Annie Savoy believed in the Church of Baseball.
I do, too.
The Ballpark Henrietta from Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones — Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, etc. — and the only church that truly fed her soul, day in and day out, was the Church of Baseball.
I was raised Catholic, and I love baseball. So I understand both Annie’s aversion to guilt, as well as her observation that a Catholic rosary has exactly the same number of beads as a baseball has stitches — 108. Both entities are steeped in tradition; both, to a large extent, do things today because it’s the way they’ve always been done; and both have instituted recent change that is more novel than needed.
For example, when the priest stands, opens his hands to the congregation and says, “Peace be with you,” why am I the only honyok left in the church who still responds, “And also with you?” “And with your spirit?” Where’d that come from? Are you telling me that the response burned into my brain since birth was really the most pressing problem the Church needed to change?
Baseball’s rich tradition includes unwritten rules — a code that has effectively governed the behavior of individual players and teams for decades. It demands hustle, effort, respect and humility — wait … aren’t those good things? So why in the world would baseball need to change its Code?
Because The Code is “tired,” says 2015 National League MVP Bryce Harper.
On March 10, Tim Keown’s article for ESPN The Magazine entitled Sorry Not Sorry hit the shelves and immediately ignited a firestorm in and around baseball. It came on the heels of two MLB rules changes — one instituting a 30-second clock to limit the length of mound visits, the other providing protection for middle infielders on double plays — and focused on Harper’s solution to what the Washington Nationals’ outfielder feels is baseball’s biggest problem: not enough “flair” in the game. In his words, baseball is “tired because you can’t express yourself,” a perspective that flies in the face of The Code.
The kind of expression that Harper appears to value most is “pimping” homers — the word he uses to describe the act of a hitter drawing attention to himself by flipping his bat after contact, standing at home plate for an extended time, and/or putting his own personal stamp on the pace and manner in which he circles the bases. It is baseball’s version of the touchdown dance, a physical and often choreographed soliloquy that reeks of attitude and somehow seems angrily punctuated with the word, “Bitch!” To millennials like Harper, it’s a big deal and we need more of it. It is, after all, no longer enough to bask in the humble glory of defeating your opponent; you must rub his nose in it with antics that you’ve likely planned — and practiced — at home.
Harper, as Keown suggests, may already regret his comments; he is as young and inexperienced as he is immensely talented. He is brash, plays hard when he feels like it, and is closing in on the day when he will likely sign the largest contract in baseball history. Within that sentence lies the problem that many in baseball have with Bryce Harper: he just doesn’t feel like playing hard all the time. That may be fine for the new school millennials whose bi-weekly paychecks contain six zeros, but it remains intolerable for old schoolers like Goose Gossage — whose generation paved the way for baseball’s current salary structure — and throwbacks like Jonathan Papelbon, Harper’s teammate who backed the young phenom against the dugout wall for failing to hustle out of the box late last season. Papelbon was chastised by mostly non-baseball people who understood neither the point he was making to Harper, nor the fact that scuffles like that are extinguished quickly in dugouts filled with thirty-five people wearing the same uniform. Harper, they should know, was never really in danger of having more than his ego hurt … or, God forbid, learning a lesson.
A day after Keown’s article shined a light on Harper’s call for more flair in baseball, Gossage ardently defended the humility and respect for the game he learned during his 22-year Hall of Fame career, while dismissing Harper and shunning the adoption of softer, more college-like slide rules in the Major Leagues. In response to Gossage, ESPN radio host Freddie Coleman called out Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, and Reggie Jackson as examples of how Major League Baseball’s storied history was written by many arrogant and narcissistic personalities (although I’m not sure how Robinson made that list, as he broke baseball’s color barrier with nothing but the utmost class, courage, and unparalleled restraint). Coleman correctly referred to the manner in which Reggie admired his home runs from the confines of the dirt circle surrounding home plate. It was, to Coleman’s point, pimping before pimping was a thing, and it was done long before Bryce Harper was even born.
And then there’s the matter of context.
In 1951, Bobby Thompson hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds — the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” — to lift the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant. The Giants had been 14 1/2 games behind the first-place Dodgers on August 14, but won 37 of their last 44 games to force the deciding game of a three-game playoff. Black and white video from the first ever televised game shows Thompson leaping in the air before he reaches first base, and again on top of home plate and into the welcome arms of his ecstatic teammates. It is one of the most iconic moments in sports history — a walk-off that sent the Gyros to the World Series — after which Thompson was rumored to have expressed regret that his enthusiasm may have shown up the pitcher. Respect.
