Both sides in the Javy Baez bat-flip flap have something to offer baseball
Let’s try to see the point of view of two colliding landmasses.
On one side is Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who wants baseball players to ‘‘respect the game,’’ a phrase many people suspect is code for an insidious plot to eradicate fun and, um, color from the sport.
On the other side is the Cubs’ Javy Baez, a talented, demonstrative, excitable second baseman and the object of Hurdle’s recent frustration.
Baez comes from Puerto Rico, though he and some of his family moved to the United States when he was 13.
Hurdle comes from the 1970s.
Now, you might laugh at that last characterization, but it’s really what this is all about. Baez comes from a different place than Hurdle, and Hurdle comes from a different time than Baez.
That’s why tremors have been felt at Wrigley Field and beyond the last several days.
Baez flipped his bat in frustration after he popped up a pitch Wednesday against the Pirates. He had hit a home run earlier in the game to go with the two he had hit the day before. He would hit another homer after the pop-up to short.
Hurdle was not pleased with Baez’s toss.
‘‘You watch their kid flip that bat?’’ he said to reporters. ‘‘Where’s the respect for the game? The guy hits four homers in two days, so that means you can take your bat and throw it 15, 20 feet in the air when you pop up, like you should have hit your fifth home run? I would bet that men over there talked to him because I do believe they have a group over there that speaks truth to power.’’
Baez responded in kind.
‘‘There’s no one that plays the game harder than me,’’ he said. ‘‘I bust my ass every day to get here and learn something. If anybody’s got negative stuff to [say to] me, they can save it.’’
There happens to be merit in both parties’ views, which I know sounds completely ridiculous and impossible in these polarizing times.
Baez is good for the game. He makes plays at second base that no one else can make. He’s the definition of fun-loving, and fans — most important, young fans — love that he loves fun. The no-look tags, the diving stops and the big smiles on the field make him a huge draw.
One of the major lures of baseball is tradition. No other sport connects so regularly with its past. There’s something noble in the game being played in the same tough manner it was played 25 years ago or 50 years ago. Having unwritten rules of conduct, even if some of them seem odd and arcane, gives baseball a quirky singularity. I find that attractive, for reasons I’m not sure I completely understand.
This is where Baez and Hurdle collide, though they’re only stand-ins for the two sides of a greater debate.
One side wants baseball to be like the NBA and the NFL, where individual celebrations are the norm. The other side wants baseball to be like baseball, where the focus is on the individual without showing up the opponent.
When Hurdle played, mostly for the Royals in the 1970s and early 1980s, the sport was primarily white. The correct way to conduct yourself on the field had been passed down from player to player over generations. In many ways, it’s still being passed down that way. If Hurdle hugs the Unwritten Rules of Baseball like a Pentecostal minister hugs his Good Book, he’s not alone by a long shot.
But it’s a different world now. At this time last season, 31.9 percent of major-league players were Latin, the highest in history. The brand of baseball that evolved in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Cuba is flashier and more exciting than that of its American cousin.
So here we are in 2018, with the predictable mashing of tectonic plates.
My argument against bat flips and look-at-me-look-at-my-home-run-ball gazes is that they make baseball like every other sport. If that’s the goal, then have at it. But just know some of the quaintness that separates baseball from, say, the NBA will be lost.
And perhaps this is the most important point of all: If you think the only way for the game to be saved in this hectic world is by bat flips, then it’s probably going to die anyway.
Conversely, if Hurdle and other old-timey baseball people fail to change some of their thinking, the game will remain in the rut it has been in for years. What they view as a lack of respect for the game and its competitors, many other people view as fun.
Can both sides be completely right? No. But it is possible that both sides have something good to offer the game. Baez’s flip and Hurdle’s reaction are just the latest in a culture war that has been going on in the sport for years. They could be the impetus for Major League Baseball to have discussions about what it is and what it wants to be.
Talking seems a much better route than throwing a baseball at somebody’s head.
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their gritty, no-holds-barred takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play or via RSS feed.