Joey Bats has done it again, putting on a show or showing up opponents, depending on your point of view. The ire provoked by the José Bautista bat flips raises the question whether it’s the bat flip itself or the Toronto Blue Jays’ Dominican slugger who is doing the flipping that’s antagonizing those who believe that it’s their sacred duty to ensure that the rest of us “play the game the right way.”
Clearly, when it comes to baseball, we, too, are a divided country. While for some the bat flip remains the subject of ridicule and scorn, for others it’s become a great source of pride.
So, we ask once again: Are the celebratory gestures a departure from the historic culture of Major League Baseball? Or a marker of where the sport is going, and should be headed?
A Global Game, But Whose Game?
Ignoring the dictum “act like you’ve been there before,” a new generation is embracing its role as a barrier-breaker. The energy of the World Baseball Classic this past March was generated by free-flowing emotions. Bats were flipped. No-look tags were applied. Pitchers pumped their fists as key outs were recorded.
The WBC crowds responded with enthusiastic displays of their own. Sounds different from what we hear during MLB’s regular season reverberated through the stadiums. Japanese fans sang from opening pitch to the last out. Dominican, Puerto Rican and Mexican fanáticos cheered their teams while playing panderetas, or tambourines, cowbells and other percussive instruments.
WBC action revealed that there are plenty of other Latinos who delight in flipping their bats after blasting home runs. Bat flipping is not exclusively a Latino thing. In South Korea’s KBO League, it’s almost an act of virtuosity that delights the crowd without provoking bench-clearing melees or lectures. The WBC was not just a showcase of the baseball talent across the globe, it was literally a summit of baseball cultures on the field and in the stands.
As one watched WBC games — and more baseball fans did than ever before, based on attendance and television ratings — it was easy to spot current and former major leaguers who played for national teams outside the United States. Their participation is but one indication that MLB has entered into a multicultural era. Yet it remains that MLB players and their cultures are fully dissected and frequently censured, often without the benefit of context and history.
José the Villain
Bautista, 36, hasn’t stopped flipping bats after launching long home runs; nor has he stopped being a source of irritation to opponents. That he did so in mid-May against Atlanta with the Blue Jays trailing by a handful of runs upset several Braves. First baseman Jace Peterson and catcher Kurt Suzuki shared their discontent as Bautista circled the bases.
But was it the bat flip? Was it Bautista’s attempt to make direct eye contact with pitcher Eric O’Flaherty, who had just given up the dinger? Or is it the man doing the flipping that is upsetting opposing teams?
After all, since Bautista’s dramatic 2015 playoff home run against the Texas Rangers, we have witnessed a backlash against the 14-year veteran. The Rangers retaliated against the outfielder in multiple ways during the 2016 season, from brushback pitches to a sucker punch to the face, thrown by Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor after Bautista slid hard into second.
Then there was free agency during the 2016 offseason. Few teams expressed interest in Bautista, who ultimately re-signed with Toronto. While free-agent season was in full bloom, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette shared with the Baltimore Sun an exchange with Bautista’s agent: “Jose is a villain in Baltimore,” Duquette said, “and I’m not going to go tell our fans that we’re courting Jose Bautista for the Orioles because they’re not going to be happy.”
In a spring training interview with MLB.com writer Mark Feinsand, Duquette elaborated: “I like our guys. Our guys are good. [Mark] Trumbo is like a working-class-type baseball player. If he was going to work every day on a construction site, you would understand that he brings that kind of work ethic every day. That’s the kind of player that our fans identify with. We try to get gritty players that work hard every day and give their best effort every day. Our fans seem to like that and respond to it.”
More than a few were struck by Duquette’s explanation, which seemingly called into question Bautista’s work ethic. Yet a look at the path Bautista took before becoming a six-time All-Star seems to contradict the critique lobbed by Duquette.
