On one hand, there’s Let the Kids Play, wherein major league hitters are given leeway by the home office to preen and bat flip, free of judgement and repercussion. Pitchers have responded to this informal edict by beginning in increasing numbers to celebrate similarly, particularly following big strikeouts.
The equity of the system is logical, although observing logic has never been a strong suit for ballplayers. The topic has come up several times over the last week alone.
It started with Trevor Bauer vs. Fernando Tatis, which set the bar pretty high. After Tatis doubled down against Bauer, making fun of the pitcher’s previous antics as part of two home run trots in the same game, Bauer credited him publicly for his efforts. (Tatis’ alleged peeking: not so much.)
When the celebrations spun in the opposite direction, however, things got salty.
Start on Friday, when Philadelphia pitcher Jose Alvarado rejoiced after fanning Mets left fielder Dominic Smith to end the eighth inning in what would be a 2-1 Phillies victory. Alvarado spun toward second base and did a couple of low-slung flex pumps, then turned back to the plate and continued the act. Smith took exception and benches cleared.
On Saturday, Cincinnati’s Amir Garrett acted similarly, so angering the Cubs that Javier Báez —who wasn’t even on the field—hopped the railing to approach the pitcher, spurring another dugout-emptying incident.
There is, of course, one notable difference between the Tatis incident and the latter two.
Start with Alvarado, who came into the game irked after being chirped at by the Mets on April 13 for two pitches to Michael Conforto—one of which ended up near Conforto’s head, the other of which hit him. Among the loudest voices in New York’s dugout that day was Dominic Smith.
So when the pitcher fanned Smith in a big moment, he let Smith know all about it. Alvarado shouted at the hitter as they walked off the field, then did a you-talk-too-much pantomime with his hand when Smith responded. At that point, the two approached each other with an abundance of macho posturing and not much will to actually fight. (After the game, Smith did offer to meet Alvarado under the stands “if he really wants to get after it.”)
Garrett’s incident was similar. After fanning Anthony Rizzo, Garrett pounded his chest and yelled directly at the hitter. Again, history fueled his decision. Garrett, for whom displays of emotion are commonplace, pulled a similar act with Báez in 2018, and spurred a similar incident with Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber in 2019.
This is where we delve further into the gray area that is Major League Baseball in 2021. Are celebrations to be tolerated? According to the league, as well as to the majority of pitchers tasked with enforcing decorum, they are. So now we must ask what types of celebrations are to be tolerated.
What Tatis pulled against Bauer is apparently kosher, mostly because the pitcher deemed it so. The reasons he did this are obvious: Bauer has long been an outspoken proponent of bringing life to the sport via personal flair, and is even-handed with his opinions about who gets to exhibit said flair, even when he’s on the wrong end of it. Even more importantly, Tatits’ stylings, while aimed at Bauer, were also playful and firmly rooted in memes that the pitcher himself had started.
Alvarado and Garrett, on the other hand, were firmly focused on showing up the opposition. Their intentions were obvious and petty, and the responses they elicited should not have been difficult to predict. Which may have been the point.
Báez, a man known for his own celebratory prowess, laid down the opinion for his caucus after Saturday’s game.
“I’m not going to let [Garrett] or anyone disrespect my teammates or my team,” Báez said in a Chicago Tribune report. “It was not a big situation. I’m going to try to stay professional with this but … he needs to respect the game. If you don’t respect the game and if you don’t respect us, then that’s going to happen. Because he’s doing it to us. He’s not doing it to his teammates to pump them (up).”
So it seems that the answer to the question about where we are, exactly, on this topic is … we still don’t know. The underlying tenet of baseball’s unwritten rules, be they the modern-day version or the buttoned-up overkill from generations past, is respect. The threshold has changed markedly, but it still exists, and lines continue to be crossed. With attitudes shifting so quickly, it’s now mostly a matter of keeping up with where things stand at any given moment.
The Phillies and Reds gave us some clear-cut examples. Hitters have achieved so much celebratory leeway that it’s now pitchers who tend to give us pause. This might be because they don’t have a home run to admire or a trot to enact; their focal point for strikeout success is and will forever be the plate. Frequently their theatrics don’t mean anything more than the theatrics from their offensive counterparts … but sometimes they do. To judge by last week, some pitchers may hav trouble distinguishing bat flips from direct, one-on-one showdowns. (For what it’s worth, MLB agrees that what Alvarado did was not Letting the Kids Play: the pitcher was subsequently suspended for three games.)
In this context, I can’t help thinking that Báez’s response to Garrett sounds remarkably similar to comments from players of previous generations who were busy decrying things like sideburns or pants being worn too long. You know: Kids these days.
The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.