Race And Bat Flipping

I love baseball. I love the history and the minutiae of the game, the arcane statistics, the leisurely pace, the bombast and the arrogance of the self-appointed “this is how it’s done” guardians of the game once known as thr national pastime.

It’s not that anymore – it was long ago eclipsed by the NFL, and many of the things I love about the game are part of the problem. One of the big problems is race – the blowhard gatekeepers are almost exclusively white, while the alleged transgressors against the unwritten code are not – they’re Hispanic or they’re black.

The baseball playoffs this week has brought those unwritten rules to the fore, and Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone has a great piece from Friday showing just how it played out along racial and cultural lines.

The main issue was bat flipping. Blackistone lets Chris Rock explain the code. 

“Baseball just doesn’t have rules from another time. It has an old-fashioned code, too. When you score in baseball, the code says: ‘You better not look too happy about it. ’ . . . It’s the only game where there’s a ‘right way’ to play the game . . . the way it was played 100 years ago. This code doesn’t exist in other places where they play baseball, like Korea, where bat flipping is an art form, or the Caribbean, where the game is a carnival.”

Essentially, showing too much joy about a successful play gets you a 95 MPH fastball aimed at your head.

But it’s more than that. First, let’s look at the Jose Bautista bat flip. It’s epic. Three run homer, game tied, seventh inning Of the fifth and deciding game of the series between Toronto and Texas. Here’s a video  of the hit and then the bat flip.

Earlier in the week, Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes had a memorable bat flip, maybe not as epic as Bautista’s but a high style points score, after a three run homer against the Dodgers.

In baseball, these things are simply not done. But as Blakistone points out, it’s not just about the code, but about who’s doing the enforcing and who is being treated as the transgressors.

Baseball imitated Chris Rock’s searing humor Wednesday after Jose Bautista launched a pitch from Sam Dyson into the furthest reaches of Toronto’s Buck Rogers Centre. Bautista glared at the baseball he had turned into a missile and ever so briefly stared at some of his Texas opponents who witnessed it. He then defiantly flung away his bat as if it was a sword with which he slew a dragon.

The home run proved to win the playoff series for Bautista’s Blue Jays, and Bautista’s bat flip provoked anger from Dyson, some other players, a number of fans and some of my colleagues in the media.

“Jose needs to calm that down,” Dyson said he told one of Bautista’s teammates in the wake of the moment. “Just kind of respect the game a little more.

“He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up and playing this game,” Dyson expanded later. “He’s doing stuff that kids do in whiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”

Dyson is a 27-year-old white Floridian. Bautista, whom Dyson scolded and lectured as if he were a child who had acted out in fine restaurant, is a 34-year-old from the Dominican half of Hispaniola, the first stop in the transatlantic slave trade. It was an anecdotal reminder of the culturally paternalistic nature of baseball, which became this nation’s pastime during the first half of the last century when it overtly supported racial supremacy norms of the times.

In baseball, there aren’t just reasonable expectations on the field of play like fair play and honesty. There are demands for humility and restrictions on calling attention to yourself. And it all gets camouflaged under the cloak of sportsmanship, no matter that baseball was anything but sportsmanlike to generations of men simply because of the color of their skin.

The white/non-white nature of the confrontation wasn’t an accident. Blackistone notes that

a USA Today Sports study earlier this month quantifiably evidenced the cultural dissonance in baseball. It found that of 67 bench-clearing incidents in the major leagues over the past five seasons, the main antagonists hailed from different ethnic backgrounds in 87 percent of the events. A little more than half of the events — 34 — pitted white Americans against foreign-born Latinos, while four more featured white Americans vs. U.S.-born Latinos.

There is disingenuousness in baseball’s American-only way of comporting yourself, too. As Bautista and his organic emotional reaction of bat flipping were being harangued around the country, the game itself was virtually promoting the act on its Web site with a video of another player trying it as if he was engaged in the time-honored practice of shagging flyballs. Then there was the not so small case coming into this season of Cuban slugger Yasiel Puig, who caused quite a kerfuffle last season with his frequent exercise of bat flipping. It drew him criticism and scorn. It also earned him the cover of one of baseball’s most popular video games, MLB The Show, which included a special feature for him: bat flipping after hitting home runs.

While the problem isn’t limited to baseball, it’s worse than any other sport. Let’s bring it back to Chris Rock, and the HBO Real Sports segment he did back in April. Here’s his assessment of the problem:

I don’t care about any of this as a black guy. I care about this as a baseball fan. We don’t really need baseball. But baseball needs us. Fact is, black America decides what’s hot and what young people get excited about. Ask the men’s golf tour. Or the women’s tennis tour. Or why don’t you just ask Mitt Romney? You lose black America, you lose young America. And make no mistake, baseball is losing. Yeah, the owners made more money than ever last year, but while they were celebrating kids were skateboarding away. Little League participation has fallen 20% since 1995. World Series viewership is down 50% during the same time. Of the people who still watch baseball on TV, five out of six are white, and their average age is 53. That’s not an audience, that’s a Tea Party rally.

Baseball is dying – LITERALLY. Maybe if baseball gets a little hipper, a little cooler, just a little more black, the future can change. But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.

I resent the part about 53 year old white guys all being Tea Party members. I’m 52, so I take that shit personally. But he accurately describes baseball’s problems, and this orgy of tsk tsking about bat flipping is part of the problem. I love baseball history but the sport needs to recognize that things are changing and adjust accordingly. If a 52 year old white guy can appreciate a good bat flip now and again, so can the self-proclaimed guardians of the game.