Flipping The Golden Rule

Embed from Getty ImagesBryce Harper: “fun” guy

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals would like to “make baseball fun again.”

We know this, because he wore a hat that tells us so, and in today’s America, if a hat says it, it must be true.

Alas, there are problems with the campaign for “fun” launched by Harper and other MLB members of Generation AA. For one thing, it’s pissing off players who are not of their generation.

That in itself should not be a killer for the prospect of injecting some showmanship into the sport. However, the biggest problem with this movement lies in the fact that what these guys want to do with themselves on the field–bat flips, emotional displays, even the dreaded “dabbing”–is not really all that “fun”; it’s just being defined that way. What’s really going on is an ugliness that matches a larger trend in our society–something much darker than just plain “fun.”

The DFR: BaseballConsider the scenario where Bryce Harper hits a home run, and thus feels compelled to extravagantly toss his bat aside before jogging the bases. The pitcher who served up the dinger is likely to get mad at Harper for his display, and it makes a lot of sense that he would. After all, in that instance the pitcher is the one guy on the field who can directly take the blame for Harper hitting that home run.

In all of our team sports, the pitcher-batter confrontation is the one venue where the team competition gets directly distilled down to an individual mano-a-mano, with roughly equal chances of success or failure.

 “If you look at Harper’s actions, his trying to “make baseball fun again,” through the prism of a bully, suddenly flipping the bat after a home run doesn’t seem quite so innocent…”

A penalty shot or shootout in hockey comes close, but even there, the goalie will be easily hung out to dry by a skilled offensive player; one can hardly hold a goaltender accountable when Alex Ovechkin beats him on the glove side on the breakaway.

In other team sports, the individual is rarely put under that sort of negative microscope. A guy may get “posterized” in the NBA, but as often as not he’s standing there beneath the monster throwdown because someone else on his team didn’t rotate from the weak side. Football is such a “scheme” sport that it’s rare when one player stands out for a huge defensive breakdown; only once every generation do you see a Charles Dimry getting personally torched for 5 touchdowns by Jerry Rice.

But in baseball? There it’s the pitcher versus the batter, every play, and when the batter wins in a big way, that pitcher ends up standing out there alone, almost literally on an island, and in front of an entire the stadium of fans. When Harper, or Carlos Correa, or David Ortiz, or any other batter decides to put on a show in that moment, it can hardly be viewed as anything other than an act directed towards the pitcher. Such displays are, by their very nature, designed to engender a hostile reaction from the other side.

This then begs the question: why do it?

Harper, as noted, sees such actions as injecting “fun” into the game, arguing that if you’re a player, you want to be able to “express yourself.”

So the showy actions and reactions are for the player’s benefit? That’s how the players have to have their fun? This seems odd. Leaving aside MLB’s professional aspect, and the enormous compensation players receive for their toil, one wonders how a guy like Harper got into baseball in the first place if, in and of itself, the game is not fun for him. If he does not find his chosen profession enjoyable, perhaps he should move along to some other job, one that befits both his thirst for amusement and his set of employment skills. (There’s bound to be a Wendy’s somewhere out there that’s hiring.)

Players should hardly need to inject fun into the proceedings, beyond what they inherently get from playing the game. Perhaps then these behaviors are meant for the fans’ sake. Harper has called baseball “tired” and celebrates players who have “flair” as being good for the sport. His words express an implicit comparison in between MLB and other leagues. (It’s worth noting, at this point, that Willie Mays was a baseball player who was known for flair–and he rarely pissed off his contemporary opponents.)

Well, the NHL has featured guys scoring goals and then going through all manner of excitations afterward–pumping fists, jumping into the boards, sliding down the ice, etc.–for many a year, and few observers name the NHL as a leader in attracting fans. Indeed, hockey is often an afterthought in this country, and is as likely to be considered moribund as robust when it comes to growing the game.

Besides, the true leader in fan following–the NFL–has a reputation as the “No Fun League” for its many judgments against players demonstrating too vigorously after making a play. (Yes, they still do it anyway.)

Also, think about where baseball fans may truly stand on such actions. Harper and his ilk may feel a bat flip after a home run will help lure more casual fans to baseball, but that seems unlikely, and not necessarily desirable. After all, casual fans are just that: casual. They make no allegiances to any sport other than the game of the moment, and they’re not a long run solution for growing the game.

Consider, too, the reaction of fans in the moment. If you’re in the stadium, or tuned in to watch on TV, you’ve probably already decided that the game is fun enough for you to spend your time watching it–prior to any showmanship taking place on the field. Also, those fans who are already watching the game probably have an allegiance to one of the teams on the field. If they’re fans of Harper’s Nationals, they’re probably already turned on by his home run leaving the field of play; the bat flip will hardly lift them to greater heights of enjoyment. Then again, if they’re fans of the other team, they probably already feel sour about their pitching giving up the home run; are they really going to enjoy that moment more if the guy who cranks one stands there and admires his work, then tosses the bat in a graceful arc through the air afterwards? The diehards for the opposition are unlikely to consider Harper’s actions “fun” in that moment.

And we come back to that word again: fun. I suspect it’s the key to understanding this whole “culture war” in baseball. This clash has been painted, for the most part, as a generational confrontation. Correa (in a piece that’s as much about selling gear as defending behavior) wrote about baseball being “stuck in the past” in response to criticisms about today’s on-field comportment–comments from the likes of Mike Schmidt and Goose Gossage. It is easy to characterize this as a clash between old and young, given the way the sides line up–I’ve even done it myself, here in this piece–but that ignores that concept of “fun,” and what it tells us about the motivations in play here.

It’s certainly no accident that Harper chose to make his point by wearing that “MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN” cap, an accessory that clearly references Donald Trump’s favored campaign headwear. Trump, who is certainly a member of an older generation, has engaged in behavior that’s not unlike the actions of baseball’s flamboyant bunch. But Trump’s character–as has been demonstrated, again and again, during the campaign–is that of a bully, not someone who is innocently trying to make baseball, or the presidential campaign, or America itself, “fun” by anyone’s definition other than his own.

If you ever had your own run-ins with a bully, perhaps back when you were a kid in school, then you may remember a time when the bully was caught in the act by a grown up. And what, inevitably, was the bully’s defense for his actions? “We were just having fun.”

There’s that word again. Fun. If you look at Harper’s actions, his trying to “make baseball fun again,” through the prism of a bully, suddenly flipping the bat after a home run doesn’t seem quite so innocent, does it?

Rather than bothering with things like sportsmanship and courtesy, which have been around a lot longer than Generation AA or any of those older players, it’s so much easier to just flip–along with your bat–the Golden Rule. Because you’re golden if you make the rules; and the easiest way to make the rules is to browbeat everyone else until they accept your version of the rules–whatever the negative consequences may be.

Behaving in a certain way on the field of play is not just some hidebound tradition, clung to by out-of-touch old men; it’s a matter of sportsmanship, of respect, of character. You don’t avoid going out of your way to make that pitcher who just gave up a home run feel worse about the situation because you’re old and tired; you do it because you’re not a sociopath. You behave respectfully because you have empathy for your opponent’s situation. You comport yourself with class because you’re better than the alternative.

But Bryce Harper, and others, by their own admission, aren’t better than that. And we should keep that fact–and all of its Trump-like dimensions–in mind, every time someone tells you that baseball needs to be more “fun.” Because they’re probably talking about fun for them–not for you.


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