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On change and the evolving culture in baseball (Or: Bud Norris: Fun Police)

Things change. Especially things that have been around a while, like baseball.

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Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Jorge L. Ortiz posted a very interesting article called Baseball's culture clash: Vast majority of brawls involve differing ethnicities. It covers the issue of ethnicity in baseball, a microcosm of American culture in some way (since we're talking about a Major League Baseball issue, which largely takes place in America), but it's also part of an increasing awareness of what happens when a growing culture comes up against the current dominant culture. That's not just an American issue, it's a world-wide one.

Those clashes lead to adaptations in society. Sometimes that adaptation comes through violence, as is illustrated in Ortiz's article in terms of how many baseball brawls are instigated by players of differing ethnicity. Or it can be war, as illustrated in Graham Allison's article.

But on the way to societal change people tend to respond in one of two ways: they're more willing to accept change, or they respond with fear, which manifests itself as anger or a staunch desire to enforce the status quo - the existing way of life, or of doing things that are comfortable for the dominant culture because "that's how it's done."

Take this excerpt from Ortiz's feature:

Fritz Polite, former president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and a consultant to the NFL, said that while the institutionalized aspects of baseball are still dominated by whites, the participants have changed.

"Whites still constitute the majority of the league, but there might be frictions with this slow tilt of percentages,’’ Polite said. "It’s not quite tilted yet, but it’s leaning that way.’’

Baseball confrontations often start with a hitter getting plunked, and though there may be several reasons for their high rate among different ethnic groups, many cases point to a culture clash. Baseball has long held to a tradition of unwritten rules of etiquette whose interpretation may vary, with factors such as age and country of origin as part of the mix.

How much is a hitter allowed to "pimp’’ or admire a home run? When is a bat-flip acceptable and when is it offensive? To what extent can a pitcher celebrate getting a big out? What’s the difference between rejoicing over a favorable play and showing up the other team? What kind of actions demand retaliation?

Nobody knows for sure, but there are consequences – typically in the form of a fastball to the ribs or a hard slide – for those who break the code.

"With it being an unwritten rule, there’s unwritten definitions to a celebration or a taunt,’’ said well-traveled outfielder Jonny Gomes, now with the Royals. "It’s in the eye of the beholder.’’

Baseball's unwritten rules are just how it's done. And baseball's unwritten rules are ridiculous. Grant Brisbee went over this exact topic three days ago, when discussing The unwritten rules of Jonathan Papelbon attacking Bryce Harper for not hustling:

Some players do it more than others and Harper's disgust lasts two beats longer than normal.


On the other hand, there isn't a manager in the world who would want Bryce Harper to run that pop-up out like he's trying to score from first on a single, especially not from a player who's already dealt with wonky knees and hamstrings.


So there's a fine line between running it out and running it out. Don't do the first one, and you're breaking an unwritten rule. Do the latter, and you're breaking an unwritten rule.

Two innings earlier, Clint Robinson popped out to the second baseman. He jogged to first. No one in the ballpark had a problem with it. The difference is that he didn't stop for those two beats that Harper did. So that's the unwritten rule, then. Start jogging earlier. Don't stand for a second and then jog.


If that distinction seems silly to you, that's because it is. Baseball is an unwritten legislative session with unwritten congressmen yelling over each other and making the laws up as they go along. Before Sunday's game, I'll guarantee you that Papelbon had never quantified how quickly a hitter needs to start his token jog.

Such is the issue with "unwritten rules." They're never quantified, each individual (read: the offended) "just knows" when a line has been crossed. Jonny Gomes said it himself - it's in the eye of the beholder. Which is the most ridiculous way to talk about rules because there's no sure fire way to know whether or not you've broken them unless you just turn into an emotionless robot largely incapable of showing emotion, so that you are quite literally unable to break any "rules." And I can't think of anything more boring than a league full of 750 Joe Mauers.

When those undefined lines are crossed, people do get offended. They feel as though the game they've loved all their lives is changing, and they don't like it because they feel as though "excessive" celebration or too much emotion shows a lack of respect. Leaving behind the question of whether or not a game can even be respected, particularly one with a history of cheating and abuse and segregation like baseball has, is there only one way to show love and respect for baseball?

Of course not. Carlos Gomez, who has been involved in more bench-clearing brawls than anyone since 2011, doesn't love or respect the game any less than your typical Fun Police player like Brian McCann or Dallas Braden. An individual's excitement over their own success is not an indictment on the player who's pitch led to the success. And yet Gomez seems to be a lightning rod for the Fun Police, whose newest member appears to be Baltimore's Bud Norris.

Back to Ortiz's feature.

When told the large majority of the benches-clearing incidents involved players of different backgrounds, [Bud] Norris nodded knowingly.

"I think it’s a culture shock,’’ Norris said. "This is America’s game. This is America’s pastime, and over the last 10-15 years we’ve seen a very big world influence in this game, which we as a union and as players appreciate. We’re opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you’re 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, and I think sometimes that can be misconstrued. There are some players that have antics, that have done things over the years that we don’t necessarily agree with.

"I understand you want to say it’s a cultural thing or an upbringing thing. But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is and how long it’s been around.’’

If Norris' thought process feels absurd, I'll borrow from Brisbee: it's because it is. Let's take a moment to deconstruct Norris' entire argument.

