The Unwritten Rules Wars Will Continue But One Side Has Already Lost

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Depending on how interested you are in off-the-field stuff, yesterday’s outbreak of Unwritten Rules controversies (here, here, and here) were either entertaining or annoying to you in the extreme. However you feel about it, though, it’s worth remembering that these are not isolated incidents that will go away today because it’s a new day. These are just skirmishes in a larger war which has been raging for some time. A topic far larger than Bryce Harper, Jose Bautista, Rich Gossage or Sergio Romo. The fight over bat flips and exuberance on the one hand and Playing The Game The Right Way on the other is a cultural and generational conflict, not one over any one player.

Culturally speaking it’s about norms of behavior which developed in a game when it was dominated by white American guys but which now features Latin American players at every level and in every role from player to coach to organizational depth guy to superstar. Norms of deportment from the 1950s or before held steadily when Latin players were fewer in number and when they could be subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) coerced into assimilation. Eventually, however, as is the case in any setting where a once dominant culture begins to lose its numbers or its desire to coerce such assimilation, there is an assertion of identity by the minority culture. That is often followed by a reactionary backlash. An occasional bat flip or celebration may have seemed amusing in 1975 because it posed no perceived threat to baseball’s cultural order. Now those who are uncomfortable with the changing of baseball culture see it as a threat and lash out.

This pattern can be seen in generational disputes too. There was a time when young players knew their place. And it was easy for them to know their place because they weren’t super important for the most part. A bonus baby was a rare thing and, later, giving key roles to guys in their teens or early 20s was extraordinarily rare as well. If a kid did standard kid stuff, acted in a way that upset older people or engaged in what was perceived to be immaturity, he was laughed off or quickly and effectively corrected. In recent years, however, older veterans have become less important to an organization and “kids” are more prominent. Now if an alleged punk like Bryce Harper offers his views in a national magazine he’s not an amusing anomaly nor is there any one veteran prominent enough on his club to correct him. He’s a threat to the longstanding baseball order in which seniority means everything, older players set the terms of deportment and young players don’t offer their opinion. Like a Latin player flipping a bat, he has to be shouted down — literally told to “shut up” by a veteran from a veteran-ruled club like the Giants’ Sergio Romo — lest the old veteran orthodoxy be threatened. And make no mistake, with Bryce Harper it’s ALL about him being seen as a punk kid. He’s been loathed and underrated by veterans for years because of his arguably over-sold status as a teenage phenom. If a 30-year-old who came up after a long stint in the minors said what Harper said yesterday, Romo would not have told him to shut up.

These battles over “playing the game the right way” or over young players speaking their minds are no different than the reactions to the empowerment and increased visibility of youth and minority cultures in society at large. The lashing out of guys like Gossage and Romo are an attempt to reestablish a dominance men of their age or their mindset used to wield by default but is now under threat. That we see more comments like these now is evidence that the game is undergoing an evolution. We always witness more virulent dissent against youth culture and minority culture asserting itself when the old culture is nearing its demise than we do when it is dominant. This dynamic explains social unrest and “silent majority” backlash in the 1960s and 70s and it explains these kinds of battles in baseball today. You can likewise see the battles playing out in any industry undergoing change due to technology or change of focus or altered demographics. Old newspaper columnists aren’t yelling at bloggers simply because they have an objective issue with the product the create. They yell because they feel threatened.

These observations make me less likely to have any sort of specific ire for an old ballplayer who hates new ways or an active veteran who tries to put a younger player in their place. They are merely exhibiting the natural responses any number of people in any number of walks of life exhibit when they realize that their way of understanding their world is not universal. If it was universal or even the majority view — if more people felt that the Jose Bautistas and Bryce Harpers of the world were out of line — they wouldn’t have to lash out. Sheer numbers of like-minded people and the power of cultural and generational hegemony would win the day.

Now it doesn’t win the day. Their assumptions and dispositions no longer set the tone. And rather than accept that times change, they rage, rage against the dying of the light. Or what they perceive to be the light anyway.