The most memorable home run in my fifty years occurred in the 1975 World Series when, sometime after midnight and in the bottom of the twelfth inning, Carlton Fisk hit reliever Pat Darcy’s second pitch over Fenway’s Green Monster, but hooking toward foul territory. Who can forget the slugger leaping sideways toward first, chest facing the baseball, his arms waiving toward center, willing the ball to stay fair? It struck the foul pole and the Red Sox won Game Six, as Fenway Park unloaded onto the field.
Fisk’s celebration, and that of Red Sox fans, is unforgettable. Given the situation, his reaction to the ball he hit could be viewed neither as a spotlight on himself nor a show of disrespect to Darcy or the Cincinnati Reds. It was pure childlike joy shared with his team and the fans of Boston, and completely devoid of the anger and attitude displayed by Joey Bautista when he homered against the Rangers in last year’s ALDS. In street clothes and sitting in the seats behind home plate, Fisk would have been indistinguishable from the fans around him.
Thirteen years later and 3,000 miles from Boston, Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda summoned an ailing Kirk Gibson from the clubhouse — where he was out of uniform and receiving treatment on his injured knees — to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game One of the 1988 World Series. Gibson was in agonizing pain and had just been asked to face the game’s best closer, Dennis Eckersley. Gibson famously hit a 3-2 pitch into the right field bleachers, seemingly with one arm, then hobbled around the bases, smiling, exuberant, and pumping his arms like he was starting a lawn mower.
And then there was Joe Carter, who upon ending the 1993 World Series with a walk-off homer, leaped and laughed and bounded like a jubilant school boy, only to later temper his emotions because of what he knew Mitch Williams, who threw the pitch, was feeling in the other locker room.
History. Four unforgettable game-ending, walk-off homers. In post-season.
My, how the game has changed.
Today, Grapefruit League players wearing numbers approaching 100 stand on first base after reaching on a jam-shot over the second baseman’s head in the fifth and point to the heavens like Moses after parting the Red Sea — an act that on athletic fields always looks gaudy and conspicuous to me.
No one respected the game of baseball more than Fisk. In May 1990, at the age of 42 and nine years after changing the color of his Sox from Red to White, Fisk was catching in a game at Yankee Stadium when “Neon” Deion Sanders sauntered to the plate and drew a dollar sign in the dirt. A moment later he popped out to the shortstop and stood at home plate while Yankee fans booed in disgust. Two years after Bull Durham’s Crash Davis barked, “Run, dummy!” to a batter who stood to admire his home run, Fisk said something along the same lines, but inarguably more robust, to Sanders, who dispensed with the advice and walked directly to the dugout, never coming close to first base. Fisk had played in well over 2,100 Major League games by that time; Sanders was playing in his 24th. No respect.
At fifty, I am undeniably old school. I learned the game from ex-pros of Gossage’s generation, and I believe in the unwritten rules that have governed the game for decades, The Code, as some call it. In an article posted on this blog in January 2016, I wrote about John Scolinos and the late coach’s use of home plate to teach the values of boundary and accountability. His point? Don’t widen the plate — that is, change the rules — for anyone, no matter how good they are or how badly they want to express themselves. Play hard all the time, play to win, celebrate your team’s success without embarrassing your opponent. “Show class in here (meaning at the ballpark), you’ll show class out there (meaning in the real world),” Scolinos told his players.
When Red Sox slugger Jim Rice checked his swing and blooped a ball into shallow right field in a game against the visiting Yankees in 1977, Yankee manager Billy Martin felt right fielder Reggie Jackson failed to hustle to the ball, which allowed Rice to run past first and into scoring position. Disgusted with his star player’s lack of hustle, Martin immediately removed Jackson from the game — mid-inning. The incident resulted in another famous dugout skirmish in which Reggie — at the time, the game’s biggest star — was not immune to the expectations of his old school manager — The Code.
Clearly, emotion has always been a part of the game. Angry managers get ejected while defending their players and frustrated batters snap bats in half over their knees. It’s to be expected. But watching Thompson and Fisk and Gibson and Carter circle the bases with such joy is like having them in the stadium seat next to yours. They were a part of the fan experience, each one immediately letting go of the fact that his performance was the cause for celebration. Did they express themselves? Absolutely! By playing great over the course of long seasons and even longer careers; by celebrating appropriately in context with the game’s meaning; and by respecting The Code.
That’s old school.
Harper’s pimps want to remind you who did the damage. In your face. Look at me.
That’s new school.
And I won’t be showing up for class.