Bryce Harper, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Sergio Romo: Secretly Simpatico?

Keep calm

For a while, it seemed like yesterday would belong to Bryce Harper’s views about baseball’s unwritten rules.

Then Goose Gossage opened his mouth. In what appears to be coincidental timing, the Hall of Fame reliever unloaded to ESPN about noted bat-flipper Jose Bautista being “a fucking disgrace to the game,” among other choice sentiments that ran directly counter to Harper. Gossage, of course, is his generation’s It-Was-Better-When-I-Played standard-bearer, the guy to turn to for strident opinions.

His comments came in response to a benign question about new Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, and quickly veered not only to slamming Bautista, but to complaints about how “fucking nerds” who “don’t know shit” are ruining the game from front-office positions, that “fucking steroid user” Ryan Braun gets ovations in Milwaukee, and that modern relievers are too focused on pitch counts and not enough on the game itself.

Gossage, a world-class griper, was simply doing what he does best.

He would have been easier to dismiss had not Giants reliever Sergio Romo—one of the game’s free spirits, a guy loose enough to rock this t-shirt at the Giants’ 2012 victory parade—himself dismissed Harper later in the day.

“Don’t put your foot in your mouth when you’re the face of the game and you just won the MVP,” Romo said about Harper in a San Jose Mercury News report. “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”

In response to Harper’s comment that baseball “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the reliever offered a succinct takedown.

“I’m pretty sure if someone has enough money,” he responded, “he can find another job if this is really tired.”

Thing is, Romo and Harper actually seem to agree about most of what they said. Romo is himself demonstrative on the mound, showing more emotion while pitching than perhaps anybody in Giants history. He took care to note, however, the difference between excitement and impudence.

“As emotional and as fiery as I am, I do my best not to look to the other dugout,” he said. “I look to the ground, I look to my dugout, to the sky, to the stands. It’s warranted to be excited. But there is a way to go about it to not show disrespect, not only to the other team but the game itself.”

With those four sentences, Romo cut to the heart of the issue. Contrary to those trying to position this as a cross-coast battle of wills, Harper did not say much to contradict that sentiment.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have changed markedly over the last decade. There is more acceptance of showmanship now than at any point in the sport’s history, and scattershot blasts from the likes of Goose Gossage will not slow that momentum. Because the Code has changed, however, does not mean that it is failing.

The real power of the unwritten rules lies in the maintenance of respect—between teams, within clubhouses and, as Romo went out of his way to note, for the game itself. This core value has not eroded at all.

What has changed over time is ballplayers’ ability to distinguish displays of emotion from displays of disrespect. When the mainstream decides  that bat flips are an acceptable form of self-expression, they no longer have the power to offend.

The reason this hasn’t already gained universal acceptance is that not all bat flips (used here as a proxy for any number of emotional displays) are equal. Bautista’s display during last season’s playoffs was magnificent. Some bats are flipped, however, not with celebration in mind, but in an effort to denigrate the opposition. It might, as Romo noted, include a staredown of the pitcher (as Harper himself has been known to do). It might be some extra lingering around the box, or a glacial trot around the bases. At that point, the method of the opposition’s response—which includes the option of not responding at all—becomes a valid concern.

Romo talked about this distinction, and its importance to the game. Surprisingly, so did Harper.

The MVP noted that Jose Fernandez “will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.” Because Harper doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect, Harper doesn’t care. And if Fernandez does not intend it as such, nobody else should, either. (Worth noting is that Fernandez learned an important lesson in this regard early in his career.)

The main fault with Romo’s diatribe was that he inadvertently piggybacked it atop Gossage’s inane old-man ramblings. Still, he lent some nuance to a discourse which sorely needs it, and perhaps inadvertently pointed out that he and Harper have more in common than either of them might otherwise believe.

Ultimately, the question seems to be less “Can’t we all just get along?” than “Why haven’t we figured out that we’re getting along already?”

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Bryce Harper, Unwritten-Rules

Bryce Harper Hates Baseball’s Unwritten Rules. Like it or Not, He’s Also Their Standard-Bearer

 

Harper ESPN II

Bryce Harper is one with baseball’s unwritten rules. He understands them … and he disapproves. He’ll bend them and tousle with them and bunch them up and whack the league’s stodges over the head with them, smiling all the while.

Harper, though, is not like some of his celebrated—and celebratory—peers, whose blatant disregard for established baseball etiquette—Yasiel Puig’s bat flips, for example—seems as much a calculated an effort to increase their Q rating as anything else. For Harper, it’s more a function of his overall game, a bleeding at the edges of whatever it is that makes him great.

