Showboating

Puig Does Puig, World Freaks Out

Puig pimps

This is what it looks like when things snowball. Wednesday night, after the Mets intentionally walked a batter to face him, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig connected for a monster home run, then stood frozen for several long beats to admire it. This should not have come as a surprise. It is what Puig does.

Still, it rankled numerous Mets. As Puig rounded first base, Wilmer Flores had some words for him. Puig turned around, mid-trot, incredulous, offered a quick Fuck you¸ then slowed his trot to a virtual crawl, his 32.1 seconds rounding the bases being the second-slowest time recorded this season. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud offered some additional thoughts as Puig crossed the plate. (We’ve seen that act before, notably when then-Braves catcher Brian McCann literally blocked the baseline to give Carlos Gomez an earful under similar circumstances in 2013.)

What set the Mets’ response apart, however, was what happened after the inning, when New York’s Jose Reyes and Yoenis Cespedes tracked Puig down in the outfield to deliver a protracted screed about appropriate behavior on a baseball diamond.

“I don’t think he knows what having respect for the game is,” Flores told reporters after the game. “I think there’s a way to enjoy a home run. That was too much.”

“Run the bases,” said Reyes in a Newsday report. “Don’t stand up, then walk four or five steps, then run slow. Wow.”

There are many things to unpack here.

What was the anger about, really?

Puig’s tendency to showboat is maddening for many opponents, but it’s also consistent. His display against the Mets, though hardly unique, may have been spurred to excess, at first by the preceding intentional walk, then by Flores’ comment.

Still, Puig is a central character in the mainstreaming of this type of display over recent years. And he’s hardly breaking new ground, either with his actions or in the types of response they solicit.

In 1977, Puig’s homer-pimping forebear, Oscar Gamble, admired a shot against the Yankees for so long that even before he’d even left the box New York catcher Thurman Munson told him, “All right, now you’re going to get drilled.” (The threat was empty; Gamble was not hit in any of the teams’ five remaining games that season.) Several years later, while playing for the Yankees, Gamble did it again, this time against Baltimore. Instead of threats, he—like Puig on Wednesday—was talked to by members of the opposition. “Eddie Murray and some of them other guys came up to me and said, ‘All right now, you’re taking a little too long up there,’ ” said Gamble, looking back. “That’s respect for players. They let you get your little style points in there, and then you have to go on and do what you do.”

Gamble’s displays were influenced by Reggie Jackson, whose coup de grace came in 1981, during a home run trot against Cleveland’s John Denny. Earlier in the game, Denny had thrown a pair of pitches up and in to Jackson before striking him out. When Reggie homered in his next at-bat, he showed his displeasure by pumping his fist toward the pitcher, then moving excessively slowly around the bases and tipping his cap as he trotted. Denny offered an earful for the duration with such invective that when Jackson crossed the plate, instead of heading back to the Yankees dugout he instead turned toward the mound, sparking an all-out fracas. (Among the peacemakers was Gamble, who literally helped lift Jackson over his head and carry him from the field.)

Jackson was himself influenced by one of the great sluggers of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, who was likely the first ballplayer to so admire his own handiwork. All of which is to say that Puig is not exactly breaking new ground, here.

Are the Mets angrier about their own play than about Puig?

After the game, Puig hardly seemed like man who had gained insight, saying, “If that’s the way [Flores] feels, it might be a result of them not playing so well.”

It’s harsh but accurate. The Mets, losers of six of their last seven, sat at 31-40, 11.5 games back in the NL East, and had lost three straight to Los Angeles by a combined score of 30-8 while surrendering a dozen homers. Annoyances are more tolerable while winning than they are while doing whatever it is the Mets have done this year.

“It’s frustration from everyone,” Reyes admitted later.

At least Puig is consistent. The Mets, who entered the season with postseason dreams, are not.

Is a lecture better than a fastball to the ribs?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the exchange was the discourse in the outfield between Puig, Cespedes and Reyes.

