By Thursday afternoon, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred may have wanted to wash Bryce Harper’s mouth out with soap. Or, at least, rub it down with pine tar.
That’s because the 23-year-old Harper, one of the sport’s stars, criticized baseball for its unwritten rules that condemn celebration of most kinds. Harper has been slammed for not abiding by these rules. The extent of his comments can be found in an ESPN The Magazine profile titled: “Sorry Not Sorry.”
“Baseball’s tired,” Harper told Tim Keown of ESPN The Magazine. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what other people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair.”
While publicly Manfred may have to admonish Harper, privately baseball’s boss should concede the truth in those comments. And to them I say: “Amen.”
Baseball has an image problem, among other issues, that has alienated a younger generation that yearns for personality from its sports stars. In the NFL, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers are known for their touchdown celebrations. Thanks to the NBA’s Steph Curry, the shimmy is in vogue. In the NHL, players celebrate after every goal.
Major League Baseball admonishes any demonstrative behavior.
A sport that quivers at the idea of a playoff game coinciding with a regular-season football game—or even a top-notch college football game—needs to rethink its outdated values.
Show up a pitcher and a player gets thrown at. Pump your fists on the mound and benches may clear. Baseball lacks the personality its professional counterparts have used to help market and grow their sports.
For no apparent reason.
When a pitcher hangs a curveball and it’s smacked 500 feet, Jose Bautista should flip his bat. When a reliever pitches out of a bases-loaded jam, I want to see him celebrate on the mound. You may see me write this multiple times in this space: Sports is the best in unscripted reality television.
No one cares about the hurt feelings of professional baseball players—only the feelings of triumph. We watch the doldrums of the baseball season in the hopes of seeing greatness: a perfect game, a cycle, a walk-off home run or an acrobatic defensive play. Let the players celebrate those accomplishments in a way that fans can embrace.
This is the age of smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, GIFs and Vines. Everything is captured and disseminated. Baseball has the opportunity to grow and promote itself.
It also has young, trendy players like Harper with which to partner. Let these players be themselves—primarily as the NBA has done. Allow the natural relationship between MLB's young players and social media to help grow the sport.
There are those grumpy traditionalists, like Goose Gossage, who are outspoken and in favor of baseball’s unwritten rules.
“Bautista is a f--king disgrace to the game," Gossage told ESPN on Thursday. "He's embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him. Throwing his bat and acting like a fool, like all those guys in Toronto. [Yoenis] Cespedes, same thing.”
Guys like Gossage, though, are far better off bloviating to a publication like AARP The Magazine. Baseball needs to progress, not stay stuck in its version of a Victorian Era.
Should players, like Harper, be able to show more emotion on the field?
I’ll disagree with one thing Harper said: Baseball can drag.
The sport has acknowledged its pace-of-play issues. To Manfred’s credit, he is trying to remedy the situation with new rules. But an attitude change would benefit the sport far more by making it more interesting for viewers regardless of how long the games last.
Someone of Harper’s stature needed to speak candidly on this issue. There are those who might say he is the reigning National League MVP and, as such, needs to align with the league. I think he needs to speak out because of it.
As players are asked about Harper's comments over the coming days, I hope they support one of the sport’s outspoken young leaders. These players need to connect baseball with their contemporaries.
Baseball needs to eliminate its general sensitivity. Respect the sport’s forefathers. But, at the same time, acknowledge their antiquated values.
Until it does, this issue will linger. Younger players may revolt, like Harper, while some make a plea for change. But as the baseball world asks itself whether it needs to allow for more unrestrained emotion, I’ll pull another Harper quote:
“That’s a clown question, bro.”
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen and like his Facebook page.