Last week, Bryce Harper called baseball "tired." This was shortly before Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage found a microphone through which to yell at clouds about guys like Jose Bautista disrespecting the game, and the nerds in front offices destroying it.
Gossage is a real caricature of baseball's old guard—the crusty old dudes who walked backwards and barefoot to spring training through hailstorms, they who say modern pitchers are babied. Pitchers in the Goose's day didn't do dances like Sergio Romo (who later criticized Harper, too) when they notched saves. They just shook hands, like men. Goose would like you to think players in his day were more civilized. But it's not a coincidence that the person arguing for baseball's unwritten rules is a pitcher, and the person arguing against them is a position player.
Pitchers and position players are different species. They coexist beautifully at peacetime, when the team is winning, but the most prominent fault line of a divided team is often between the two corps. Pitchers and Position players are usually segregated according to logistics and responsibilities, although if you're around a clubhouse at all you may notice they tend to segregate on their own. Like cats from Venus and dogs from Mars, the pitcher/position player rivalry is real. It's only talked about like a joke.
That rivalry is also at the root of the tension over baseball's unwritten rules. So perhaps the key to unlocking it, and moving the sport forward, begins with the game's first "swag-on-a-million" ballplayer—one who was a pitcher before he was a position player, as it happens. Babe Ruth became baseball's patron saint by thoroughly dominating the game in the segregated era. Once later players began to put up numbers to rival and surpass Ruth's, the "larger than life" argument was deployed to defend Ruth's title, especially by his disciples of the Greatest Generation. Everything Ruth did was wrapped up tight in a layer of myth.
Ruth casts the largest shadow in the sport's history. And yet his antics, when rehashed a century later by today's players, routinely draw the ire of people inside the game and out. Baseball has developed a delicate constitution in the decades since Ruth was pounding highballs and hot dogs by the dozen. The sport has taken on a self-regulating, homogeneous culture—a kind of "tuck-your-pinkie-on-your-tea-cup'" politesse that is maintained by players and staff socialized to heightened sensitivity. Behavior that violates those norms stands out, and is subject to reprimand.
In baseball, that reprimand usually comes in the form of fastballs thrown at hitters, by pitchers. Pitchers are the prime benefactors of baseball's unwritten etiquette rules—if you follow proper etiquette, you won't incur pitchers' wrath. When a player on your team commits an infraction—let's say he is too visibly frustrated after making an out while his team is winning by a lot of runs, which Carlos Gomez did last year, driving the Yankees insane—the sentiment among annoyed teammates on the bench is typically, "great, now I have to go up there not knowing if I'm getting hit or not." It isn't a matter of respecting the game, it's a matter of respecting the opposing pitcher. This is made a little more urgent because that pitcher controls your safety.
The very act of hitting, especially when fastballs are coming toward the plate at more than 90 mph, is a trust fall in which the pitcher is always catching the hitter. Hitters inherently depend on the pitcher's accuracy, which puts pitchers in a godlike position. Often, these gods are unhappy.
Here's how it goes: a team subjectively interprets an infraction of those unwritten, subjective rules, and then instructs their pitcher to hit a player with a pitch—typically the best player on the other team, if not the player who committed the gaffe. (Yes, pitchers who often struggle to throw strikes at a static target, are trusted to hit a moving target that very much does not want to be hit.) The offended team also expects that the other team will accept this punishment as fair, and will not retaliate. Despite this, in my experience, the bench-clearing brawl is often the physical manifestation of a team rejecting the punishment sentence, or—even more ironic, a team interpreting an opposing pitcher inadvertently hitting a batsmen as intentional and malicious. The vast majority of baseball brawls are the result of miscommunications.
Harper's comments about his healthy rivalry with Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez have been the closest thing to diplomacy that we've had concerning the (obviously unwritten) showmanship clauses in baseball's unwritten etiquette rules. "Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game. It's not the old feeling—hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I'm going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean—sorry."
The showmanship envelope has been pushed by individual players acting alone—think of Brian Wilson's post-save sendoff, or when Manny Ramirez and time stood still in Fenway, or The Sammy Sosa Steroid-Hop, or some example of your choosing. It's not a coincidence that those players stand taller in history than any of the players who were offended by their actions. Ruth, still, stands taller than all of them. Bryce Harper is connecting the dots between youth engagement and baseball's bottled .gif product, which often falls flat against the offerings of the other major sports. Expression, especially now, is going to win out every time, especially when contrasted against unwritten-rule fussiness.
Interestingly for someone who wants to add more WWE to the game, Harper still seems to respect the etiquette guidelines of the game. He's not really a veteran yet, and Harper doesn't pimp homers like David Ortiz can. Bryce certainly doesn't not pimp his homers; instead he pimps them The Right Way, and has made polite-pimping into an art form of sorts. Bryce injects as much bravado as is mathematically possible given the situation, a calculus that baseball players know very well. It's based on several data points, including service time of both parties, and the weighted gravity of the moment. Bryce Harper has homered off 82 pitchers as a big leaguer, but it wasn't until last year that he finally homered off someone younger than him.
Sergio Romo did have a point about the game changing. It's asking a lot to demand an entire league unlearn so much of the "tired" expectations of on-field behavior. That said, it's reasonable to expect that some of this tribal lore would fade. The players enforcing those rules today learned from the recently departed veterans, who were in turn hazed by good ol' boys like Gossage, who themselves learned how to Play The Game The Right Way from guys who started their careers during Jim Crow. Goose and his compatriots would like you to think players in his day were more civilized, but there were also fewer cameras on them, and less money at stake. If Gossage hit a straight flush on the river at the World Series of Poker with David Price money on the table, he might just do the hokey pokey.Time marches on.
Perhaps Bryce Harper is just the guy to move baseball into the 21st century of sports self-expression, and perhaps that could help the game attract fans without preexisting baseball nostalgia conditions. But perhaps baseball just needs to be smarter about choosing which elements of its history to celebrate. After all, Ruth knew both sides of the position player vs. pitcher rivalry, and both sides of the unwritten rules conversation, and it didn't stop him from calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. Babe Ruth's gilded image isn't diminished by his showboating, his attention-seeking, his on-field antics or his off-field behavior—those are what cemented his status and effectively sealed his legacy. A human is always going to be easier to cheer for than a collection of rules.