Emotion is at the forefront of sports. Feelings of accomplishment escape from the soul, finding their way out of the body to display feelings that become publicly immortalized. These days those images are proudly showcased in GIFs, Vines, and various other means across social media platfortms. During the 2015 Major League Baseball postseason, the bat flip has produced polarizing sentiments, dividing the old school from new school.
For much of the game’s history, change has been an uncharted territory; best to not tread for fear of the unknown. Since the advent of Moneyball and widespread acceptance of statistical analysis, unofficial barriers have been broken. In the past decade we have seen women attain more prominent positions within a sport typically dominated by men. Front offices, once littered with “baseball people,” are now flooded with individuals possessing Ivy League degrees, bridging the gap between conventional wisdom and innovation.
The minor league system, once seen as an elongated development cycle for players and coaches, is now a fleeting stepping stone before major league prominence. The game is evolving like none of us ever imagined and its changing state is also taking place with the influence of new personalities. Many of these new stars play the game differently than their counterparts decades earlier and are altering the perception of the sport’s unwritten rules.
October 14 is a date filled with an array of history in the annals of the game. It was the date that Chris Chambliss hit a game-winning home run off the Kansas City Royals’ Mark Littell in 1976 to send the New York Yankees to their first World Series in 13 years. Francisco Cabrera‘s walk off single against Stan Belinda of the Pittsburgh Pirates occurred on October 14, 1992, sending the Atlanta Braves back to the Fall Classic for a second consecutive season. Eight years later, Roger Clemens struck out 15 Seattle Mariners on the October 14. Lastly, in 2003, Steve Bartman’s gaffe at Wrigley Field changed that postseason’s course.
In Toronto, however, October 14 will forever be remembered for the shot heard ’round Canada and a flip of the script from the Toronto Blue Jays. Trailing two games to none to the Texas Rangers, they stormed back to win the final three games of the series, punctuated by a three-run home run in the seventh inning by Jose Bautista. Though many consider his home run to be the biggest swing since Joe Carter‘s World Series home run off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 Fall Classic, the moment became shrouded in controversy when Bautista emphatically flipped his bat as he admired his blast over the left field wall.
Traditionalists who grew up watching the businesslike manner of players such as Joe DiMaggio, Don Mattingly, and Gary Carter were appalled by the display. Many cited a lack of respect for the game. On the other hand, the younger fans watching are generally more accepting and thoroughly embrace the moment as emotion at its purest form and a departure of the staid nature of the game.
Bautista’s bat flip controversy is no mere isolated occurrence. Less than 48 hours earlier, both Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets each hit home runs classified as no-doubters. Cespedes, in fact, flipped the bat on a three-run home run off Alex Wood that extended a comfortable 7-3 lead in the fourth inning to 10-3. The GIFs, memes, and tweets spread through social media in rapid succession.
Thursday morning, 1984 National League Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe, a current ESPN analyst, explained on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” that players do not police themselves the way they used to, which leads to a wider acceptance of histrionics such as bat flips.
“Back in the day, he (Bautista) never would have done that,” Sutcliffe said. “With a lot of us he would not have made it around the bases. In this day in age, every sport is competing for the entertainment dollar. If you were in that building you would have felt the entertainment and the excitement of that home run and to be honest it is SportsCenter’s fault because it is one of the first things they show.”
One of the most notable bat flips in recent baseball history occurred in Game 4 of the 1987 World Series. Tom Lawless, a reserve infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, flipped his piece of lumber after hitting just his second career home run to the shock and amazement of over 50,000 at Busch Stadium and millions more watching from home. As time passed, more players would begin to outwardly express these feelings after dingers and game-changing plays.
In Game 2 of the 1995 American League Division Series, Ruben Sierra, then of the Yankees, hit a deep home run to right field off Seattle’s Andy Benes in the sixth inning, followed by Don Mattingly’s lone postseason home run one at-bat later. Commentators Gary Thorne and Tommy Hutton subsequently discussed both Sierra’s elongated home run trot and Mattingly’s swift sprint around the bases.
“You know, a lot of guys don’t do this when they hit home runs, but then again a lot of guys don’t hit them that far,” Hutton said after watching the replay of Sierra’s home run.
After Mattingly hit the second of the back-to-back home runs in the inning, Hutton said, “Seventeen hundred and eighty-five regular-season games and that’s a home run trot. … He doesn’t put the mustard on it like Sierra. He runs around the bases the way they used to.”
Thorne added: “The way the captain of the Yankees would do it.”
To me, the dramatics expressed when flipping a bat or pumping one’s fist on the mound as a pitcher are acts unbecoming of a professional player. Flipping a bat is almost as if you are symbolically flipping off the opposing player and being discourteous in the midst of a game that in many cases is not even close to its conclusion. With each passing instance of this practice or on the flip side with a pitcher excessively celebrating an out, these moments become contrived as manufactured emotion played to the whims of social media by players who lack the understanding of the game’s history.
In other sports, any emotion that appears sinister toward an opponent is typically met with either retaliation or reprimand. In the NHL during the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, Washington Capitals enforcer Dale Hunter pushed New York Islander forward Pierre Turgeon into the boards for simply waving his hand at the Nassau Coliseum crowd after scoring a goal to give his team a 5-1 lead. Turgeon never regained the effectiveness he once possessed on the ice following the cheap shot from Hunter and was reduced to journeyman status for the remainder of his career. Seven years later in the NFL, Dallas Cowboys safety George Teague leveled San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens after he raced to the Cowboys famous star painted at the 50-yard line of Texas Stadium to complete a touchdown dance.
Individuals in baseball are taught from Little League on to act as though anything they accomplish is something they have done before. More people are taught to play the game the way those such as Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, and Mariano Rivera played for nearly two decades: with heart, dedication, and sportsmanship. One of the first lessons I learned playing Little League Baseball was to refrain from hurling your bat in any direction. A baseball bat was sacred. It was to be a work instrument that deserved the utmost respect, because it was a representation of the person I would be within those white lines.
The suddenly common practice of bat flipping is viewed as an absence of deference to those who played the game before them. Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, the man who surrendered Bautista’s home run in Game 5, said, “[Bautista] is doing stuff that kids do in whiffle ball games and backyard baseball.”
Clicking through social media, many have expressed that Dyson should have thrown a better pitch in that spot. However, an argument can also be made that the home run did not win the game and with roughly two more innings remaining, the game could have changed hand.
To Jays fans, the “flip heard ’round the world” was an expression of joy at the return of Canadian baseball to the postseason after 22 years.
People like myself will always yearn for the simpler days when a player just took a casual trot around the bases without admiring their home run.