Cespedes, after all, is a poster child in his own right when it comes to showboating. For him to deliver a lecture on the subject indicates no small amount of transgression on Puig’s part. According to Reyes, Puig had no idea what was on the Mets’ mind when the New York duo tracked him down in the outfield.

“He didn’t even know what he did,” Reyes told reporters. “He continued to say to me and Cespedes, ‘What did I do? What did I do wrong?’ Wow. If you don’t know what you did wrong, you’ve got problems.”

Puig was so unable to handle the heat that he did not even look at Cespedes while his countryman grew increasingly animated during the conversation. Instead, he looked at Reyes, standing silently nearby. When it came time for Reyes to speak, he kept his message simple. “Man, you have to be better than that,” he told Puig. “You have to make people respect you as a player.”

It’s a noble notion, but to judge by early results, it didn’t take.

“[Cespedes] told me to try to run a little bit faster and gave me some advice,” said Puig in a New York Post report. “I don’t look at it that way.”

Is it a cultural divide?

Much has been written about players from Latin America and the stifling nature of baseball’s unwritten rules. Let players have fun out there has become a regular refrain on baseball blogs, and it’s not entirely wrong. The ability to distinguish exuberance from disrespect is vital when it comes to integrating increasing numbers of foreign players into America’s pastime.

But when Puig says things like this

We are not understood. We have to adapt. There are things we are not used to doing in our countries. When you keep doing things wrong, people get tired; I even got tired myself. There should not be so many rules. You just have to do your job and let people have fun, which is what I was doing in 2013. They’ve wanted to change so many things about me that I feel so off. I don’t feel like the player I was in 2013.

… it feels like an excuse. He has gone from the runner-up Rookie of the Year in 2013 to a guy the Dodgers have been actively shopping for multiple seasons now. His batting average has dropped from .319 to its current .244. Even though Puig is on pace to set a career high in homers (he currently has 13), his slugging percentage and OPS are far below what they were during his first two campaigns. He has been consistently injured, and was even farmed out to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month last year. This is not simply a matter of his team stifling his celebratory nature.

In fact, it’s worth asking whether the opposite might be true. Might Puig, without the onslaught of attention for his bat flips and home run watching, without the lectures from opponents and teammates alike, without the array of distractions caused by his own on-field behavior, maybe be a better player than he currently is?

The question is unanswerable, unless Puig himself proves it one way or another.

What are we left with?

Strip everything else away—the caveats about internal frustration and Puig’s established behavior and all the prior precedence—and the lone question remaining is, Were the Mets right to get upset?

The answer is yes. The answer is yes because Puig’s display on Wednesday was not about exuberance or about some unknown entity trying to stifle his essential nature. The answer is yes because Puig had malice aforethought in everything he did during the play. He was pissed that the Mets walked Joc Pederson to face him. He was pissed because Flores scolded him at first base, and d’Arnaud did it again at the plate. His action was intended to show the Mets up, and that’s exactly how the Mets took it. Puig wasn’t celebrating, he was gloating.

It’s the difference between the first historic example above, in which Oscar Gamble was wrapped up in the wonder of being Oscar, and the second, in which an angry Reggie Jackson could not find enough ways to display his loathing of the opposition.

There is a distinction, and it is important. On Wednesday, the Mets understood it. To judge by his reaction, Puig never will.

Showboating, World Baseball Classic

There’s A Party Goin’ On Right Here/Just Watch Out For a Fastball In Your Ear

celebrationFollowing up yesterday’s post about the joy embraced by players from various countries in the World Baseball Classic (and how such embrace is frequently at odds with their big league counterparts), today I bring you a quote from Eric Thames.

Thames, of course, is the new Brewers first baseman, having spent the last three seasons playing in South Korea. (South Korea, you might recall, is known for some outlandish behavior by its ballplayers.)

