As we enter a new baseball season, it’s time to confront a hard truth. One, I think, that has relegated baseball to an afterthought culturally. We allow the feelings of losers to dictate the behavior of winners. This is masked behind words like sportsmanship and phrases like unwritten rules; yet, the fact remains: the culture surrounding baseball in America does not allow those who excel at their craft to express joy in success.
In April of last year, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig told the Los Angeles Times that he was going to cut back on bat-flips. He said, “I want to show American baseball that I’m not disrespecting the game.” Yet, he did admit, “If it’s a big home run or if I’m frustrated because I couldn’t connect in my previous at-bats or if I drive in important runs for my team, I might do it…you never know. I can’t say I won’t do it.” This comes after pressure from American baseball purists who contend that bat flipping and other forms of celebration after home runs are disrespectful to the sport. As Bomani Jones points out, they hold that the kind of behavior you find in Latin American and Asian Countries (where they bat-flip creatively and proficiently) is not how it should be done within our borders. Bud Norris, pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, said it like this: “We’re opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years…” In other words, you can get home runs; you can play in our country…but you must adhere to our expectations.
It’s a subtle form of cultural colonialization to allow a player to display their athletic brilliance, but disallow the celebration of that performance because of the feelings of those who lose. It’s also part of why I think baseball has seen a steep decline in participation from African Americans. In the NFL, you are allowed to be dance in the end zone. In the NBA, Stephan Curry shimmies after he hits a three. In the MLB, you’re supposed to merely circle the bases after you hit a home run. Smile if you want…but don’t show any teeth.
I don’t mind Puig’s bat-flip for the same reason why I loved Cam Newton’s proclivity to dab on them folk—we should allow our best athletes to fully embody the joy of playing the game. Yes, these celebrations may rub those who lose the wrong way, but if they don’t want folks stunting, then they should ensure they either win the game or cut back on the home runs they allow. Either way, a sport culture that over-polices the amount of joy expressed on the field is little more than an attempt to protect the feelings of those who gave up their right to complain when they lost a game or gave up a home run. The celebrations should not be over the top and teams should not try to run up the score, but let people express the joy of the game—because, after all, it is a game.