Thursday, March 17, 2016

“This Game’s Supposed to Be Fun!”

By Jeff Kallman

Before you decide that Bryce Harper needs to beat his gums a little less, when he unhorses a schpritz against baseball getting tired, remind yourself that he really earned his bones on the matter last September. When he called out Jonathan Papelbon for throwing twice at Manny Machado's head, after Machado had bombed Nationals pitching otherwise, then took it on the throat from Papelbon in a disgraceful incident for which Papelbon got, essentially, a season-ending slap on the wrist.

"Baseball's tired," the defending — wait for it — National League Most Valuable Player says in an ESPN: The Magazine profile. "It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself. You can't do what people in other sports do. I'm not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it's the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that's Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there's so many guys in the game now who are so much fun."

Hall of Famer Goose Gossage has cracked on Jose Bautista's notorious bat flip from last October and other (to Gossage) non-amusements. (In the proverbial nutshell, Gossage can't stand postgame interview pies in the puss, stat lovers, instant replays, computers, cell phones, phones not requiring cranking to get the operator, internal combustion engines, and electricity. Okay, I'm exaggerating. A little.)

He thinks Bautista's a bit of a lamer for that. Oh, the horror. There are worse things than flipping a bat when you've launched a big hit. Harper knows it. According to him, so does Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez: "Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist," Harper says. "And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game. It's not the old feeling - hoorah ... if you pimp a homer, I'm going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot ... I mean - sorry."

I pitched when I was a kid in summer camp. In one game against another camp, I got taken into the woods by a particularly hefty hitter. The ball's flight did a perfect impression of an intercontinental ballistic missile, I knew it, the kid knew it, and the way he ran the bases you'd have thought he was auditioning for some future production of Riverdance. Let him have his fun, he earned it. When he came down the third base line still hoofing it, I just tipped the Mets cap I wore to him. What was I supposed to do? Drop the next hitter on his ass? Wait until he came 'round to hit again and drop him?

The kid beat me fair and square. I threw him something I thought he couldn't hit with a garage door (I remembered him from a previous game and he'd had trouble hitting pitches away from the strike zone, so I threw him something away), and he hit the living crap out of it. If it had been him pitching and me hitting and I'd hit something that parabolic, I'd have been going Riverdance, too. And, since I knew him to be one of the most sportsmanlike of players, he probably would have tipped his cap to me, too.

We're not talking about Noah Syndergaard opening Game 3 of the World Series with a knockdown pitch to Alcides Escobar because Escobar had been all over the plate to that point in the postseason and had taken the inside part of the plate away from the pitchers he'd faced to that point. We're talking about hitters having a little clean fun when they hit something huge. We're talking about pitchers having a little clean fun likewise when they punch your butt out after an arduous battle at the plate. Hell, we could be talking about hitters thanking fans right then and there after they do something big.

Oh, the horror.

Let me take you back to May 12, 2004, Dodger Stadium, Cubs vs. Dodgers. Alex Cora, Dodger infielder, versus Matt Clement, Cub pitcher, one on and nobody out. Cora fought Clement epically. Starting with a 2-1 count, Cora fouled off 14 straight pitches, the Dodger Stadium audience on its feet well earlier in the sequence, before hitting the eighteenth pitch of the at-bat over the right field fence.

Cora flipped his bat almost identical to the way Bautista would last October as he left the batter's box to run the bases. Not one Cub begrudged Cora the flip. Of course, it isn't every day you foul off 14 straight and send the 18th pitch into a bullpen. But nobody carped about the unwritten rules or unsportsmanlike conduct when Cora flipped the bat then. And no subsequent Cub pitcher (Clement was taken out of the game post-haste) threw at the head of any subsequent Dodger.

"This game's supposed to be fun!" Crash Davis told a congregation of Durham Bulls around the mound in Bull Durham. The same Crash Davis who told an earlier hitter what was coming and, after the hitter hit it out of the yard but lingered too long at the plate, "I give you a gift and you show up my pitcher? Run, dummy!" Davis knew there was room for fun so long as you didn't cross an obvious line to malice. (Davis also advised million dollar arm/ten-cent head phenom Nuke LaLoosh on his interview cliches. Well, nobody's perfect.)

Flipping a bat as you walk out of the box before running out your homer is one thing. So is pumping a fist when you strike somebody out. What of Joe Carter bouncing up the line after he hit the 2003 World Series-winning home run? Or Dennis Eckersley, then a starter, in Gossage's era, looking like he was blowing the smoke off the end of a gun barrel after he struck out the side? Or Jimmy Piersall celebrating his 100th career home run by running the bases backward after he hit it?* Or Roger McDowell, relief pitcher/flake, timing a hot foot to explode up the heel of Mets coach Bill Robinson the minute he reached the coaching line, to the delight of both the opposing Reds and everyone in the ballpark?

Baseball may be the thinking person's sport, as George F. Will once rhapsodized, but even the thinking person just wants to have fun, too. Once upon a time, having a little mad fun with the old Comiskey Park exploding scoreboard, Casey Stengel led a group of his Yankees up from the dugout prancing around holding Fourth of July sparklers, mocking the exploding scoreboard, after a Yankee hit one into the seats. Gossage, who eventually played for the White Sox early in his career, would have thrown at the next Yankee hitter, the spoil sport.

* Piersall later admitted he thought of the backward-run stunt when he noticed nobody making that big a deal when Duke Snider, beginning to wind his career down with the 1963 Mets, hit his 400th career homer while with the club.

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