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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.

Cardinals beat Brewers, both clinch postseason berths

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. LOUIS — Harrison Bader tripled and homered to help the St. Louis Cardinals clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season with a 5-2 win over Milwaukee, and the Brewers also earned a playoff spot Sunday via help on the West Coast moments later.

St. Louis (30-28) will be the fifth seed in the NL and open a three-game wild-card series at San Diego on Wednesday. By winning, the Cardinals avoided having to travel to Detroit for two makeup games Monday. St. Louis finished the regular season with 23 games in 18 days as it made up a slew of postponements caused by a coronavirus outbreak in the clubhouse.

“You had to throw some of the expectations out the window not knowing what to expect after taking those couple weeks off and all those doubleheaders and so many new guys,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “It was very different, very fulfilling to make the playoffs.”

The Brewers (29-31) locked up the eighth seed and a third consecutive postseason berth after the Padres beat San Francisco 5-4 in a game that ended about 15 minutes after St. Louis’ victory. The Giants finished with an identical record as the Brewers but lost out on a tiebreaker due to an inferior intradivision record.

“It’s fitting for 2020 and everything we went through,” Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich said. “It felt just as good as past years. This year’s a unique one. There’s so many challenges we had to go through on a daily basis behind the scenes, things you don’t deal with in a normal year.”

Milwaukee will face the top-seeded Dodgers in Los Angeles in a three-game series that also starts Wednesday.

The Brewers haven’t had a winning record at any point this season. Milwaukee and Houston will be the first teams ever to qualify for the playoffs with a losing mark.

“It’s a celebration,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re in the playoffs. That’s how you see it. There’s no reason to apologize for getting into the playoffs.”

Cardinals starter Austin Gomber allowed one run, one hit and two walks and struck out three over four innings.

Giovanny Gallegos (2-0), Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes combined to pitch the final five innings. Reyes got his first save.

“We’d have been happy getting in as the eight seed,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “We’d have been happy being the one seed, but people can say we got in if there was no expanded playoffs so that’s even another feather in this group’s cap.”

Brett Anderson (4-4) surrendered a triple to Bader and a walk to Tyler O'Neill to start the third inning before departing with a blister on his left index finger. Anderson opened the season on the injured list with a blister on the same finger and did not make his debut until Aug. 3.

Freddy Peralta replaced him a day after being activated from the paternity list, and O’Neill promptly stole second. Kolten Wong then hit a line drive off Peralta’s leg that Peralta threw into right field to score Bader and O’Neill.

Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong each added RBI singles to push the St. Louis lead to 4-0.

After Milwaukee scored in the top of the fifth, Bader hit his fifth home run of the season.

“That was a big counterpunch,” Shildt said of Bader. “Got them on their heels again.”

THREE TIMES THE FUN

Yadier Molina grounded into a triple play in the eighth inning when he hit a one hop grounder to Jace Peterson at third base in the eighth inning. It was Milwaukee’s first triple play since Sept. 23, 2016, when Cincinnati’s Joey Votto lined out to first base. Molina was also the last Cardinals player to hit into a triple play when he grounded out to third base at Boston on Aug. 15, 2017.

TRAINING ROOM

Brewers: Counsell said it was too early to prognosticate Anderson’s status after departing with the blister.

Cardinals: St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced that RHP Dakota Hudson will have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Monday. Hudson went 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in eight starts before leaving his start on Sept. 17 at Pittsburgh with right elbow discomfort after two innings.

UP NEXT

Brewers: The Brewers head to Los Angeles and will likely be without two of their top starters in Anderson and Corbin Burnes, who sustained a left oblique injury on Thursday.

Cardinals: This will be the fourth postseason series between St. Louis and San Diego, who faced each other in 1996, 2005, and 2006 in the Division Series.