Baseball Has A Joy Problem

The chain of events that led to Rougned Odor socking Jose Bautista in the face began last fall, but all comes back to a game that's caught up in its own unwritten rules.
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Major League Baseball has a joy problem. Or, more precisely, it has a problem with joy.

On Sunday, the Texas Rangers, holding a grudge for more than half a year, waited until Jose Bautista’s very last at-bat in their series against Toronto to pelt him with a baseball. And then, when Bautista slid into second base on what they viewed as an overly aggressive slide—it was aggressive, but seemed well within the acceptable range—Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor enacted some vigilante justice by first shoving and then cold-cocking Bautista; if not for a few inches, it could have easily broken Bautista’s jaw and wrecked the Toronto Blue Jays' season.

Odor and the Rangers were not just looking for revenge for a rugged slide, or not really looking for that at all. They were mad that Bautista flipped his bat after hitting a game-winning home run against them. In October of last year. That is, he outwardly enjoyed himself too much during one of the biggest moments of his professional life. This is the joy problem, and it is a disaster for the game in ways that have nothing to do with sucker punches.

You can have fun playing baseball, but only so much; you can smile, but it can’t be a shit-eating grin; you can appreciate a home run, but for a second at most, and only with an acceptably staid toss of the bat; you can be excited when you round the bases, but you’d better not loaf around them. Don’t run too quickly around the bases on a home run either, because that too could be construed as a slight. When you get to home plate, you are permitted some celebration, but not much, let alone too much. You can celebrate in the dugout, but not too theatrically. Break any of these rules and you are in line to have someone throw a baseball at you at a high rate of speed. That everyone knows these unwritten rules doesn’t make them any easier to understand, or any less insane.

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For years, columnists have made the mistake of assuming that baseball isn’t catching on with The Young People because it’s slow and boring to watch. The problem with that assumption is that baseball has always been slow and boring to watch, and always will be, regardless of whatever changes are made with pitching clocks or the routines players are allowed to exhibit before they get in the box. That summery slowness and general leisureliness is a part of what makes the game work for the people that love it, at all ages. That will not change, for better and worse.

No, the real generational divide baseball is facing is that the game militarily restricts its players from enjoying the (extremely difficult!) thing they do. Players are expected to be emotionless at all times, and the result is… weird, frankly, even by the standards of macho no-feelings stoicism that prevail in sports. It’s a sport where it’s an aberration to see a player smile after finishing a successful play, and where players are permitted to show only the barest levels of human satisfaction, lest they get beaned with a 90-plus fastball from a reliever who has been waiting seven months to do just that.

Baseball has a joy quotient. In football you can dance in the end zone, although the refs will serve you with a flag if you do it too long or too lustily. In basketball, Steph Curry can mouth something to the crowd after hitting a three and LeBron can beat his chest and scowl after throwing down a dunk, and they’ll only get a technical from the officials if they egregiously overdo it. Those systems work.

But in baseball, there are rules—harsh, asinine unwritten rules—about how much a player is allowed to behave like a sentient, warm-blooded human being when you’re on the field, and those rules are enforced by the most red-assed players on each team, instead of umpires. And that, I submit, is why young people look at baseball and scoff. How do you convince young, inspiring children to fall in love with a sport where a bat-flip is treated like the Hindenburg explosion, and where the proper response to a potential no-hitter is to ignore it, and where you’re not allowed to interact with the fans that’s in any way celebratory? This is not a rhetorical question. Does that sound fun?

About that last bit, with the fans. It was almost exactly 10 years ago that Lastings Milledge, then a Mets rookie, made the fateful mistake of high-fiving some fans on his way to right field after hitting a home run in the previous inning—the first of his career. Milledge was crucified by the baseball community. His own manager, Willie Randolph, reprimanded him for it after the game and had to assure reporters that “It will not happen again.” His own teammate, Billy Wagner, later taped pieces of paper to Milledge’s locker reading, “Know your place, rook.” Milledge never outlived the high-five snafu, which was such an affront to baseball orthodoxy that it became the defining moment of his brief major league career. When he was traded to the Washington Nationals in 2007, a New York Times article about it read, “His bumpy rookie season was defined by his slapping high-fives with fans along the right-field stands after his first major league home run.” There are many reasons, a good number baseball-related, why Milledge has been playing in Japan since 2012, but that moment is at the root of it.

Think about that: imagine doing something deemed so awful that it’s the only thing people remember about you, and that thing you did… was high-five some fans.

It makes sense, but only within the nonsensical calculus of Major League Baseball. It’s that calculus that baseball will need to correct, one way or another, in order to solve its joy issues. The league will have to fix its Lastings Milledge/Jose Bautista problem, which is to say it will have to make it so that if a player does something joyful, or expressive, or maybe a little exuberant, it won’t lead to columnists ripping them, and Goose Gossage ranting about them, and opposing teams plotting to throw a fastball at their face in the next calendar year. They have to get over the fact that young people—hell, most living people—prefer to enjoy what they do for a living, and like expressing that. More than that, baseball will need to reconcile itself with the fact that future generations of sports fans will want nothing to do with a league that allows its athletes none of those liberties. People will always play baseball, and watch it. But it’s hard to love something that so steadfastly refuses to reflect any emotion at all.

Young people aren’t looking at Bautista getting socked by Odor and thinking that he got what was coming to him. They’re looking at him and wondering why the Texas Rangers are such insecure weirdos that they’re still frothing at the mouth over a bat-flip that happened last October. And so long as the majority of major league teams tilt towards the Rangers perspective, it will be hard to blame sports fans for gravitating towards a different sport, like basketball or football, where it’s not the worst thing in the world to be happy about your performance. That’s all any of us want in our lives outside of the teams we cheer for. It’s hard to see how it would hurt anyone if we gave the players we cheer for the same freedom.


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