While in Asia, Thames stepped up his pimp game. From Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue:

Thames wore metallic gold arm and leg guards and celebrated home runs with a choreographed two-man skit that ended with a teammate tugging his beard and the two of them spinning on their heels to give a military-style salute to the home fans.

“Uh, not here,” says Thames, who this spring wore white body armor. “You want me to get hit in the ribs?”

Yesterday, I pointed out that the joyful celebration shown internationally is having an effect upon the staid response to success in the majors. So why is Thames toning it down?

Because there is a difference. Because somebody responding to success openly and without filters is celebratory, but somebody pantomiming pre-planned shtick is more boastful than joyous. (Recall, if you will, another bit of home-plate soft-shoe perpetrated by these selfsame Brewers a number of years back.)

The line between those approaches dissects even bat flips. The ones from Korea seem to be self-indulgent ways of garnering attention. The South Korean players who make their way to the U.S. acknowledge as much. The flip by Jose Bautista following his ALDS-clinching homer against Texas in 2015, however, was none of that. They are distinct entities.

Baseball diamonds contain plenty of space for joy. There is far less leeway, however, for acts masquerading as joy. As Eric Thames noted, ballplayers can tell the difference.

Bat Flipping, Showboating

Carlos Gomez: A Little Dab’ll Do Ya

Gomez dabs

Now that flipping a bat is no longer noteworthy, we might see new directions in personal expression being forced to the fore. And if ever there was a player to take self-salutation on a baseball diamond to unexplored levels, it’s Carlos Gomez. The guy was born for this stuff.

First, though, the bat flip. Those who do it, like Gomez, claim it’s within their celebratory rights as ballplayer, a virtual extension of their swing. There’s something to this. It’s what made Jose Bautista’s flip during last season’s playoffs so damn memorable.

There are limits, however, on what can reasonably be claimed as an extension of one’s swing. By the time a batter leaves the box, and certainly by the time he rounds first base, in-the-moment exuberance should be in the rear-view. Anything he does after that point can be viewed as a calculated act, and justifiably seen by the other team as beneath their dignity as opponents.

So what to make of the fact that Carlos Gomez dabbed as he crossed the plate following a spring training home run yesterday?

At this point, who knows?

Sure, Gomez flipped his bat, though not in particularly grand fashion by modern standards. To his credit, he hustled his way around the bases. And then … the dab. (Watch it here.)

True, it took only a moment, and Gomez was gone back to the dugout. It was so quick as to be easily missed (the broadcasters didn’t mention it as it happened), and the same Braves who had a thing or two to say to Gomez about similar topics back in 2013 didn’t seem to mind, at least to judge by their reactions on the field.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question of what constitutes a celebration, and whether the baseball equivalent of a touchdown dance is making its way into the mainstream. While watching Gomez, it was impossible for me to not think about Cam Newton—and however one feels about Newton probably goes a long way toward informing how one feels about Gomez doing something similar.

Or not. I am a fan of Newton and his celebrations. They are perfectly at home on a football field, where personal celebration is pervasive for anything from a QB sack to a short burst for a first down at midfield.

Baseball, though, is different. Part of the beauty of the sport’s unwritten rules is that they’ve served as a perimeter defense for the look-at-me attitude that has come to dominate other sports.

This is not to say that there is no place for such a thing in baseball, but when celebrations become contrived, they grow trite. And when they grow trite, they quickly become tired. Which is something, since Bryce Harper recently used that very wordtired—to support the opposite viewpoint, in describing a sport that does not favor such displays.

Still, it can be used here in equal measures to describe whatever it was Gomez did. His action originated less in the moment than as locker room-hatched scheme, the endgame for one of baseball’s biggest spotlight hogs to elbow his way into just a little more screen time.

Gomez is an exciting player, and merits some leeway when it comes to celebrating his feats. As a critic, I’m happy to grant him that much. When he ignores those feats, however, in favor of celebrating the mere existence of Carlos Gomez—the baseball equivalent to two thumbs pointed backward to the name on the rear of his jersey—he displays a degree of narcissism to which I have a tough time subscribing.

