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In 2015, journeyman reliever Bud Norris had something to say about the way Latino players conducted themselves on the field. His comments were prompted by a study suggesting that the primary combatants in baseball brawls were most often players from different ethnic backgrounds. It’s unclear why Norris, who then played for the San Diego Padres, felt the need to weigh in on the issue publicly. Using the royal “we” in reference to either American players or America writ large, Norris declared that if players were “going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years.” In short: players coming from different baseball cultures, with different modes of expression and styles of play, had to either assimilate into the imagined monolith of American baseball—with its unwritten rules and codes of conduct—or find themselves unwelcome in the game.
Three years later, Norris has again become the center of discussion around the culture of baseball. He is now the closer for the Cardinals, having the best season of his career. His setup man is 21-year-old Jordan Hicks, baseball’s hardest thrower and one of its most exciting young players. Mark Saxon of the Athletic reports that Norris has been “mercilessly riding” Hicks for any perceived slacking, excoriating him in front of the team if he believes Hicks has committed even a minor offense against clubhouse culture. Hicks apparently finds this criticism neither useful nor pleasant, but it is encouraged by manager Mike Matheny. In fact, Matheny seems to employ Norris as a kind of hall monitor, responsible for reporting clubhouse violations directly to him. This is all in the service of the old school ways of baseball, the ways Norris had inflicted on him as a young player, with veterans teaching younger players lessons via punishment and humiliation—back when the sport, as Matheny put it, had “teeth.”This is a particularly bad look for the Cardinals in light of their recent public spat with Dexter Fowler. But it’s not specifically a Cardinals problem. As many people as there are who think that the idea of encouraging co-workers to harass and tattletale on each other is ridiculous, there are a not insignificant number of people—both in baseball and out—who think that the sport needs more of this kind of aggressive hardassery. The game, and society with it, are getting too soft, they opine; too little discipline, too much expression, too little respect for the way the game used to be played. It’s a way of thinking that interacts directly with Norris’s statements from three years ago: that there’s a way the game should be played and should always be played, that there are traditional values within it that need to be protected.
Underlying all of this is an idea of baseball as tied into an idea of fundamental Americanness—that the sport represents the last stronghold of a treasured values system that’s fading away. Baseball’s history is indeed deeply intertwined with the political and cultural development of the United States, particularly in the 20th century. But baseball is also a global sport. It always has been. America is not the only place in the world whose baseball roots reach back over a century, and whose sporting culture has developed over many decades. The origins of the game were in England with the game of rounders, imported to North America by British colonizers. Baseball has been played in Japan since the 1870s, and in the Dominican Republic since the 1880s. American baseball culture is just one of many, and it’s been a long time since the major leagues were a strictly American enterprise.The baseball we watch today has been enriched immeasurably by the talent and perspectives of players from around the world, all of whom bring different perspectives, styles of play and modes of expression to the game. On every team, there are players whose paths to the highest levels of the sport are awe-inspiring, and on any given day during the season, you can tune into a game and see something amazing—or, at the very least, something unexpected.
Take this week: the Cincinnati Reds, who have been treading water in the flooded basement of the AL Central for years, hung seven runs on the defending division champion Indians with two outs in the top of the ninth because of a phone mixup. The Oakland A’s mounted a similar comeback against the defending World Series champions before losing the game in extras on one of the most ridiculous-looking plays ever. The next day featured two games in which the winning team scored 19 runs. A pitcher hit a homer off a position player pitching. Baseball is fun! It’s really, really fun, in a way that’s obvious and irrepressible.Many people, though, including Major League Baseball’s own commissioner, believe that baseball is fundamentally broken. You know the complaints, you’ve heard them a thousand times. The games are too long. The players aren’t marketed well enough, or don’t work hard enough to market themselves, or they’re just too boring on some fundamental level. There are too many strikeouts, and pitchers throw too hard, and batters just won’t stop swinging for the fences. And while MLB is more profitable than ever, raking in billions of dollars every season, those in positions of power in the league point to declining attendance numbers, to the difference in demographic appeal and social media engagement between baseball and other sports, as evidence that something is wrong.Maybe the answer to MLB’s conundrum is not to shave a few minutes off the game, or to lower the mound. Maybe the problem engaging younger fans lies less in the way the game currently unfolds on the field, and more in the persistence of a culture too focused on a dubious ideal of the past. It’s a lot more entertaining to watch Javier Baez turn a slick double play than to hear endless pontificating about respect for the game, about the way the game and its players used to be, and complaints about how much the game has supposedly been degraded. Baseball is fun, right now. Let people enjoy it.
Baseball is fun! It’s really, really fun, in a way that’s obvious and irrepressible.