“A Nation Of Assholes” Epilogue, Baseball Edition

To be fair, Donald Trump supporters and Trump himself are not the only ones who would transform the United States into a rude, boorish snakepit of jerks and narcissists.

There is Bryce Harper, for example, shown above in his minor league days blowing a kiss to a pitcher after a home run.  In a much discussed interview with ESPN, Harper decried the “unwritten rules” of Major League Baseball, which, among other things, disapprove of showboating, trash-talking, styling, and showing up  opposing players. Naturally, many sportswriters, whose IQ and ethical standards hover perilously close to those of the juvenile, none-too-swift Harper, are flocking to his side.

“It’s a tired sport because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do,” Harper said in the interview. “I’m not saying baseball is . . . boring . . . 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 now who are so much fun.”

Nobody’s against fun, of course, and there have been many players past and present whose unique flair was justly celebrated. Harper, not being a rhetoric master, probably mixed up the harmless with the toxic in his list unintentionally, but there’s no excuse for Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Tom Boswell, other than the fact that intellectual dishonesty is his career calling card.

“From Willie Mays basket catches to Pete Rose sprinting to first on a walk to Dennis Eckersley fanning his finger-pistol at hitters he had struck out, baseball needs all the authentic extroverted individuality it can get, ” writes Boswell in his piece about Harper in the Washington Post. Ah yes, the device of the deceptive metaphor. Willie Mays used the basket catch because that’s the way he caught baseballs. Pete Rose ran to first on walks because he hustled.

The pistol routine Eckersley used (occasionally)? He was being a jerk.

“You can’t do what people in other sports do” is as close to a reason as Harper gives for his desired cultural shift. Regular readers here will immediately see the statement as pure rationalization, in fact the biggest one of them all: “Everybody does it.”  It’s also a gross generalization.  Not all sports accept rubbing defeat in the faces of the opposition. Some sports, including baseball, still maintain a culture of sportsmanship, like this…

Fans of basketball and football are used to what Harper is endorsing: absurd end zone dances and charades after a touchdown, chest thumping, and blatant exhibition-style flare that sometimes costs teams the ball, points or the game when it backfires. Such conduct is inherently rude, as well as juvenile. It violates the Golden Rule, and obviously so: nobody wants to have their own failures in front of millions of spectators mocked as the victor doesn’t merely celebrate but aims a gesture of contempt at the beaten.

Now if this was fun, and harmless, and just part of the show, as Harper seems to think, that would be one thing. But it isn’t fun if it happens all the time. One reason isolated incidents where a player obliterates the etiquette of the game—this infamous bat toss by Jose Bautista in last year’s play-offs, for example…

… are fun is that they are unusual and unexpected. They are obviously wrong, but they are well-executed bad manners, and for a game-winning home-run in a crucial contest, it can be excused occasionally. However, only the fact that the misconduct is still recognized as improper keeps such gestures from becoming routine, in which case the game accepts obnoxiousness as a norm. Soon it isn’t even fun, and in an endless rush to get a YouTube moment, professional athletes can be counted upon to take on-field conduct to lower and lower levels, as when Doug Baldwin pretended to poop out a football as his Super Bowl touchdown celebration:

‘Hey, why can’t baseball players poop out balls? We’re so boring!’

Why thank you for your input, Bryce!

The reason Harper can’t be so easily ignored is because he is the reigning National League MVP, a burgeoning, exciting superstar on a high-profile, winning team in the nation’s capital. That means that if he continues along his current arc, he will be a hero to many children, and like it or not, a role model. Sports teaches values, good and bad, and models them for society. Tom Brady teaches our children that it’s all right to cheat. Barry Bonds teaches children that it’s especially all right to cheat if you get away with it. Multiply Bryce Harper by a few thousand, and baseball will join pro football and basketball in sending the cultural message that it’s cool to be a jackass.

This is, you will note, exactly the message of the Donald Trump campaign.

I don’t expect sportswriters to be ethicists, but I do expect a bit more common sense and ethical literacy than this, Boswell’s coda:

“Many of us grew up grinning at Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest” or rooting for Joe Namath to pull off his Super Bowl “guarantee.” As long as you aren’t just a self-promoting fake, as long as your public persona resembles your real personality, we’re good to go. Takes all kinds. If you can pull it off, it’s also good for your sport. If you can’t, you look like a fool — which is okay, too. We’ll judge our reaction case-by-case.”