Update (3-29): Gomez managed to earn some bonus points, because when you’re pissing off Rob Dibble, there’s a decent chance that you’re doing something right.

 

Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

On the Benefits of Embracing the Moment, or: Not All Bat Flips Are Created Equal

Bautista goes yard II

Jose Bautista’s bat flip yesterday was so powerful as to obscure the wildest game many of us have ever seen. It has drawn endless opinions, many of which consisted of little more than the notion, “Wow, wasn’t that something?”—the hallmark of any sporting act powerful enough to draw the attention of the non-sporting public. Pure, visceral response to a pure, visceral moment.

It was something. And it was magnificent.

It was an all-world player at the peak of his powers, unleashing as violent a swing as you will see from a man entirely under control, against a fastball approaching 100 mph, in an inning that had already yielded so much drama as to leave fans emotionally drained, in a game upon which the season hinged, for a team that had not played for anything so meaningful in nearly a quarter-century.

It was all that. It was more.

There are those who feel that such displays—a hitter staring at his handiwork until after the ball has settled into the seats, then tossing his lumber with intensity approaching that of his swing—are beneath the sanctity of the game. They claim it shows up an opponent, that it offers disrespect, that in a world where self-aggrandizement has taken over the sporting landscape, humility is a necessary attribute for our heroes. Yesterday, many of those voices resided in the Rangers’ postgame clubhouse.

They’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

The moment would have carried no less gravity had Bautista simply laid down his bat and trotted around the bases. The hit would have been no less important. But the moment Bautista gave us was enduring, as physical a manifestation of pure emotion as will ever be seen on a baseball diamond. It was in every way a gift.

Sports fandom, at its essence, is about embracing the weightiest moments, win or lose. About being fully invested in the outcome of a given play, able to devote one’s emotional energy toward joy or despair, depending upon whether things break your way. Those who criticize things like bat flipping and chest pounding and hand-signs to the dugout after hitting innocuous doubles, who decry them for subjugating key moments at the expense of stoking egos, are correct. Let the moments breathe. A player’s initial actions are inevitably more powerful than his ensuing reactions.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, however, someone transcends it all. Bautista’s display didn’t distract from the moment, or even highlight it—it was the moment, part of it, anyway, as inexorably intertwined with our collective memory as the pitch or the swing or the baserunners or the fans. More so, in many ways. What do we remember of the last greatest Blue Jays moment? Was it the swing Joe Carter put on that ball in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series? Or was it his joyous reaction as he literally leaped around the bases? Do we recall Dennis Eckersley’s backdoor slider, or Kirk Gibson’s fist pump after he deposited it in the bleachers? Would Carlton Fisk’s homer in 1975 mean half of what it does today had he simply rounded the bases instead of physically willing it fair?

This wasn’t some preplanned shtick in some minor moment, no pulling Sharpie from sock following a midseason touchdown. This was one of the game’s great players coming through as profoundly as possible in literally the biggest moment of his career, and responding as such. It was so powerful that Adrian Beltre simply could not keep his feet, taking a seat on the turf as Bautista rounded the bases.

Bautista deserved it. We deserved it. Save the indignation for the .220 hitter who tosses his bat some Tuesday in July. I may well join you. For now, though, I’m going to savor this for as long as I can.

Bat flips, Retaliation, Showboating

On Measured Responses, and Why Every Slight Doesn’t Have to Equal Retaliation

Ration won the day again.

Wednesday, Cleveland second baseman Jose Ramirez homered against the Twins, admired it for a long while, then flipped his bat in the direction of Minnesota’s dugout. This was noteworthy less for the flip itself—which by now has become somewhat commonplace among the big league ranks—than for the reaction from the Twins dugout. Manager Paul Molitor stood on the top step and told Ramirez to “get the fuck off the field.” Catcher Kurt Suzuki lurked alongside, offering similar sentiments. (The gif above, via Deadspin, shows it all. Watch the full clip here.)

