Man, those Bryce Harper comments have stirred things up something fierce. Over the last week, Baseball’s unwritten rules have become downright Trumpian—people are either for or against them, always with passion and frequently for reasons they don’t seem to fully understand.
Take a pair of newspaper accounts, both out of Texas, as a representative sample.
In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel argued that minority representation has fueled baseball’s recent surge in emotional displays, and that instead of trying to corral the new wave, the sport needs to better embrace it. To further his point, he wrote, “The code needs to be less white.”
In the San Antonio Express-News, Roy Bragg countered that celebrations should be left to other sports, and pitchers controlling behavior via “a fastball in the ear” is a tenable solution for countering excessive displays.
The arguments run directly counter to each other, but they have something important in common: They’re both ludicrous.
Culturally speaking, Engel is correct. An all-time high percentage of players from Latin America, 29.3, were on opening day rosters last year, and their presence—fueled by the less-strict atmosphere in which they learned the game—has substantially impacted MLB mores.
Less conclusive to his point is that the runner-up season for Latin representation was 2005 (29.2 percent), during which time there was comparatively little uproar over a player’s right to flip his bat.
The argument would work better had Engel claimed that baseball needs to be less North American, but to demarcate it along racial lines is to dilute the point. Back in the Code’s heyday, its most prominent practitioner was Bob Gibson. Two decades later, Pedro Martinez was as close to Gibson’s attitudinal heir as baseball had. Neither, of course, was white. (Meanwhile, one of Engel’s own examples of a guy who deserves emulation in this regard is Rangers pitcher Derek Holland, perhaps the whitest man in the league.)
On the other side of the ledger, Bragg’s point that celebrations should be limited to games of merit—say, playoff victories versus midweek contests in April—is worthy of discussion, but entirely lost amid bluster like this: “Let the young players act out. That next fastball will say everything that needs to be said.”
Neither writer seems to fully accepting the fact that baseball grows organically, and that values shift over time. Accrediting on-field celebrations as non-white activity shortchanges a shift in perception among a mainstream that is primarily white. On Bragg’s part, to threaten physical harm against those who resist is about the most backward argument one can make in the modern game. Both are polarizing statements, for utterly different reason.
Times are changing, fellas, just like they always have. Engel’s arguement that we should let the games be more fun would be a lot easier to carry out if people didn’t try to rationalize things so damn hard.