Brandon Phillips, in this story by Greg Couch over at Vice about the boring, no-bat-flipping, no-celebrating, play-the-game-the-right-way culture of baseball in the United States, said this:
“But here, there are too many rules in baseball. They take the fun out of baseball. In fact, I feel like that’s why a lot of African-American kids don’t play baseball. It’s boring. It is. Baseball is boring.”
Couch goes on to argue that, because of baseball being boring in this way, kids are staying away. I think Couch goes a bit too far into “Baseball is Dying, You Guys” territory with it — there are other reasons why kids, especially minorities, are not playing as much baseball as they used to — but I think he captures the whole culture-of-baseball thing pretty accurately and the article is worth your time.
That culture is a subject we’ve talked about many, many times here at HBT. The clash between flamboyant and non-flamboyant styles of play. Which, not always, but usually, is a clash between Latino players and non-Latinos who created and still foster that play-the-game-the-right-way culture.
It’s well-entrenched culture. American baseball’s unwritten rules of deportment developed years ago in a game that was then dominated by U.S. born players. Mostly white U.S. born players. Given that Latino players now constitute 30% of the baseball population and given that that number is only going up, clashes about deportment have increased and, as you see in any cultural clash, there has been a retrenchment and reinforcement of the old ways in the face of that challenge. Indeed, if anything, baseball has gotten more conservative along these lines in recent years as more and more players with less experience with and reverence for the old ways have moved to the fore. There was nowhere near as much “play the game the right way” chatter 20 years ago as there is now.
Baseball can and should have to adjust and make room for new and different styles. And it will, eventually. But it’s not just a matter of people learning to stop worrying and love the bat flip. Because there are structural forces at play. A structure that makes baseball a lot more like a corporation than a form of entertainment. And like cultural changes in corporate American, cultural changes will come to baseball more slowly than they come to other segments of society.
Baseball has a much taller ladder for its participants to climb than that which exists in football, basketball other sports and other forms of entertainment. Many more players wash out between the time they’re drafted and the time they’re in position to make their professional mark. All but the biggest stars toil in relative obscurity in the minors, dependent upon “corporate,” more or less, to advance them just like employees advance in an office.
Sure, talent is the most important thing, but there are political considerations at play too. Talk to any career minor leaguer and they’ll tell you a story about a guy who was really no better than him who got the call while he stayed back. Often times the talent and performance of two guys — say a couple of relievers — is pretty darn equal, and other considerations determine who moves up and who doesn’t. If someone was a higher draft pick they have an advantage because some scout or evaluator who recommended the kid be drafted puts in a good word. Considerations about “makeup” go into it, and that can be pretty subjective. Yes, baseball is more conducive to objective analysis than some random white collar jobs are, but baseball is not a 100% meritocracy, just like your office isn’t a 100% meritocracy.
In situations like that, sticking out or being seen as eccentric can be a bad thing. That’s especially true when the people who hold your career in their hands are disproportionately older, whiter and more conservative than you, which describes baseball’s decision making structure pretty well. Unless you’re a superstar, you’re way better off keeping your head down, following their rules and conforming to their culture if you want to advance. After 5-6 years of that, you’ve either (a) adopted that culture as your own; (b) washed out; or (c) been good enough to advance despite not conforming.
If (c) describes you, you may have had to be a lot better to overcome it all. And you’re likely surrounded by three (a)-types for every one like you. You’re in a world the reflects the dominant culture. And you end up getting yelled at or thrown at by players who don’t like the cut of your jib.
Like I said above, it won’t always be like that, I don’t think. Hopefully, the ranks of scouts, coaches, managers and executives will start to look a lot more like the player ranks today (i.e. more Latino players) and the culture as taught to players coming up through the system will relax a bit. And maybe then players will react to bat flips and celebrations more in the way Brandon Phillips and Emilio Bonafacio, who was also quoted in the Vice article, do: with amusement and the feeling that it’s all in good fun.