They had good reason to be angry. The balance of respect did not fall into Ramirez’s favor:

  • Ramirez celebrated his 23rd birthday only two weeks ago, while the guy he showed up, Ricky Nolasco, is 32 and a 10-year vet.
  • It wasn’t like he hit a bomb; his blast failed to clear the first row in right field and bounced back onto the grass.
  • Most importantly, the Twins Cleveland led 7-1 before he swung, and 10-1 afterward.

As best anybody could figure, Ramirez was upset with the fact that Minnesota had just intentionally walked Jason Kipnis to face him—a by-the-book move—and was letting off some steam.

Afterward, Nolasco threatened that Ramirez “will get his,” and the baseball media swarmed. Talk of retaliation has been at something of a fever pitch following last week’s episode of Papelbon Madness. Molitor himself was visibly pissed, and folks couldn’t wait to see what the manager would do.

Like Buck Showalter before him, however, Molitor sided with modern baseball reason. Instead of inflaming tensions by reacting to a perceived slight with tangible retaliation, he instead chose to do nothing. The Twins are a game back in the wild-card hunt, and have better things to worry about. Last night’s game—the teams’ final meeting this season—featured no hit batters.

Perhaps this is the new way of things, an enlightenment that dictates jackoff showboaters unworthy of undue attention.

Yesterday, Jeremy Affeldt announced his retirement with a bylined piece at SI.com in which he discussed the “recent trend of ‘look at me’ machismo,” writing, “Yes, let’s celebrate the game of baseball, and, if warranted, celebrate our on-field accomplishments with genuine shows of emotion. When you smack a double into the gap to take the lead in the eighth inning, by all means, pump your fist and praise your maker in the sky. But when you flash self-congratulatory signs after a meaningless first-inning single—or, even worse, a walk—you’re clowning yourself and not representing your club or your teammates very well.”

The notion is perfect—humble while acknowledging reality, accepting of changing times while refuting the kind of hubris that’s gained recent popularity. It’s noteworthy, however, for the fact that it followed something else Affeldt wrote: “I played the game the right way—not necessarily in compliance with some antiquated and silly ‘code.’ ”

Affeldt is right—the antiquated part of the Code is silly. But the stuff that governs the majority of big league ballplayers has evolved along with the rest of the game. It continues to mandate, as Molitor indicated from the top step of the visitors’ dugout in Cleveland, that respect be given an opponent. It also says now, in ways that would have been viewed as foreign a generation ago, that hard-line responses are not always necessary.

There’s always the chance that Molitor was simply abiding by game flow on Wednesday. The Twins didn’t lead by more than a run until the ninth inning, and could not afford to cede baserunners to their opponents. They always have the option of picking up the string against Ramirez again next season.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case.

Showboating

Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word: Junior Lake Goes Librarian on the Marlins

Lake shhhhh

People put differing amounts of credence into baseball’s unwritten rules, with a vocal faction consistently decrying their very existence. It takes an act of unusual persuasion to convince people on both sides of that aisle that somebody has crossed the line. Ladies and gentlemen: Junior Lake.

Lake’s actions after homering Wednesday against Florida not only had the Marlins outraged, but his own team, too. If we don’t hear more about this, it’s only because Cubs manager Joe Maddon made it known that he would handle the situation personally.

The preamble: Starlin Castro homered against Florida on Monday, then watched it, then delivered the season’s third-slowest trot. (Watch it here.) Last night, Dan Haren hit him in what can only be assumed to be response.

The main event: Lake homered off of Haren in the sixth inning last night. There’s little doubt that he had Castro on his mind when he watched the ball for five full steps toward first, then nonchalantly flipped his bat behind him as he began to jog. There were several things wrong with this scenario, beyond even the pimping and the flip.