Try to pay attention, Tom:

1. We smiled at Mohammad Ali because he was a guileless, joyful, innocent young black man breaking conventions in the civil rights era, and he was also fresh, funny and charismatic in an otherwise ugly sport. We admired the audacity of Namath, who made good on a boast, but we also knew that his boasting was only momentarily tolerable, and Broadway Joe’s act got old fast.

2. You are saying that it is OK to be a jerk if you are an authentic jerk.  In fact, it’s never OK to be a jerk.

3.  “Takes all kinds.” This is another rationalization I had missed! Yeah, Tom, that’s right: we need serial killers, liars, misogynists, racists, frauds, bullies and assholes; the world can’t get along without them. This is a sub-rationalization to one of my least favorites: “It is what it is.” We may be stuck with “all kinds,” but all kinds aren’t useful, productive or necessary. Gee, would society be boring without the bullies, for example? I think I’d chance it.

4. No, you can’t have an ethical society taking bad conduct “case-by-case.” You can’t have coherent societal standards that essentially say, “If you can get away with it, it’s fine.”

How long do you think it will be before Bryce Harper announces that he’s a Donald Trump supporter?

9 thoughts on ““A Nation Of Assholes” Epilogue, Baseball Edition

  1. I love watching Chris Archer pitch. Highly animated and willing to accept that the bear sometimes gets you and that is a key. I don’t mind the bat flip or slow home run trot. I loved the showmanship of Vic Power playing first base or the Wizard of Oz putting some extra style points on a fancy play. And pitchers getting a K in a key situation. Wake in the 2004 playoffs with the Yankees getting a big out and doing just that. After Aaron Boone he deserved it.

    I saw Ortiz put one out and do all his usual antics from the stare, to bat flip to the slow trot. Next time up he went down on three pitches and the pitcher (I forget who) pumped his fist. Papi gave him a cold stare and then tipped his cap. I’m not a Papi fan, but that was classy.

    • I am a Papi fan, but his post homer displays are too frequent, and too much. You also lose me when you stop to admire a ball that turns out to be a double. The Sox should suspend him when the happens..wait: VIC POWER??? How old ARE you?

      • Back in the 1950s, I fell in love with the style of play, athleticism and exuberance that the influx of Latino and Black players had on the game. Most had to eventually “tone down” their game. Too bad. I believe – and I paraphrase – that line from “White Men Can’t Jump” where Sidney says: “You White guys play to win and Black guys play to look good.” You can have both.

        I use to see some amazing infield drills when I was a kid with players doing all sorts of “stuff” with the ball. I remember we would copy some of the incredible “Pepper Drills” that we saw – professionals had been doing them for decades – and coaches would go nuts. It may look like showboating, but it improved me defensively ten fold.

        Vic was a personal favorite for this Red Sox fan (age 71). I loved the one hand style and exaggerate scoop with the ball. His at-bats were equally entertaining bringing in that barnstorming style that you would only see with traveling teams.

        Papi has the slowest trot in the game. But the one that really got to me was Manny Ramirez. You speak of doubles so take a look at Manny’s triples totals while in Boston. Seven triples in eight seasons! WTF! I saw this character constantly give them up and take a double instead of a triple. Even Ortiz had ten in the same time frame.

  2. May’s basket catches weren’t just for show. I think it was on his SportsCentury profile on ESPN that one of the talking heads said that he did the basket catch so he could get the ball back to the infield faster.

      • I think Willie (and that was his first name like Mantle’s was Mickey) is attempting to put one over. Willie was quite selective in his use of the basket catch and the key was to look at the situation when a strong throw was needed. At that point, Mays would have his glove near his right ear ready for his exchange to his hand. On the basket catch, the exchange is a fraction longer. I would watch Mays make the basket catch with runners on and no real threat to take a base and do a semi underhand flip to the infield.

        The real trademark was the cap flying off while running the bases. I was 13 years old and in New York when I briefly met Mays and what surprised me was his size. Willie was not a big guy, but had forearms like popeye.

  3. And now there’s “dabbing.” What the heck is dabbing?

    Kissing tattoos on your biceps? Do we really need that? tattoos are bad enough. And now ubiquitous and therefore no longer “cool?”

    I really like baseball’s codes in this regard. Hot dogging is kept to an absolute minimum. What a breath of fresh air.

    And I would also add that Ali had a pretty strong undercurrent of self-deprecation. Like Charles Barkely, I think Ali didn’t really take his antics, or himself, too seriously. He was too smart for that. And he had a sense of humor. Something I fear Bryce Harper doesn’t have.

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