Some Thoughts on Baseball and Player “Celebrations”

This issue has been top-of-the-list time-wasting fodder ever since Bryce Harper chimed in about what is “tired” in baseball, and asked if it wasn’t supposed to be fun. Now sportswriters, fans, announcers, managers, players – everyone has an opinion, and the one thing most evident in sifting through them is that the real issue in baseball is: what is considered celebration, and how do you fight the tradition that causes reprisal to some of it? Or do you? If a batter flips his bat and winks at the pitcher, and then the pitcher scratches that same batter’s chin-whiskers with a fastball the next time he comes to the plate, is that part of the game, or should that pitcher man up and pitch better?

What I have seen over the years – the celebrations that have stayed with me – have not seemed particularly contentious, and definitely improved my appreciation of the moment, if not the game. Last season, reliever Justin Grimm of the Chicago Cubs was in a bad spot. He delivered, and the ball went soaring to deep center field. Dexter Fowler chased it down, back-handed it, and then – with the biggest grin on his face – pointed to Grimm, whose relief was palpable. To me, Fowler’s gesture was a celebration, and well deserved. It was a hard catch. It saved a run and pulled his pitcher out of the fire. It has been made into a Vine and played over and over on the Internet.  I love that stuff.

Same team. Pedro Strop on the mound and the always-boisterous Brandon Phillips at the plate. Strop struck him out, pounded his chest, shot his arm in the air – and Phillips, a bit taken aback, grinned at him and gave him a thumbs up. Next time up to the plate, Phillips whacked the same pitch for a single, and he gave another thumbs up to Strop, with an even bigger grin. Strop, almost sheepishly, grinned back at him and gave him a nod.

These are the celebrations that work for baseball. Tipping the cap after a home run. Interacting with other players directly, without being derisive or arrogant. If you crush a ball 400 feet out of a baseball stadium, you deserve at least a token bat flip. It’s almost like the touchdown dance. Some are good at it, while others just toss the ball to the ref and head back to the huddle.

The problem comes when people start acting as if the game needs “forced” celebration – something new to make it more exciting. So far, I’m not seeing any real indication of what is considered too much, with the possible exception of that batter/pitcher duel that can get nasty and clear benches. Pitchers react to strikeouts and inning-ending outs all the time. Let a batter try that on his home run, and he’s targeted. Everything I’ve mentioned is part of the game and has been for decades.

What more are they after? Over and over I see the discussion centering on the things NBA or NFL players do, the swagger and the “personality” – but it’s not like Mike Trout is going to make a catch and climb the wall to sit with the fans and hug them, or Harper (to bring him back into the conversation) is going to do a rain dance around home plate after he hits a home run and scores.

The perception that celebrations in baseball are scarcer than in other sports is dead on. The secondary perception that there is some different level of “cool” that needs to be reached needs to be backed up with a little more explanation. What more are they looking for? In what way are players holding themselves in check? What would work, and what would be too much, and how would you regulate that?

My point, I think, is that this is not a cultural change that MLB executives, coaches, or even fans can bring about. Celebration is something that happens spontaneously, and if there are going to be new forms introduced to baseball, that is entirely on the shoulders of the players. Unless they try something, it cannot be embraced or banned. Unless whatever they do feels “right” to them in the moment, it is going to seem forced and fake. If baseball needs to evolve into a game that is more fun and full of swagger, it’s going to be a new generation of players stepping up and – in the words of Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise – making it so.

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