  • It was Lake’s first homer of the season, and pimping in the big leagues is a meritocracy, something that must be earned. David Ortiz could maybe get away with it. Junior Lake can not.
  • It wasn’t like the homer won the game. Or even brought the Cubs close. Chicago was losing 6-0 when he hit it.
  • In response to the grief he was getting from the Marlins bench as he circled the bases, Lake put his finger to his lips in a Shhhhh motion after rounding third, while looking directly into Florida’s dugout.
  • Yep, he actually did that. (Watch it all here.)

Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto delivered some words when Lake crossed the plate. Lake fired back, and within moments benches emptied. The primary reason things did not get out of hand was Maddon, who assured Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez that the matter would be taken care of internally.

“I just spoke to [Lake] and spoke to him during the game,” Maddon told reporters after the game, via an MLB.com report. “We don’t do that here and that will be the last time you see it. I did tell them at home plate during the scrum. I told Chuck Hernandez because that’s who I saw. I said, ‘It’s our fault and we’ll take care of it.’ ”

It was reminiscent of a scene from The Baseball Codes:

In a game in 1996, the Giants trailed Los Angeles 11–2 in the ninth inning, and decided to station first baseman Mark Carreon at his normal depth, ignoring the runner at first, Roger Cedeno. When Cedeno, just twenty-one years old and in his first April as a big-leaguer, saw that nobody was bothering to hold him on, he headed for second—by any interpretation a horrible decision.

As the runner, safe, dusted himself off, Giants third baseman Matt Williams lit into him verbally, as did second baseman Steve Scarsone, left fielder Mel Hall, and manager Dusty Baker. Williams grew so heated that several teammates raced over to restrain him from going after the young Dodgers outfielder.

The least happy person on the field, however, wasn’t even a member of the Giants—it was Dodgers hitter Eric Karros, who stepped out of the batter’s box in disbelief when Cedeno took off. Karros would have disap­proved even as an impartial observer, but as the guy who now had a pissed-off pitcher to deal with, he found his thoughts alternating between anger toward Cedeno and preparing to evade the fastball he felt certain was headed his way. (“I was trying to figure if I was going to [duck] for­ward or go back,” said Karros after the game. “It was a 50–50 shot.”) …

In the end, it was Karros who saved Cedeno. When he stepped out of the box, as members of the Giants harangued the bewildered baserunner, Karros didn’t simply watch idly—he turned toward the San Francisco bench and informed them that Cedeno had run without a shred of insti­tutional authority, and that Karros himself would ensure that justice was administered once the game ended. Sure enough, as Cedeno sat at his locker after the game, it was obvious to observers that he had been crying. Though the young player refused to comment, it appeared that Karros had been true to his word. “Ignorance and youth really aren’t any excuse,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, “but we were able to cool things down.”

Maddon, who has proven that there are some unwritten rules about which he simply does not care, did not treat this one with such nonchalance. Nor did he limit his lesson to the confines of the clubhouse. “I don’t want us to take a page out of ‘Major League’ and flamboyantly flip a bat after a long home run,” he said after the game, ostensibly referring to Castro as well as to Lake. “I don’t want that at all. That has nothing to do with us ascending. I would even like to use this moment for our Minor League guys, that [flipping the bat] doesn’t play. For our kids watching, it doesn’t play. Don’t do that. That’s not cool. It’s very, very much not cool. If you’re watching the game back home in Chicago tonight, don’t do that.”

Then again, this wasn’t the first time he tried to impart this edict since taking over on the North Side. Perhaps it’s not taking.

The Marlins have little need for recourse. Maddon’s gauntlet toss against his own player handled it, as did Lake’s own comment afterward that “I recognize that it wasn’t right. It was part of the emotions and part of the game and I want to apologize to Haren for that, because I respect him and didn’t mean it.”

More interesting than Florida’s response will be the response of Chicago players to their manager’s new directive. Is a new quick-trot era in Chicago upon us?