Major League Baseball races to maintain its code of conduct
“Baseball just doesn’t have rules from another time. It has an oldfashioned 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.” — Chris Rock, HBO’s “Real Sports,” April 2015
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.
But that is what baseball’s keepers hearken to when they sound their mantra to play the game the way it was meant to be played. It is back to a time when the game didn’t include players — 29.3 percent this season — from Afro-Latin countries like Bautista’s Dominican Republic, Yoenis Cespedes’s Cuba or Carlos Beltran’s Puerto Rico and another 8.3 percent from the progeny of enslaved Africans in this country. It is the imposition of its manufactured sensibilities, no matter how nonsensical, on others.
Indeed, 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.
Baseball isn’t our only sport that appears to force conformity upon those who once were locked out of its fields and arenas of play. In the aftermath of the brawl at a Pacers game in Detroit that also included fans, the NBA essentially sought to cleanse its game, as Williams College political scientist Stuart Alan Clarke once observed, of “black men misbehaving.” It imposed a dress code to make its melanin-rich x-generation athletes look less like the stars of the hip-hop culture in which they were born and more like the New York lawyers who worked all around Manhattan near the league’s offices. It airbrushed the tattoos from superstar Allen Iverson when it featured him on one of its league magazine covers. It dared for a moment to seek the employment of GOP imagemaker Matthew Dowd to recast the league’s look.
Once football began letting players groomed at historically black colleges onto its fields, it began to legislate against the style they brought to the game — celebrations considered gratuitous were flagged, as was incessant banter interpreted as trash talking, genuflecting seen as taunting and accessorizing uniforms in a way viewed as distracting attention from the concept of team.
But no sport dug in so deep for so long to withstand the gradual but seismic deviation from what was its norm as baseball. No wonder, Chris Rock added, that teams build “fake antique” stadiums. It’s yet another reminder of how much it loves its problematic past. Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.