Making It Work: On Baseball's Heel Deficit

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We are past the hot-take moment, the pearls are un-clutched, and some sort of on-field reckoning is comfortably in sight. Whatever it was that people thought or are still thinking about Richard Sherman's incendiary 29-second postgame interview after the NFC Conference Championship is fading into what they think he will do on the field in the Super Bowl. This is a relief, for reasons you already know.

It seems, too, as if there has been a sort of weary recognition, among all but the sport's crustiest observers, that Sherman’s personality is good for the game of football. It helps that he's both great and great fun to watch, but Sherman's dedication to the big and brash has raised stakes not just for the Super Bowl, but for less-significant games to come. His words and actions will have every quarterback and top wide receiver on the Seahawks’ schedule next year, especially a certain 49ers receiver named Crabtree, aiming to beat him, to get back at his words through their play, to outperform him. This is all good, and all more or less harmless. Baseball would never allow it.

Justin Verlander, for one, was not having it. “So [Seahawks QB] Russell [Wilson] is a class act!  Sherman on the other hand," Verlander tweeted. "If he played baseball would get a high and tight fastball.” Here is one of baseball’s best pitchers taking a stand—on Twitter, but bear with me—against any and all who would deign to express pride or react positively in the immediate moments following three hours of consecutive adrenaline rushes and one of the biggest plays of his professional life. That person gets hit with a baseball. Who’s to say baseball is any less meatheaded or overly aggro than football?

This is not just Verlander, and his anti-expression hard-assery reflects a bigger problem. Baseball is doing its damnedest to let its self-policing run amok, to corral and discourage any and all showings of positive emotion it deems unruly, and that percentage seems to be on the rise every year.

There is new Yankees catcher Brian McCann who, then still with the Braves and after Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez hit a homer and yapped his way around the bases, lowered himself to Gomez’s level by actually preventing Gomez from touching home plate. This isn’t quite apples to apples with Sherman, because Gomez was clearly being an antagonist and acting less out of pure pride than with a desire to rub it in the Braves' collective face, and specifically that of pitcher Paul Maholm, who beaned Gomez with a pitch in a game in June. But the league’s disciplinary action in the aftermath was an affirmation of Verlander’s threat in a different form.

Both benches cleared in that Braves/Brewers tilt, with one pseudo-blow being thrown and landed by Braves outfielder Reed Johnson. There was scuffling, but the action level was more on par with a shoving match outside a bar on a Wednesday than, say, The Rumble in the Jungle, or even the bruising theater of the Royal Rumble. Gomez did not throw a punch nor, as far as is discernible, participate beyond words and be carried along with the wave of the brouhaha. He was suspended for one game, as was Johnson. McCann and Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman were fined, not suspended; it was hard not to read it as an implicit approval of McCann’s actions. Gomez was a yapping dork and got a game; McCann literally interfered with the operation of the game and got tapped on the wrist.

All of this works in lockstep with all of baseball’s “unwritten rules,” an amorphous and invisible code of conduct enforced when players get their feelings hurt. Look at a home run for more than 1.5 seconds? Get a spherical bruise next time you step in the box. Pump your fist and and let out an exclamatory yell after getting a big strikeout to end an inning? Get a scolding by some crusty baseball cop. This is a willful neutering of the game's emotional range, but it's also a sort of ham-fisted brand management. Players can let loose and have a little fun, just as long as it’s part of a production for MLB’s Fan Cave video series and not on the field. It is nearly impossible to imagine something as benignly berserk—or consciously theatrical—as Sherman's outburst even happening in a baseball context. Some glowering McCann interrupts the very thought of it.

***

Players often claim that “respect for the game” is in their best interests, and that often comes up whenever someone loses the plot and violates one of those unwritten rules. But whose respect is really on the line, here? Pitchers have a uniquely vulnerable role on the field, but also the power to dangle threats of bodily harm, like Verlander. This instinct to go a-plunking is more cowardly than protective, a bit of tough posing that also happens to be a way to avoid the risk of getting beat again by the guy who swagged out against you in his last at-bat. Turning shame-based hurt feelings into retributive violence is a strange and reactive definition of "respect," by any standard.

Literal, physical hitting back isn't built into baseball the way it is in football, but the threat of retaliation—which is not new, but does have a new huffiness about it—has done much more to homogenize baseball than it has football. It certainly has denied the sport its Richard Sherman, which is a shame.

Baseball’s most polarizing figures these days are usually entwined in disciplinary battles with the league, in court or through righteous press releases—think of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Ryan Braun. It's not just that this doesn't look good on the players or the game. There is, inherently, no fun in it.

What the game could use—not what it needs, an important distinction—is another Rickey Henderson. We might get only one Rickey per lifetime, but it doesn't seem too much to ask for a player whose skills, production and personality stand proudly above par, with an outsized personality to match. Henderson was not universally admired, but he was universally acknowledged as great, and his talent was equaled only by his braggadocio. “I am a creator,” he once told the Newburgh-Beacon Evening News in 1986, at age 27. “I want to make things happen, and I want to make them happen with style. I like to do things differently.” There are players who might think this way, but few who would say as much, let alone play with the swagger that would bring it off. The ones who would dare to do so will dodge fastballs for their trouble.

Baseball will survive and thrive if no such player emerges in the near future, of course, but this is a mold worth breaking all the same. And wouldn't it be grand if someone broke the mold? Wouldn’t it be grander still if pitchers, instead of headhunting in reaction to this hypothetical player’s outspoken nature, simply tried their best to get him out? Who could begrudge them a fist-pump or two, if they pulled it off.

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