The pros and cons of tradition

I think Bryce Harper is a bit of a punk.

I don’t think he’s what’s wrong with baseball.

Baseball is a game steeped in tradition. This is largely a good thing. If, for some reason, you wanted to look up the Pittsburgh Alleghenys’ stats from 1888, you could do that. (A catcher named Doggie Miller hit .277, while a lefty first baseman named Jake Beckley hit a team-best .343.)

That makes baseball – to use a word my former managing editor despised –unique. The ghosts of the game are comforting constants, taking a seat beside fans behind the dugout and rooting around in a box of Cracker Jack while silently sharing their stories.

When Clayton Kershaw’s sweeping left-handed curveball befuddles a hapless batter, Sandy Koufax smiles. When Andrew McCutchen patrols center field with an effortless, speedy grace, you can’t help but think of Willie Mays. When you read about Rays pitcher Chris Archer’s passion for helping his community, you know Roberto Clemente’s legacy has been cemented.

There’s not a big market for, say, $2.1 million hockey trading cards. (That’s the price the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner card went for in a 2013 online auction.)  When football teams wear throwback jerseys, players tend to look more like escaped convicts than historic figures. Pro basketball has a rich history, but it’s not drilled, chapter and verse, into the heads and hearts of young fans like the halcyon victories and heartbreaking defeats of baseball.

That part is great. It’s what sets baseball apart.

In other ways, tradition is what sets baseball back.

It was tradition, first and foremost, to keep black players out of the game until 1947. (Baseball was far from the only sport where this was true, but it is important to keep in mind when reciting those holy baseball stats that some of the game’s best players didn’t compete on a level playing field until the latter half of the 20th century.) Reverence for the days of wine and Ruth is, by association, tainted by this inescapable fact. That does not diminish the feats of those who played then, but it does require an asterisk for those who could not.

On a less serious note, bat flips and fist pumps are a present-day source of great division. There’s a loud chorus denouncing such actions as the height of disrespect, an insult to the game and its sacrosanct traditions, an in-your-face taunting of the opposition.

Exhibit A: Jose Bautista.

If you have not seen Bautista’s legend-making bat flip after his three-run homer in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS helped send Toronto to the American League Championship Series, I can’t help you. It was, to use the single most overused word in today’s lexicon, epic. It’s been replayed countless times on YouTube and immortalized on a Topps card, and has recently – and somewhat inexplicably – drawn the much-reported ire of Goose Gossage, Hall of Fame pitcher and certified curmudgeon.

It’s also been derided as What’s Wrong With The Game, and that’s just hackneyed horseshit.

Context is important in life, and you have to consider the moment. Texas had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the seventh when catcher Russell Martin’s throw back to the pitcher deflected off batter Shin-Soo Choo and allowed a tiebreaking run to score. A protest was filed, and fans rained boos and bottles onto the field.

Three Rangers errors in the home half led to a 3-3 tie when Bautista stepped up to the plate with two runners on. When he made contact, there was no question what he had done, and he took a minute – OK, a couple minutes – to soak it in.

Bautista called it the most emotionally charged game he’d ever played. It was thrilling to watch. It was one of those crystallized moments in time that other sports can produce but that baseball makes a habit of providing. It needed a little punctuation.

Now, here’s another truth. “There’s a way to play the game” means, more often than not, that there’s an old, white way to play the game. Bautista is Latin American, from the Dominican Republic. So is Cuban Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who electrified crowds and pissed off catchers with his exuberant power in his rookie season in 2013. So is Dominican Carlos Gomez, who was met at home plate by incensed then-Braves catcher Brian McCann after celebrating a home run that same year.

 It’s an oversimplified generalization to say Latin players bring a specific, codified flair to baseball, but it does seem that many of the players being criticized for having too much fun while they work have more in common with Gomez than McCann. This is not to say that Latin-born players don't work hard, and it's not to imply that American-born players don’t appreciate the lighter moments of the game. It is to say that the two schools of thought – hard work and fun – are not polar opposites. They can co-exist, in life and on a baseball field.

Chris Rock – if you know me, you’ll be impressed I waited this long – shared some thoughts on this topic for HBO’s Real Sports. It is worth your time to take a listen, whatever your opinion.

Why does this matter? Because the game is turning off an entire generation. Baseball may flourish in Latin countries, but in America, it has an image problem. Young people don't watch baseball the way they watch other sports, and they don't play it, either. Specifically, and shamefully, young black kids don't play baseball. On Opening Day of 2013, African Americans made up 8.5 percent of MLB rosters. (In 2015, a USA Today study found that number had declined even further, to 7.8.) In 1986, 19 percent of major leaguers were African American.

As Rock says in his piece, "If you lose black America, you lose young America." Baseball can't survive on the bent backs of what was. It has to attract the best young talent, and a stuffy, do-as-I-say mentality is not going to do that the way playground improvisations or touchdown celebrations do.

(Note: There are some promising signs. The 2015 USA Today study found that 18 African Americans have been selected in the first round of the June amateur draft since 2012, and 14 are ranked among the best 100 prospects by an ESPN analyst. This is good, but not good enough. If baseball is to retain any hope of being America's pastime, it has to look like America.)

Is there a place for homer-gazing in spring training, or in May? Not really, and baseball has ways of dealing with that. (Hint: If you feel the eyes on the back of your jersey as you round the bases, be ready to duck your next at-bat.) But if you insist on scrubbing out the joy, the individual expression, the nuance and the context, from baseball, you’ll be left with a game so bound by tradition it can’t breathe.