Old players need to adjust to new game
Before the end of this latest skirmish between baseball's "old school" and a new generation of players who just want to have fun, let's get something straight.
There really isn't an "old school" and a "new school," just old players who view the past with rose-colored glasses and young players who are living in a social media world that magnifies everything they do.
Sure, Jose Bautista's infamous bat flip in Game 5 of last year's American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers rankled a lot of players, both past and present. But the notion that his histrionics are some kind of new-age example of all that's wrong with today's game is ridiculous on so many levels that there isn't going to be room to deal with all of them here.
Let's just start with the obvious.
Celebrations nothing new: Players have been pimping home runs since Herbert Hoover was president. There were plenty of old-school guys — and we're talking one-room schoolhouse old school — who thought that Baltimore kid with the funny nickname was pretty full of himself.
Babe Ruth's most famous home run, which we all remember as the controversial "called shot," was the ultimate in-your-face homer and Ruth played it for all it was worth.
Bobby Thomson circled the bases in an exaggerated, joyous gallop after he hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" to win the National League pennant in 1951. And everybody, except the Brooklyn Dodgers and their fans, loved it.
Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage, who helped re-ignite this conversation the other day with a nasty screed about the on-field behavior of Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes as well as the impact that today's analytic "nerds" have had on the sport, played alongside fellow Hall of FamerReggie Jackson, who was one of the most flamboyant players in the history of the game.
The players of that generation were viewed by many of their crew-cutted predecessors as preening peacocks who spent too much time trimming their Fu Manchu mustaches and styling their hair.
Gossage doubled down on his dinosauric defense of the game when he called out Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper for labeling baseball a "tired sport" in a recent profile piece and ripping the unwritten rules that inhibit the self-expression of today's bright young stars.
Now, everybody's jumping on one side or the other, with some current players blasting Harper and others — such as Orioles star Manny Machado — agreeing with him that this generation of players just want to show that they're having a good time.
Elephant in the room: Of course, there's a big elephant in this room. It's the undercurrent of resentment that runs through the old school because of the giant contracts that today's great players command. The Gossage generation — and he alluded to this in his rant — feels that it fought the good labor fight to make Harper's upcoming megacontract possible. So the former players expect him and the other young bucks to "respect" the game the way they did.
This isn't a new concept either. The players from the 1950s and 1960s similarly resented the riches reaped by the first generation of the free-agent era and felt they were entitled to a greater share of the revenue (in the form of pension benefits) that was flowing to the players through collective bargaining.
While all this was going on, the wider world of sports was changing and athletes were becoming increasingly more demonstrative.
NFL running back Elbert "Ickey" Woods delighted Cincinnati Bengals fans with his touchdown dance — the "Ickey Shuffle" — way back in the late 1980s, which prompted the NFL to create new rules to limit excessive celebration and taunting. Woods recently reprised his famous touchdown tango in a commercial for Geico automobile insurance.
Harper wants to embrace new attitude: Harper referenced the other professional sports in his call for baseball to embrace a new attitude toward the flair and exuberance displayed by some of today's young players.
"Baseball's tired," he told ESPN The Magazine. "It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself. You can't do what people in other sports do. I'm not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it's the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that's Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there's so many guys in the game now who are so much fun."
It isn't easy to argue against this point when the NFL is cranking out huge revenues and its players see nothing wrong with a defensive lineman celebrating over a tackled opponent when his own team is getting blown out.
The explosion of social media and the 24-hour TV highlight cycle has created a level of self-obsession that couldn't help but alter the way players view and express themselves on the field of play. This really is the look-at-me era and Harper — with his uber-hip hairstyles and his mad baseball skills — is the poster boy for it.
That even rubs a lot of today's players the wrong way, but they also need to get over it.
There's no turning back.