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.