We’re taught that change is incremental and to expect otherwise indicates naiveté. But sometimes after, or ideally among or even at the outset of, the slow and steady shift in public perception and cultural mores comes a discrete jump in the overarching paradigm. Not a watershed moment per se, which tends to happen organically and can be seen only in retrospect, but rather a conscious decision to do something about it by taking a deliberate step away from how things were and toward how they ought to be. All of which is to say, sometimes the change comes from the top.
For baseball — by which I mean both the governing body as well as the constituent players, who in turn make up the union — the time to do something about retaliatory plunkings is now. Because they can do something about it if they so choose — assuming they can all get on the same page.
By now you know that last Wednesday the White Sox’s Tim Anderson hit a home run off the Royals’ Brad Keller. You know that because the former flipped his bat in jubilation, the latter hit him with a pitch in Anderson’s following plate appearance. I am not going to use too much space to relitigate the obvious OK-ness of enjoying playing a game well. Bat flips are perfectly fine — they cost nothing in exchange for imbuing an admittedly slow sport with a little spice. Hitting the batter on purpose, on the other hand, is actively bad. It’s dangerous, dumb (A free baserunner? In this home run economy?), and introduces violent escalation into what was a standalone display of style.
Despite the narrative around a “generational divide,” bat flips are not new — nor do they necessarily represent an upending of baseball’s tradition of respectability (which is itself a revisionist farce that ignores plenty of unsavory elements on and off the field) by an influx of Latin America and Asian players. Mickey Mantle flipped his bat, both in celebration and frustration. In 1963, he flipped his bat “in disgust” on what he thought was a popup, which turned out to be a home run — can you imagine how the more tradition-minded talking heads today would process that one? By the late ’80s, players were fielding postgame questions about their exuberant bat flips, but it wasn’t until a decade later that retaliation by the pitcher came into play, emerging into the public conscious (i.e. the searchable archives of newspaper columns) as a fully formed unwritten rule.
“I flip the bat, the pitcher hits me. It's baseball,” the Giants’ Jeff Kent told reporters after a 1998 game in which he was plunked by José Silva after a “blatant flip of the bat” following a three-run homer, according to a San Jose Mercury News article at the time.
The early aughts brought a wave of bat flips and the introduction of our long national nightmare that is the ongoing debate about whether it’s disrespectful.
That was almost 20 years ago. But even as the rookies, like Jimmy Rollins and Bret Boone, who were considered showy upstarts for their frequent bat flips, became stalwarts of the game, then veterans, then retired, the old guard who threw at them were somehow replaced by a new crop of traditionalists.
And yet the culture — buoyed by dynamic All-Stars from more demonstrative baseball cultures — has come a long way, or maybe it’s full circle, past acceptance and into enthusiastic embrace. And these days, MLB, by which I mean the league, is eager to capitalize on the low-hanging fruit of bat flips for highlight reels, social media posts, and marketing that makes them seem attuned to the zeitgeist (or at least Baseball Twitter).
By now you’ve seen the “Let the Kids Play!” campaign, which was introduced last year in a self-aware commercial, repeated in a new star-filled spot this year, and quoted so often in columns this past week that I hope whoever coined the term receives a raise for all the free advertising it’s generated.
By now you’ve heard about the suspensions levied against the key players in Wednesday's drama. Anderson’s single-game suspension for using the N-word deserves an analysis of its own by someone better qualified to do so. Keller’s suspension of five games amounts to just a single missed start by the pitcher, seemingly proving that the looming threat of that ban was an insufficient deterrent against a premeditated plunking.
I do not think the existence of such a campaign (not to mention MLB’s Twitter love for Anderson’s bat flip) in conjunction with those suspensions makes MLB hypocritical because I’m not under the illusion that the disciplinary arm of the league works at the behest of social media managers or advertising execs. “Let the Kids Play!” was the result of a recently overhauled marketing department whereas the suspensions are doled out based on historical precedent.
Which is precisely the problem.
If MLB wants to enforce a new era of bat-flipping baseball and force pitchers to stop retaliating — and I believe that it does, both because it’s good for the game and because preventing player injury is a key part of the league’s role — it needs to impose harsher suspensions for retaliation. The punishment should not just be punitive but also put the offending team at a disadvantage in the event of an infraction. A longer suspension shifts the cost-benefit analysis so that hitting a batter on purpose is rendered not just silly but self-defeating. And if MLB wants to impose harsher suspensions, they’ll need to make a conscious decision to pursue a real rule change via the official avenues — which means working with the players association.
This is where things get, admittedly, a little bit complicated. In addition to representing the position players, who might support a stronger deterrent to plunkings, the MLBPA also represents the pitchers, who have every reason to not want even the possibility of longer suspensions to be codified into the rulebook. But that’s what negotiations are for. The league, which is actively exploring what can be done to discourage dangerous retaliation, will have to make this a priority when it comes to the table. Which could be soon. Earlier this spring, both sides agreed to midterm negotiations in the wake of rising economic tensions. How the joint governing bodies can dissuade pitchers from hitting other players on purpose should be on the agenda.
The reason to do this is not because plunkings are necessarily getting worse but precisely because the collective patience for unwritten rules that put people at serious risk over some ruffled feathers is waning. Tradition is important in baseball, but to pretend the game is static would be willful ignorance. Baseball is always evolving — in response to new generations of athletes and new perspectives from fans. Sometimes, evolution needs to be helped along ever so slightly by ensuring that progress is the path of least resistance and that the old way of doing things is made prohibitively unappealing.
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