Bautista, who was born in Santo Domingo, is quite familiar with the challenging journey taken from prospect to major leaguer and, more challenging still, to becoming an All-Star. He debuted with the Baltimore Orioles on April 4, 2004. Eight weeks later he was put on waivers and over the course of the next two months, he was selected off waivers by Tampa Bay, sold to Kansas City, traded to the New York Mets and shipped to Pittsburgh on that very same day.
Only after being traded in 2008 from Pittsburgh to Toronto did Bautista find a home and his swing. From 2010 to 2015 — his All-Star seasons — he led the American League twice in home runs and twice in RBI.
Much like others from Latin America, Bautista knows all too well that the path to the major leagues is painfully hard. While Dominicans represent the largest percentage of international players in MLB, for every Bautista, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Martínez who rise to the top, there are hundreds of countrymen who never go beyond Class A — and thousands more who never go beyond a tryout. Not only do you have to be able to hit a curve, you have to surmount cultural barriers and adapt to new foods and a maddening language that can slow your development and dash your baseball dreams.
‘Act Like You’ve Been There Before’
The WBC seemed like the perfect buildup to the new season, coming on the heels of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series after more than a century of futility. Both the 2016 World Series and 2017 WBC featured the type of energy that baseball craves in a media environment where the storylines are driven by GIFs and hashtags — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Yet, as former ESPN writer Jayson Stark wrote in his “Faceless of the Game” article in April, MLB is at an odd moment after the retirement of Derek Jeter and David Ortiz. “Where have the superstars gone?” Stark asked, noting that no active MLB player ranked among the top 50 pro athletes in the United States, according to a poll conducted by Luker on Trends/ESPN Sports Poll.
“Act like you’ve been there before.” Perhaps it’s worth taking a pause and considering what kind of culture that type of question comes from.
Make no mistake: The head-down, emotionless, quick trot around the bases after a home run is a remnant of the days of the color line — an era defined as much by the relationship between labor and management as it was by its whiteness, when segregation was the rule of the day within organized baseball.
Let’s not forget, either, how the engineer of “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Branch Rickey, admonished black baseball fans even before the start of the glorious 1947 campaign about not celebrating too much the feats of Jackie Robinson. Rickey claimed that their excessive celebration could be the downfall of baseball integration because it would create great unease among MLB’s fan base and the organized baseball establishment.
As other baseball historians and I have written previously, Robinson himself was told not to react to slights and provocations, to be quiet in the face of adversity for the greater good of integration and societal progress in race relations.
Robinson was admonished for his base-running style, imported from the Negro Leagues. Some interpreted his feinting and bounding back and forth as he took his leads off the bases as trying to embarrass opposing (white) players. It was downright unprofessional, was the message, not part of MLB’s culture.
Until it was.
The culture of the Negro Leagues and Latino baseball was derided by the sporting press and team executives. They said, “These players didn’t know how to play the game.” “They lacked the proper baseball schooling.” The black pioneers had to be taught lessons. They were knocked down at the plate for what they did with their bats, their feet, their gloves — and yes, even their mouths.
The parallels with how today’s gatekeepers criticize the style and gestures of players and people of color in both the sports and entertainment industries are almost identical. Or has the controversy over Beyonce’s Super Bowl 50 appearance already faded from memory?
Despite this legacy, the face of the MLB is changing. Washington’s Bryce Harper has on several occasions been caught in the maelstrom of “playing the game the right way” much like Bautista, including being drilled by a fastball. On occasion, Harper will charge the mound, but he usually pokes fun at his detractors by sporting a cap with “Make baseball fun again” emblazoned across the front. Given the increasing likelihood that a Dominican, a Cuban or even a Korean will be the one to deliver the winning blow in a game, when will we start accepting that feats like this merit a celebration greater than a fist-pump? One that departs from the “tut-tut” commentary of the past?
Embracing the bat flip would demonstrate that MLB has embraced the diverse routes that brought its players to the diamond in the U.S., as well as the roots of baseball in the cultures and societies from which these ballplayers come.
It would be a small sign that MLB is ready to act like it’s been there before.
Featured Image: Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images Sport