MLB's Culture Clash, or Why Baseball Is Boring
The old-school rules of baseball are badly out of step with modern society and, unless something changes, baseball will lose what's left of its fan base.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Emilio Bonifacio of the Chicago White Sox cracked a home run Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds and made a big show of flipping his bat. He saluted the gods, rounded the bases with his arms out as if he were an airplane, and when he crossed home? He leaped into the crowd, giving fans a chance to hug him. And . . .
Well, no. Of course that didn't really happen. Not in the Major Leagues. Not in American baseball. In the clubhouse before the game, I tried to convince him to do it, but he just laughed.
"No,'' he said. "There would be a brawl for two hours. Everyone would start fighting.''
I don't get it. Steph Curry drains a three-pointer for the Golden State Warriors, salutes and does the airplane thing and it's no problem. In the Dominican Republic, Bonifacio's home, they might flip the bat after homers or dance all the way around the bases. No problem. The Green Bay Packers do the Lambeau Leap into the crowd after touchdowns. People love it.
So why isn't it OK in American baseball?
"I feel this is a game where you get paid for what you love to play,'' Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "You should be able to do anything and everything there is. They do it in other countries and don't worry about it.
"But here, there are too many rules in baseball. They take the fun out of baseball. In fact, I feel like that's why a lot of African-American kids don't play baseball. It's boring. It is. Baseball is boring.''
Baseball has a problem, and it's not just that a three-time All-Star, who's African-American, would say something like that.
It's a culture clash. Baseball is stuck in the culture of 1940s white America, if not earlier, playing in faux-antique stadiums with organ music at a very . . . slow . . . pace that apparently felt relaxing in the olden days, but now creates the antsy need to constantly check emails, texts, and Tweets.
But more important—and more antiquated—are the unwritten codes of conduct that players live by. The ones that seem to demand that no player appear to be having too much fun, because fun might offend other players. That's not the best sales pitch for drawing kids into the game. In baseball, when you hit a home run, you drop the bat and jog around the bases. Not too slow. Not too fast. Almost as if you're embarrassed. What fun! Or, more accurately: What fun?
Flip the bat after a homer and next time you're up, the pitcher will drill one into your side. It's the code. You don't show anyone up. You don't show disrespect to your opponent. Stand and stare at the homer you've hit while it flies out of the park? You will be drilled.
So the game is clashing with other cultures, fending off the second half of the 20th Century, not to mention the first 15 years of this one. And I suppose that's harmless, provided you're not concerned about scaring off American youth.
"We could loosen up a little,'' Bonifacio said. "But don't go overboard. I know in my country, they can celebrate too much. They can go crazy.''
Baseball could use a little crazy. And to be clear, when Bonifacio says "We'' can loosen up, he is talking about the players in the Major Leagues, not Dominican players.
In the World Baseball Classic two years ago, the Dominican baseball culture showed itself in a way that led many Major Leaguers to say tsk, tsk. At the time, the New York Times wrote about pitchers skipping off the mound, arms in the air:
"The Dominican pitchers thumped their chests mid-inning. The Dominican base runners gestured and yelled to their teammates,who gestured and yelled back. And when their victory against the United States was sealed, several players joined closer Fernando Rodney on the mound for his signature celebration of shooting imaginary arrows into the sky.''
In other words, one culture was having a hell of a lot of fun. It looked like a party you'd like to join. Meanwhile, American kids are staying away from the game while the average baseball fan is now old enough to join the AARP. That's literally true, by the way. According to Sports Media Watch, about half of all World Series television viewers in 2013 were 55 or older. Meanwhile, only 6 percent were under the age of 18. During the same season, the median age of MLB's national television audience across four networks was over 54 years old.
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred understands the problem. He's putting in new rules to quicken the pace of games, and having new, modern apps developed to encourage younger fans to follow the sport. That's all well and good, but the bigger issue is that the players need to stop acting like a bunch of old, uptight white guys. Apps can bring you joy and passion, but only athletes can create it.
"In the Dominican, we really enjoy the game,'' Bonifacio said. "A lot of people feel we don't respect the game, but no, we just enjoy the game. The way we play, the first game of the regular season is like the last one and the playoffs.
