Does Baseball Need to Reassess the “Right” Way to Play?

This is Ashley MacLennan’s sixth and final piece as part of her August residency at FanGraphs. Ashley is a staff writer for Bless You Boys, the SB Nation blog dedicated to the Detroit Tigers, and runs her own site at 90 Feet From Home. She can also be found on Twitter. Read the work of all our residents here.

“You gotta take care of your teammates sometimes. With me, if hitting a guy in the leg is what I have to do, then that’s what I did… I take care of my teammates and protect them.” Those were the words of Tigers relief pitcher Alex Wilson in the immediate aftermath of one of the most absurd and raucous games of baseball in recent memory.

Alex Wilson makes his contribution to last week’s contretemps between the Tigers and Yankees.

During the August 24th day game between the Tigers and Yankees, the benches cleared three times and eight people were ejected, including players, managers, and coaches. Multiple players on both teams were – intentionally or not – hit by pitches. An array of fines and suspensions followed.

It was, for lack of a better word, a disaster.

It was also an object lesson in one of baseball’s most notoriously silly and problematic unwritten rules. The unwritten rules — a subset of conventions that dictate baseball etiquette but don’t exist in any official capacity — are intended to mandate how players act on the field and to establish repercussions if those players fail to abide by the code. Grandstanding and bat flips are a no-no, as we saw when Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor sucker-punched Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista as revenge for Bautista’s famous 2015 postseason bat flip. Punishment is usually swift for someone who breaks the rules, but grudges often carry over into subsequent seasons.

The trouble between the Tigers and Yankees began when Gary Sanchez was hit by a wild Michael Fulmer offering. The errant pitch was perceived as intentional, the Tigers pitcher suggesting in its aftermath that the Yankees catcher ought to stop showing off. (Sanchez had hit four home runs in one series.) Whether it was intentional is beside the point, however. The end result was a clash between two teams attempting to show each other up over and over, all in the name of the unwritten rules and an antiquated notion of how baseball is “meant” to be played.

Since one of those pitches, a wild toss from Dellin Betances, nailed Tigers catcher James McCann in the head, it’s time we look at whether or not the old-school way is the right way, or as much a thing of the past as chewing tobacco in the dugout. Maybe it’s time to rethink what the “right way” is.

In March, Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler received some scrutiny for the way he spoke about the on-field enthusiasm exhibited by the Puerto Rican and Dominican teams during the World Baseball Classic. Kinsler, about as old school as they come in the MLB today, said, “I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we [the US] play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised.”

In a sense, Kinsler has a point. American players are raised with these rules indoctrinated in them, the idea that the game is serious and must be played within a rigid set of expectations, where undue excitement is cause for censure. When Yasiel Puig started playing for the Dodgers, there were reports every week about his bat flips or his cavalier attitude — all behavior that failed to fit the mold of an ideal ballplayer, from the perspective of the MLB.

Again, this brings us to the question: what’s the right way to play baseball?

Bryce Harper has some thoughts on that subject, saying last year in an interview with ESPN The Magazine, “Baseball is tired… you can’t express yourself.” Harper, who is among the more flamboyant young athletes in the game, with his famous hair tosses and red-hot swing, launched a “Make Baseball Fun Again” campaign, wearing a hat with the slogan around the Nationals clubhouse. In many ways, Harper may actually be a pioneer for baseball, helping to bridge the gap between the old guard and a new generation of players like Puig, Javier Baez, and Francisco Lindor, who wear their joy and frustration openly.

Harper applauded the Jose Bautista bat flip, saying, “I enjoyed seeing it. And I think Major League Baseball enjoyed seeing it… What an incredible moment for baseball, just as a fan of the sport.”

And he’s right. At 24 years old, Harper may have a better understanding of what it means to play baseball properly than anyone else throwing intentional lobs or making mental notes about a too-jubilant bat flip. Yes, the same Harper who tried to throw his helmet at Hunter Strickland this May in what was a long-boiling feud, where Strickland felt slighted by Harper’s past home runs against him. In 2014.

That’s the absurdity of baseball. It is, in the minds of the veterans, perfectly reasonable to hit someone with a ball if he committed an injustice against you three years ago, but it’s not okay to show delight at a long-hit home run.

Baseball may be considered America’s pastime, but it isn’t exclusively America’s game. In countries like Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican, baseball is a part of children’s lives. It’s often the most affordable option for families to keep their children entertained. Carlos Beltran recalled his youth in Puerto Rico for the Players Tribune. “When Santa came, he always brought sports stuff,” remembered Beltran. “A basketball. A volleyball. A new pair of spikes. Santa never brought electronics.” Along with this, young Puerto Rican children learned about Roberto Clemente as part of their nation’s proud history.

Many young Puerto Rican players have been raised with an awareness of just how far their accomplishments can carry them. There’s more to it than simply playing a game they grew up watching on the couch with a mother or father. Rather, there’s a sense of gratitude for being able to enjoy the game of their heroes. These aren’t just the romantic musings of an American, either. Consider: Puerto Rico’s WBC side stirred up so much excitement that there was an actual hair-bleach shortage in the country because so many people wanted to mimic the team’s signature style.

The point being, there are other ways for the game to be experienced and played that are just as right as the American standard, and it’s this exuberant approach towards which younger players like Harper seem to be gravitating. Perhaps there’s a very good reason that baseball’s award for the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team” is named for Clemente.

Next time a brawl breaks out over a petty on-field squabble, or a player or team are publicly called out because they don’t play the right way, we need to adjust our perspectives, and so does baseball. There isn’t one right or wrong way to play anymore, and joy or pride shouldn’t be factors that result in exclusion or reprimand. Baseball could stand for a little more energy, a little more childish glee, and maybe a few less punches.

We hoped you liked reading Does Baseball Need to Reassess the “Right” Way to Play? by Ashley MacLennan!

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Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome

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Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

Yes.

Joe
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Joe

Love this comment and if your user name is a reference to the first Butthole Surfers album, I love it even more.

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Psychic... Powerless...

It is! I considered using Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac Fly, but opted for brevity.