter the manner in which he does. Indeed, given all of the forces which caution baseball players from speaking out, when one does it is truly notable. It probably means he feels extraordinarily strongly about the matter on which he speaks. It means that we should probably listen to them and ask why they have been compelled to take the step they did and what it is, exactly, they’re trying to say. Whether we agree with the sentiment or not.

Oh good, it’s “Yasiel Puig is a showboat” season

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With the Los Angeles Dodgers punching their ticket to the World Series, Yasiel Puig is now going to be the subject of commentary by people who tend not to care about Yasiel Puig until it’s useful for them to write outraged columns or go on talk radio rants about baseball deportment.

We got a brief teaser of this last night when, after scoring the Dodgers’ ninth run on a Logan Forsythe double, TBS analyst Ron Darling criticized Puig for his “shenanigans” and “rubbing it in.” Never mind that his third base coach was waving him home and that, if he didn’t run hard, he was just as likely to be criticized for dogging it. In other news, baseball teams don’t stop trying in the fourth inning of baseball games, nor should they.

That was just an appetizer, though. The first real course of the “Puig is a problem” feast we’re likely to be served over the next week and a half comes from Phil Mushnick of the New York Post, who wrote it even before the Dodgers won Game 5 last night:

If you were raised to love baseball and to recognize the smart, winning kind from everything less, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig is insufferable. As the sport is diminished by professionals who disregard the basic act of running to first base as a matter of style, Puig, an incurable home-plate poser, often makes turning doubles and triples into singles appear effortless . . . In the postseason, Puig continues to behave as if he’s in the Home Run Derby. He even seems to relish his high-risk flamboyant foolishness despite frequent backfires.

This may as well be a fill in the blanks column from 2013 or 2014, when “Puig is a flashy showboater who costs his team more than he gives it” columns were all the rage. It ignores the fact that Puig, commonly dinged for being lazy, worked his butt off in 2017, particularly on defense, to the point where he has a strong case for a Gold Glove this year. It also ignores his .455/.538/.727 line in the NLDS sweep of the Diamondbacks and his .389/.500/.611 line against the Cubs in the NLCS. In the regular season he set career highs for games, homers, RBI, stolen bases and almost set a career high for walks despite having seventy fewer plate appearances than he did back in 2013 when he walked 67 times. He’s not the MVP candidate some thought he might be, but he’s a fantastic player who has been a key part of the Dodgers winning their first pennant in 29 years.

But the dings on Puig from the likes of Mushnick have rarely been about production. They’ve simply been about style and the manner in which he’s carried himself. To the extent those issues were legitimate points of criticism — particularly his tardiness, his relationships with his teammates and his at times questionable dedication — they have primarily been in-house concerns for the Dodgers, not the casual fan like Mushnick. On that score the Dodgers have dealt with Puig and, by all accounts, Puig has responded pretty well. An occasional lapse to be sure, but nothing which makes him a greater burden than a benefit. I mean, if he was, would be be batting cleanup in a pennant-clinching game?

So if the beef with Puig is not really about baseball, what could Phil Mushnick’s issue with him possible be?

I, for one, have no idea whatsoever.