"They really do enjoy the game [in the U.S.], but the way they are is more quiet. During the playoffs last year, everybody watched the Royals. They had two Dominican players, I guess. And the way they played, it was like the entire Dominican was for the Kansas City Royals.''
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, MLB rosters increasingly are becoming Latino. As of 2012, Latino players accounted for 26.9 percent of the league. Yet rather than embrace the attitude that Bonifacio describes—the first game of the regular season is like the last one and the playoffs—American baseball culture stamps it out. Bonifacio says that Dominican players learn quickly to adjust their behavior, as coaches tell newcomers what is and isn't permissible, and other players police the code.
Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, who is Cuban, homered off San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner and did his usual showy bat flip. The bat flip is against the unwritten code. So Bumgarner yelled at Puig while he rounded the bases and even approached him just before he reached home. Later in the year, Bumgarner hit Puig with a pitch. He said it was an accident. Was it actually a culture clash?
Three weeks ago, the White Sox played the Royals. Chicago's Adam Eaton hit a groundball to Kansas City pitcher Yordano Ventura, who's Dominican. Ventura easily grabbed the ball, but before tossing it to first base for the out, he ran over toward Eaton and screamed obscenities at him. Both benches cleared for a fight. Was that a culture clash, too?
Cincinnati outfielder Billy Hamilton, who is African-American, doesn't understand why colorful players should conform.
"When I was growing up [Derek] Jeter was my favorite player, so I knew how I wanted to be,'' he said. "I wanted to be humble. But there's nothing wrong with the way other guys play the game. If you want to hit a home run and do a bat flip, do what you've got to do.
"That doesn't bother me any. It's just a part of who you are. If you're going to be yourself, I don't see why people would get mad.''
Billy Hamilton having fun with his baseball friends; he was beaned soon afterwards. Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Adam LaRoche of the White Sox, who's white, says it isn't that simple. LaRoche has been around baseball tradition his whole life; his dad, Dave, is a former major leaguer. LaRoche said it's important to have an understanding of other players' cultures. He played in Puerto Rico and also in Mexico and said the feel of the game was different from games in the U.S. For one, he said, they play music throughout the game, even during the at-bats: "It's a lifestyle. It was a full-blown party.''
At the same time, LaRoche said that there is a fine line between respecting other people's cultures and teaching bad manners. Watch ESPN highlights at night, he said, and you'll see bad behavior glorified. So the bigger picture, he says, isn't so much about helping baseball as about teaching kids the right behavior.
"Forget about the ethics of the game,'' he said. "Just in general, showing somebody up shouldn't be acceptable. And with the media and the direction it's going, the stuff that gets replayed over and over is guys that may take something to the extreme. So in kids' eyes, that's what's cool. And it's what people want to see.''
Listen to LaRoche, think through his logic, and it's easy to understand why baseball has a hard time evolving. Bat flips are a matter of manners, and manners are a matter of respect, and respect is a matter of right and wrong—which makes baseball's culture clash a matter of ethics, no matter how LaRoche qualifies it.
If you see a bat flip as an expression of joy and personal style, the way Hamilton does, you're not likely to take it personally. Or find it offensive. Live and let live. But if you see it as an expression of disrespect, an affront to yourself and the game you love ... well, you just might plunk a bat-flipper the next time he's standing in the batter's box.
Problem is, while the latter attitude helps old-school baseball players and fans feel better, it isn't helping win new converts. In April, Chris Rock delivered a commentary on HBO's Real Sports covering some of the culture clash. Mostly, he talked about why black people aren't a match with baseball anymore (now just 7.2 percent of major league players, according to SABR). He likened an American baseball game to a visit to the English Queen, saying "If you don't bow correctly, it could be an international incident.''
And he also said this: "Black America decides what's hot and what young people get excited about. You lose black America, you lose young America.''
Sure enough, baseball is making money, but losing its future. ESPN says the average age of a baseball fan in America is now 53, the oldest of any of the major sports. And the network conducted a poll of young Americans who didn't list one baseball player among their favorite 30 athletes. That's no surprise when an All-Star refers to his own game as boring and another player says if he celebrated a home run it would set off a brawl.
American baseball needs to do more than slice five minutes off the game. It needs to add 75 years of American history to it.