Harper is ESPN’s feature subject of the moment, in an excellent profile by Tim Keown. In it, he says this:

“Baseball’s tired. 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.

“Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling — hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry.”

In many ways, Harper is correct. This is no longer your father’s baseball league, wherein overt displays of emotion will earn a fastball to the earhole. Nolan Ryan has been retired for nearly a quarter of a century, and no standard-bearer has taken his place.

Puig, meanwhile, stands among an assortment of players who are more than happy to flip and grin and celebrate in ways that have traditionally been foreign to the major leagues. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s interesting that Harper referenced Jose Fernandez, though. The right-hander, among the game’s most exciting players, has earned wide latitude when it comes to displays of enthusiasm. His story, however, is one of maturation—much of which came during the course of a single game in September, 2013.

That day, during the final start of Fernandez’s rookie season, he got into it with Atlanta, for reasons running directly counter to Harper’s recent assessment. The pitcher grinned widely when Juston Upton’s would-be homer was caught at the wall, but failed to offer similar leeway an inning later, when Evan Gattis intentionally pimped a home run in response. Fernandez one-upped Gattis after hitting his own home run, not only watching it from the box until he was certain the Braves had noticed, but going into a glacial trot around the bases before literally spitting toward third base as he rounded the bag.

None of this, save for Fernandez’s initial grin, had anything to do with celebrating the game.

Which is where Harper’s point hinges. Fernandez could have maintained his hackles and defended his actions afterward, claiming that the Braves started things and that he was only responding. Perhaps it was Atlanta catcher Brian McCann waiting for Fernandez to reach the plate before informing him that he needed to start acting like a big leaguer. Maybe a voice of authority in the pitcher’s own clubhouse set him straight. (Then-manager Mike Redmond went so far as to set up a meeting at which Fernandez apologized to McCann and Mike Minor, the pitcher against whom he homered.)

Either way, Fernandez came clean to reporters in the postgame clubhouse.

“This isn’t high school no more,” he said in an MLB.com report. “This is a professional game, and we should be professional players. I think that never should happen. I’m embarrassed, and hopefully that will never happen again.”

Fernandez was talking not about his joie de vivre—he continues to enjoy himself like a madman on the baseball diamond—but his blatant disrespect of the opposition. To his credit, we haven’t seen anything like that from him since then.

Which brings us back to Harper.

As a former teenage phenom, he’s been picked on by a variety of big league veterans (and even umpires). Sometimes his response has been fine, sometimes less so. Harper’s unprovoked actions have been mostly solid. The guy plays fiery, including his attitude from the sidelines, and teams around the league have come to accept that. Which is as it should be.

It’s a lesson that needs special reinforcement as the game slides further away from a hard line against celebrations: So long as players’ on-field displays are focused inward, guys like Harper and Fernandez should have relatively smooth sailing. Directed at the opposition, however (take Harper’s own scuffing of the Braves logo in 2014, or his behavior after homering off of Hunter Strickland during the playoffs later that season), are a different matter.

It’s an important distinction. There are strong feelings on both sides of the divide—traditionalists who want no part of emotion on the diamond, and those who decry the Code as ancient hokum, unfit for the modern game.

As is usually the case, the truth lies someplace in between. Celebrations are here to stay, but disrespect is as reviled now as it’s ever been. Trouble is, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, which is where much of the problem lies.

Baseball is an ever-changing game, as are its unwritten rules. The sport is still feeling its way through this, but with guys like Harper and Fernandez at the helm, it should all work out just fine.

 

 

Passing Rules Down, Rookie Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

Archer Sets Tone in Rays Camp

Those who thought that the Chris Archer’s outstanding 2015 season—in which he made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the American League Cy Young voting—might be taken as an excuse to ease off the gas pedal are sorely mistaken.

On the very first day of workouts in Port Charlotte, Fla., Archer pulled aside two young pitchers, Jacob Faria and Blake Snell, for showing up late to a team meeting. How late were they? It was 8:28 a.m. The meeting started at 9.

For Archer, it was all about tone.

“You guys are the last two pitchers here,” he scolded in front of reporters, according to a Tampa Bay Times report. “You guys have zero service time. You got no right to be coming in after me, really. I get here super early. I wouldn’t expect you to be here at 6:30, but 8:30?”

With that gesture, Archer provided a baseline expectation about accountability—an especially important measure considering the youth of Tampa Bay’s staff. This is the basis for winning clubhouse atmospheres.

