By Jordan Kobritz
“Celebrate good times, come on! (Let’s celebrate)…Let’s celebrate, it’s all right.” Kool & the Gang
Play the game right. Respect the game. Don’t show up your opponent. These are among the Unwritten Rules of baseball that are handed down from one generation of ballplayers to the next. But what, specifically, do they mean? Because they aren’t written down, players interpret the rules differently.
Which brings us to Jose Bautista’s bat flip. In the seventh inning of the fifth game of the best-of-five American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers, the Toronto Blue Jays’ right fielder crushed a three-run homer off pitcher Sam Dyson. The blast gave the Blue Jays a 6-3 lead, propelling Toronto to the League Championship Series for the first time in 22 years.
Bautista’s homer came during a 53-minute seventh inning that will go down in history as one of the longest and weirdest in history. The top of the inning featured a blown call by the umpires – even after a replay – that allowed the Rangers to tie the score and then three straight errors and a misplayed pop-up by the Rangers in the bottom of the inning preceded Bautista’s home run.
After his titanic shot, Bautista stood at the plate briefly admiring his handiwork, then emphatically flipped – or more accurately, heaved – his bat in the air before embarking on a mostly restrained tour of the bases. Baseball traditionalists cringed. Bautista was vilified for violating baseball’s Unwritten Rules, although exactly which one was a matter of some debate. Did the bat flip disrespect the game? Show up the opponent?
From this perspective, no debate is necessary. Bautista was merely engaging in an impromptu show of exuberance that not even he could explain. “After I hit the ball, I don’t really remember a whole lot about what happened until I kinda came back to the dugout. I wasn’t doing anything to disrespect the game or the opponent,” he said. “I didn’t plan it. I’m not gonna apologize—I enjoyed it.”
And why shouldn’t he, especially given the circumstances? The hometown fans went nuts. Why should a spontaneous celebration by the player be taboo? After all, we aren’t talking about a funeral, but a game. Not surprisingly, Dyson didn’t agree. “Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more,” Dyson said after the game. “He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”
Not only are kids doing that stuff in the backyard, they see athletes in other sports – the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLS, among others – doing it on television. Players in those sports are allowed to cultivate their own style, which creates fans of the player and the league. MLB isn’t oblivious to how other leagues allow, nee encourage, players to express themselves. For a league whose avowed goal is to cultivate younger fans, Bautista’s un-orchestrated bat flip may be the single best thing that comes out of these playoffs. MLB didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the moment, using its official twitter account to publicize Bautista’s bat flip.
If the situation had been reversed – had Dyson struck out Bautista and punched his glove or pumped his fist, as pitchers are wont to do – would Dyson have been accused of disrespecting the game or showing up the opponent? Bautista for one wouldn’t have complained. “It’s a big situation in the game – I shouldn’t get upset,” he said.
Self-expression has long been an issue in Major League Baseball. Such action has historically been considered unprofessional, not part of the culture of the game. Things began to change after Jackie Robinson integrated the game, bringing with him some of the antics that were prevalent in the Negro Leagues, including his unique base-running style. Today, MLB clubhouses include more players from Latin America and even Asia, where bat flips and other forms of celebrations are, well, celebrated.
Both benches emptied after Bautista’s antics, an indication of the divergent opinions on celebrations in the game. But solemnity in baseball should not be de rigueur. Players should be free to exhibit raw emotion, just as fans do. Bautista’s bat flip was awesome!
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.