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Doug Wolter: MLB now encourages individual expression, but unwritten rules die hard

I don't know why it has suddenly become so important for major league baseball to encourage poor sportsmanship, and why the league should think more than 100 years of tradition would then naturally go "poof."...

I don’t know why it has suddenly become so important for major league baseball to encourage poor sportsmanship, and why the league should think more than 100 years of tradition would then naturally go “poof.”

Since last year’s playoff season, MLB began airing television commercials celebrating the kind of on-field antics that 100 times out of 100 used to mean a fastball in the rib cage. “Let the kids play,” was the message. So now it’s OK to teach Little Leaguers how to rub their opponents’ noses in their successes. Go ahead, flip the bat. Admire your home run for a few seconds before you slowly trot around the bases, just in case your rival doesn’t know it was you who hit it.

It’s all about individual expression now. Be yourself. So you’re a jerk. It’s OK.

A few days ago, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson flipped his bat in a self-congratulatory manner against the Kansas City Royals and was subsequently plunked in his next at bat. Dugouts emptied. People were ejected.

Is this what MLB wants?

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Not officially, of course. But at least it gets fans talking. The sport needs to create a younger fan base now, they are saying, so maybe seeing a few more ballplayers behaving like immature children is the wave of the future.

Predictably, the “new way” is confusing to fans and ballplayers alike. All-Star pitcher Clayton Kershaw was asked about this latest incident, and I’m sure he speaks for many when he said, “Does that cross the line? I don’t know anymore. Honestly. I don’t know.”

But for every Kershaw, there are others who say, along with Minnesota Twins reliever Trevor May, “There’s a pretty clear line I draw in the sand. It’s not even about guys having fun, or guys respecting the game, or whatever. It’s about respecting the opposing team.”

May’s statement pretty much sums up baseball’s “unwritten rule,” which has basically existed for as long as there has been baseball. Spontaneous celebrations are fine (remember Kirk Gibson’s fist-pumping after his famous homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series?) but when it crosses over into gloating, it’s not cool.

I have to laugh, though. Now baseball finds itself in an impossible Catch-22 situation, having gone on record to welcome a blurring of the lines while still having to lower the boom on players who retaliate in ways they always did.

There are two schools of thought, I guess. I have one baseball friend who decries what he calls “the ESPN-ization” of sports which has now been set in motion. But I know of another, younger, fan who welcomes the relaxing of rules, who will defend the Andersons of the world by saying that if it’s an “unwritten rule,” it’s not really a rule.

Perhaps he’s right. But even unwritten rules have consequences, and the unwritten rule that mandates pay-back for showing up an opponent will not go so easily into history’s dustbin.

I’m not arguing here that all unwritten rules are defensible. I don’t agree, for instance, that a player should be retaliated against for stealing a base when his team is leading 9-0 in the seventh inning. As long as there’s a game, you still have the right to play hard.

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But apart from that, let’s just say that Mr. Anderson is fortunate he didn’t play in the 1960s when Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were performing on major league mounds.

If he had flipped his bat that way when Gibson was pitching, he wouldn’t get one in the ribs. He’d get one aimed at his head.

Related Topics: BASEBALL
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