"This is America's game."

Just because it was invented in America, that doesn't mean America owns it. Can you imagine how Americans would have responded if the British responded petulantly about our bastardization of cricket? Baseball isn't the most popular game in America anymore either, unfortunately. But it is the most popular sport in Japan, Venezuela, Cuba, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic. So sure, it's America's game because we came up with it. But we don't own it.

"...if you're going to come into our country and make our American dollars..."

Of all the things we could talk about here, including the not-too-thinly-veiled xenophobia implied, it's worth remembering that baseball is a world-wide economic monster. The best baseball players come from all over the planet, not just America, and people from all over the world buy Yankee hats...and sometimes other memorabilia too, if they want to be quirky and different. All ballplayers, Gomez and Norris included, are able to make "our American dollars" (shudder) in part because of the game's ability to rake in money from around the globe. All ballplayers are making the same money, because of the same machine. And that means they all have the same right to enjoy it as they see fit.

" need to respect a game..."

Again Norris is assuming he owns a sport that he, nor his country, actually owns. We'll continue to use the example of Carlos Gomez and say, again, that the way Gomez respects the game does not have to be the same way that Norris respects the game. How we celebrate love, friendship, music, success, payday, chocolate, religion - it doesn't have to be the same for everyone.

"...that has been here for over a hundred years..."

Because we respected the hell out of cricket, right? Indeed, the length of time that baseball has gone on seems to be some kind of shelter for the old guard, as though they'd feel differently if baseball had only been around for 50 years or one year. Here's the thing: everything changes, and everything evolves. Especially things that have been around for a long time. Baseball has evolved to include gloves, manicured grass, new kinds of balls, relief pitchers, designated hitters, advanced metrics, and something like a "pitch clock." The length of time baseball has been around is not a refuge for anyone who feels like they need to hold onto the integrity of the game, because the integrity of the game isn't at stake. The game is just changing...which, I understand, can be scary.

"There are some players that have antics, that have done things over the years that we don't necessarily agree with."

Who's "we?" What defines "antics?" What are "things?" Norris speaks in generalities because if he gets too specific, he knows how ridiculous it will sound.

"I understand you want to say it's a cultural thing or an upbringing thing."

Read: "I don't care where you're from, this is my country sport."

"But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is and how long it's been around."

Read: "By the time you get to America the big leagues, you better speak English understand the league the way I do and respect it the way I do. You get me, you foreigners guys who I think are acting disrespectfully?"

*          *          *          *          *

Forgive me the conceit of the crossed-out words, but I'm using the effect for a reason. Earlier in the article we went over how the changes in baseball are a microcosm of the changes happening in the world, and specifically in America. The xenophobic responses given by Norris read not too differently than the xenophobic responses implied by the crossed out words, and I can't help but see the pattern between the responses of baseball's old guard that are reacting in fear and anger to change, and the responses given by wonks in certain corners of political debate. Baseball, for better or worse, will be faster to accept change as a necessity instead of a danger.

Back to Allison:

More than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: "It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable." Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.

(Emphasis mine.)

It's not a perfect analogy, but you can see how it works. Both sides feel they're coming from a legitimate starting point. Hopefully reality plays differently than the odds in Allison's article (nobody wants a war between America and China), but using the hotheads of baseball as an example you can see how pride and a stubborn nature can exacerbate a situation, and how tempers can flare and how pride can blind vision. Until cooler heads prevail and a new equilibrium is set, there will continue to be friction and it will occasionally boil over into an on-field melee.

As I bring this to a close, we can step back to the second game of Wednesday's double-header. The Twins were offended yesterday when Jose Ramirez hit his home run. It wasn't because Ramirez hit the home run, necessarily, or even that he watched the flight of the ball for a moment - it was the bat flip, high and directed at the Minnesota dugout.

Perhaps there's a distinction to be drawn there, between what Carlos Gomez does as a celebration and what Ramirez did last night, which was clearly a provocation. But in the end, they both need to be handled the same way: with cooler heads. Whether it's Gomez or Jose Fernandez or Casey Fien, excitement doesn't have to be interpreted as an offense. Or, as Dayn Perry said in his review of Ortiz's article:

It's a pat response, but it bears repeating: Don't give up home runs if you don't like the afterglow of a home run. The call for stoicism on the part of the hitter masks a lack of it on the part of the pitcher.

Ultimately, how a player responds - how we respond - to change is down to the individual. Change feels scary. New jobs, new relationships, and certainly a new status quo will be different. When Bud Norris gives up another home run to Carlos Gomez, which he will, instead of focusing on how happy Gomez is, perhaps Norris should be busy thinking about the next batter or, if that's too difficult, focusing on what (if anything) he did wrong on that pitch and how he might be able to best Gomez the next time around.

For the Twins, that means understanding that they can't afford extra base runners right now - certainly not ones they put on base on purpose - which means that if Ramirez comes to the plate today, they don't throw at him. Change means passing on "payback" and passing on the old school way of meting out justice. Instead, they just focus on getting him out. Ultimately, that's the biggest way of Minnesota achieving "payback": making sure Ramirez is the non-factor he's mostly been all year.

And for us, it means...well, we're all our own people. You decide how you want to react to change.