Dusty Baker tells a story about showing up one minute late to the hotel lobby during his rookie season, to catch a ride to the ballpark with some teammates. It was 4:01 p.m., and he had been in his room, catching the end of Gunsmoke on TV. The group he was to meet waited for him to arrive, and as soon as he saw them sped off. “I had to run behind the truck all the way to the ballpark,” Baker said. Lesson learned. The incident helped to inform an approach to the game that he carries with him to this day.

“What you learn in this game is not yours to pos­sess, but yours to pass on,” Baker said in The Baseball Codes. “I believe that, whether it’s equipment, knowledge, or philosophy, that’s the only way the game shall carry on. I believe that you have to talk, communicate, and pass on what was given to you. You can’t harbor it. You can’t run off to the woods and keep it for yourself, because it isn’t yours to keep. And what you teach other guys is the torch you pass. I don’t make this up—it was passed to me.”

Archer seems to be right on board. “I remember being in some of these younger guys’ shoes,” he said in the Rays spring training clubhouse last week. “Hopefully I can have the same impact that James Shields and D.P. [David Price] had on me.”

If his recent actions are any indication, the Rays are in good shape in that regard.

No-Hitter Etiquette, Passing Rules Down

‘Hey, You Have a No-Hitter Going,’ or: When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

One of our abiding questions through the process of reporting this book concerned the point in their careers at which players learn the unwritten rules, or at least become cognizant of their existence. Legacy players like Ken Griffey Jr., Prince Fielder and the Hairston boys, all with big-league dads, were taught early. Others had the good fortune of playing for experienced coaches as youths. (“One of my coaches when I was 13 or 14 was an ex-major-leaguer, Mike Epstein,” Eric Chavez told me recently. “Everything we did was everything he learned as a ballplayer. Also, he majored in philosophy [at U.C. Berkeley]. There was nothing that got by him.”)

Shockingly, some players don’t learn about the Codes until they get to the big leagues.” If you don’t have veterans on your minor league clubs, which a lot of clubs don’t have, a lot of that education starts at the big league level,” said Hal McRae.

What’s very clear is that players in high school and even college are not held to the same standards. Look no further than a news account out of Arkansas published this morning, detailing a local prep’s no-hitter. Straight from the mouth of pitcher Trey Wiley, describing the moment at which he was just one out away:

“I never thought about it, not until there was two outs when (third baseman) Derek (Nation) threw me the ball after I struck the last kid out and he goes, ‘You know you’ve got a no-hitter, right?'” Wiley said. “Then after that, I was just like, ‘Uh oh, I’ve got to get this guy.'”

Had Wiley given up a hit at that point, Nation’s primary story of his time as a high school baseball player would likely have forever after spun on the question, “What if I hadn’t said anything?” But as they say, no harm, no foul. It’s not the big leagues, after all.

– Jason

Bryce Harper, Dusty Baker, Passing Rules Down

Bryce Harper, 17-yr. Old Phenom, Learns One of the Unwritten Rules

Our good friend and colleague, Jeff Fletcher, has written a wonderful piece for AOL Fanhouse on Bryce Harper, the 17-year old who dropped out of high school in Las Vegas, took the GED and enrolled in a community college to prepare for the June draft.

There’s even a part about the unwritten rules, that comes near the end of the story.

Another issue Harper will need to address this year is gaining some maturity. (College of Southern Nevada coach Tim) Chambers said Harper has some “bad body language” and occasionally does and says things on the field that he shouldn’t. Last fall he started to go to first on a pitch he thought was ball four, but it was called a strike. Next pitch, he hit a home run. After reaching the dugout, he said to one of the coaches, loud enough for the opponents to hear: “They should have walked me.”

Next time up, Harper got plunked.

“Those little things, he’s still learning,” Chambers said. “He didn’t mean to show them up. He was just giggling to our coach.”

Chambers is one of the unsung heroes of the game — the guys who teach young players the right way to play, before they reach the level of competition where playing the wrong way can be hazardous to their health.

Here what Dusty Baker told us on the subject of taking younger players under your tutelage and “paying it forward” :

“That’s how the game perpetuates itself, and I was always told,  well I wasn’t told this, I kind of made this up myself, but I tell people I was told it, to make it sound better, because I’m not some great philosopher, but – I honestly believe that what you learn in this game  is not yours to possess, but yours to pass on.  I believe, whether it is equipment, knowledge, or philosophy, that’s the only way the game shall carry on.  There’s not enough passing on now.  . . .  I urge my older guys to spend time with the young dudes so the game will continue when I’m gone and they are gone.  I believe that you have to talk, communicate, and pass on what was given to you. You can’t harbor it, you can’t run off to the woods and keep it for yourself, because it isn’t yours to keep.”

– Michael