There has always been debate about the proper way for a pro athlete to comport himself in games.
Sportsmanship, dignity, respect and civility are on one side of the behavior scale. Enthusiasm, trickery, showboating and mind-gaming are on the other.
What would you do if you made a key NBA three-pointer, scored a long NFL touchdown, hit a big major-league home run?
Then, too, what would you do if somebody hit that big three while you defended him, scored the TD while mowing you down, hit a homer off your good pitch?
Which brings us to Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, who started a benches-clearing brouhaha with the Braves on Monday night at Wrigley Field when he got into a shouting match with Braves catcher Tyler Flowers after hitting a home run in the second inning.
Flowers didn’t like the way Contreras was complaining about calls with the plate umpire while at bat. Contreras didn’t like Flowers telling him what to do. Braves pitcher Julio Teheran didn’t like the way Contreras acted after he hit the homer that gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
“I didn’t say anything bad,” Contreras said. “I basically said to [Flowers], ‘Just do your job, and I’ll do mine.’ And I think that [ticked] him off.”
Contreras pounded his chest and yelled at the Braves’ dugout as he ran the bases, and, well, you know how these baseball things go, with all the posturing and profanity, etc. No punches thrown. Nobody tossed from the game. Warnings all around.
But the bad blood is pumping.
With baseball code being what it is, there might be a message pitch thrown at Contreras’ head sometime. There might be a real fight afield. There might be lots of stuff.
The summer is heating up, and these teams are leading their divisions and battling for dominance. They don’t meet again in the regular season after Thursday, but the possibility of a postseason matchup is great enough to know that this incident is not going away, just being filed for future reference.
After the game, Contreras said that despite it all, Flowers is a good catcher, and part of that no doubt is because Flowers is good at framing pitches, coaxing the occasional strike call from umps.
It appeared Flowers did that on one of Contreras’ strikes. Everybody in baseball will tell you framing is a valued talent for a catcher. As long as he’s your teammate.
See, this is where it all gets hazy, where black and white dissolve to gray, pretty much like the rest of life.
Fooling referees, working the edges of the game, being devious, getting emotional, having ‘‘fun’’ at an opponent’s expense, trash-talking — those are things that are bad or good, depending on your view of ethics and courtesy.
Sammy Sosa used to do his bunny-rabbit hop out of the batter’s box when he hit a home run, and then he’d do his finger kiss and chest tap afterward. Exuberant ritual or obnoxious habit?
I recall a couple of times when Sosa did his hops and watched the ball’s flight, his arms in the air in jubilation, and then the ball didn’t leave the park. If he’d run, he might’ve had a triple on those plays instead of doubles. Should somebody have told him to put his head down and humbly sprint to first base, like a serious baseball player?
Or would that have messed with Slammin’ Sammy’s game?
The thing about Contreras is that he has actually been toning down his emotions this year, as has fellow Cubs star Javy Baez. Call it growing up. Call it leaving childish things behind.
The implication is there’s a proper way to play the game. And it’s not as a juvenile.
Yet the edges intrude.
The Cubs might actually need Contreras’ fire and sizzle to get them out of the apparent, low-simmering rut they’ve been in since their 2016 World Series championship.
Flowers called Contreras’ actions ‘‘unnecessary.’’ They probably were, but Flowers’ own interjection into the tiff was unnecessary, too.
Nothing has to happen in sport. Pete Rose sprinted to first base after a walk. Not necessary. There’s no doubt some pitchers hated the action. But that was Charlie Hustle. And maybe the same passion is, in a twisted way, what has kept Rose out of the Hall of Fame
Ty Cobb was a racist, angry jerk at the start of his legendary career. That, according to historians, was because he was from the racist Deep South and was a teenage phenom who was devastated by his mother’s shooting and killing of his father, who suspected her of having an affair.
Cobb changed with time. Call it growing up.
But youthful exuberance — and, yes, even indiscretion — is what keeps us from living in a world that is dull and limited by unbending rules.
Contreras will learn. He’s 27, but you never stop learning. It’s the right mix of passion and smarts he’s after.