It is often said that baseball — and its fans — are the most reluctant to embrace any sort of change. As a former player and lifelong fan of the game, I’d contest that this notion is due to the fact that baseball got so many of its rules right on the first try and doesn’t need to change much.
But still, I find myself thinking about the game just a little differently nowadays.
On Wednesday night, I watched the final of the World Baseball Classic with joy as Marcus Stroman took the mound for the United States and shut down Puerto Rico, paving the way for an 8-0 victory and the Americans’ first ever title in the event.
The celebration on the field following the final out was an awesome sight, but it was the celebration that filled nearly every inning of the competition over the two previous weeks that was the real takeaway for me.
When Major League Baseball begins the 2017 season in a little over a week, there will be celebrations and loud cheers for every home run and diving catch. But aside from the highlight plays of each game, day-to-day life in the majors is rather reserved and stoic. Batters show little sign of the adrenaline rush caused by staring down 90-MPH fastballs, starting pitchers often look like emotionless robots as they attempt to work through their game plan and even the crowds react to the majority of plays with little more than a few claps.
That has always been enough to keep me entertained, but watching many of the other nations compete in the WBC has me warming up to the idea that baseball can be equal parts highly-skilled sport and general party.
After all, it is a game. And games are supposed to be fun.
For many of the teams involved, it was hard to find a part of the game that wasn’t worth celebrating.
Home runs resulted in bat flips. Doubles to the gap had teammates standing on the arm rails of the dugout. Sacrifice bunts emptied the bench as the batter was congratulated on a job well done. Some of that enthusiasm could be attributed to the notion that teams were playing for national pride, but there seemed to be a general appreciation for the fact that they were playing a fun game at its highest level.
The fun and games even shined through into the low moments. Teams continued to sing and chant with their fans even after being eliminated. And while a robbed home run might be met with a cold stare into the outfield during MLB play, the WBC brought about a tip of the helmet from the batter who had just seen a sure game-changing play snatched away from his own statline.
For as long as I can remember, I have been deadly serious about baseball.
I’ve cried when my team lost. I’ve cried harder when my team won. I’ve also been thrown out of games for mouthing off to opponents and have delivered my fair share of pitches into someone’s shoulder blade as retribution for some perceived slight.
My proficiency for breaking in a glove or curving the bill of a new hat juuuust right goes along with how I have perfected the art of sticking a blown up piece of bubble gum to your hat or hiding Icy-Hot on a place in your uniform that will soon become all too evident to you.
I also know how to scuff a ball to make it break two more inches. I know which ankle is bad on the shortstop or second baseman in case I have to slide in hard and I’m great at finding the right heckle to lob at a pitcher to get him off his game.
Some of those examples reflect what’s good about baseball. Some of those examples reflect a part of the game that could maybe stand to change a bit.
Many players born and raised in the United States take pride in playing the game ‘the right way.’ For those uninitiated in the finer points of the game, that often means mixing countless hours of practice and always giving 110 percent on the field with plenty of foul language, a master’s degree in spitting seeds or tobacco and the refined ability to get whipped up into a frenzy over anything deemed to be disrespectful to your team or to the game in general.
I’m not going to lie. Those things can be fun when done correctly.
But then there are other nations, who are just as good at the game and who seem to be able to compete at the same high level without worrying about most of the ‘unwritten rules’ that hold American players to their strict standard of etiquette.
In general, Latin American teams not only have more fun than an average T-ball team. They have more fun than the average T-ball team during its year-end pizza party. A quick YouTube search of the Korean League will turn up some of the most impressive bat flips ever seen. And while the Japanese league is a bit more reserved, fans celebrate every player with his own personal song or chant.
All but one MLB franchise is located in the United States, but the the league is as diverse as any in professional sports. It’s clear that players from all reaches of the globe are making the game as great and as exciting as it has ever been.
So maybe it’s time to accept some of the character and fun that comes along with those great players?