Sam Mellinger

Times are changing, and so should major-league baseball

Salvador Perez sent some celebratory hand signals back to the Royals dugout after stealing second base against the White Sox earlier this month.
Salvador Perez sent some celebratory hand signals back to the Royals dugout after stealing second base against the White Sox earlier this month. The Kansas City Star

Ambiguity is going to fill much of what we are about to talk about. There is no way around that, not when we’re talking about unwritten rules and interpretations and hidden meanings.

This is how it goes with baseball’s unofficial code, and you cannot have a complete discussion about these Royals — league leaders in being hit by pitches, celebrating home runs, and losing shortstops on dirty slides — without talking about the code and interpretations and hidden meanings.

Like, for instance, White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija almost certainly hit Lorenzo Cain on purpose in the season opener. That was fairly obvious. And the Angels’ Fernando Salas probably hit Mike Moustakas on purpose last week. Baseball people see some notable traits of a purposeful beaning.

But what about the others? Was Moustakas hit on purpose by C.J. Wilson, or was that just a pitcher on a bad day without command? Was Cain hit on purpose by Jose Quintana, the day after jawing with Samardzija?

Or the big one: Brett Lawrie’s slide away from the bag, late, spikes high, into Alcides Escobar’s leg on Friday night. Nobody from the Royals clubhouse went public with calling the slide malicious, and Lawrie defended himself with sincerity, but the video is ugly.

Lawrie’s dirty slide led into one of the most predictable series of events baseball offers: Yordano Ventura beaned Lawrie on Saturday, the benches cleared, tough-guy poses outnumbered punches roughly 50 to zero, and Ventura was ejected.

Lawrie’s slide crossed a few lines anyway, but the Royals are likely more sensitive to these types of things after the first two weeks of the season. Being hit by that many pitches?

“I can’t judge intent,” Royals manager Ned Yost has said over and over.

No Royals manager has been asked to judge intent as often as Yost this season. There are a lot of factors at play here, most notably that the Royals are the American League champions, which means teams are coming after them in a very different way than a year ago.

The Royals are also the most emotional team in baseball, something that runs very counter to the put-your-head-down-and-don’t-say-a-word culture of the league. Salvador Perez, for instance, has been known to hop over the dugout rail and greet a teammate with an elaborate handshake for a home run in the third inning.

This is a team of energy, a group that has made habit of turning the clubhouse into a temporary nightclub after wins, and there is little doubt that the exuberance rubs opponents the wrong way. That doesn’t mean that all 13 beanings were intentional. But it’s impossible to believe they’ve all been accidents, and this is all so silly.

In an age of enormous video boards at stadiums, and the ability to watch highlights instantly on our phones, this is a part of the baseball code that should’ve died out long ago — with standard-definition broadcasts, if not wool uniforms.

Because if the Royals are being targeted for over-celebrating or showing too much emotion — and there are people around the game who believe this to be true — that says more about baseball than it does about the Royals.

Lighten up, in other words. The code is outdated and misguided. Other sports don’t do this.

Basketball quite literally celebrates showmanship with slam-dunk contests. The NFL has taken some justified criticisms about standing for No Fun League, but among players there is no punishment for sack dances or touchdown choreography. Soccer is full of wild goal celebrations.

But this act-like-you’ve-been-there culture is more than a code specific to baseball — it’s a code specific to major-league baseball.

Baseball in Latin America is a closer cousin to an And-1 mixtape than a big-league game. Bat flips in South Korea are legendary.

So why the difference? It is cultural, historical, and amplified by demographics.

“There is a chivalric tradition in baseball that you can beat your opponent but then you take him out for a banquet afterward,” says John Thorn, baseball’s official historian. “It was a social activity more than it was a contest for supremacy.”

Thorn says that tradition was fueled by “a mistaken notion of what the middle ages were like,” that the greatest heroes showed bravery but also decorum and modesty.

Long before television highlights or even radio play-by-play, baseball grew into a business when people took their cues for behavior from literature.

Thorn says the code lives longer in big-league baseball in part because of its pace, that it is a stop-action-stop sort of deal, more like golf than the continuous action of basketball.

There is also a cultural, if not racial, component to this. Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, points out that when baseball integrated there was a pervasive feeling among the establishment that black players showboated too much.

“Part of what kept Satchel Paige out of the big leagues so long was he was too charismatic of a player,” Kendrick says.

That tradition has largely carried, even today, when social media, omnipresent television broadcasts and ubiquitous highlights have further put the emphasis on entertainment. You might be noticed if you hit a home run. But you’ll definitely be noticed if you hit a home run and stare at it for a good four or five seconds.

A few years ago, Jordany Valdespin showed off after hitting a home run to the upper deck in the ninth inning of a blowout loss the Pirates. The next day, as a pinch hitter, he wore the second pitch he saw off his hip. His teammates did everything but openly applaud the beaning.

There needs to be at least as much common sense as testosterone in these unwritten codes. Nobody is going to defend what Valdespin did, but there should also be an acknowledgment that times are changing.

Some of this is demographics. Baseball teams have more players from Latin America than ever, and with that comes a flair. It’s incongruous to demand guys turn into robots, and besides, a league that is desperate for more young fans would do well to embrace the natural emotion of its players. The season is a long, brutal grind as it is. Let them have fun.

Whether there are more or fewer code violations and self-policing now than in the past is open to interpretation, but there is no doubt that the demographics of both players and desired viewers mean there will be more emotion and celebration as time goes on.

“Every wave of integration and assimilation in major-league baseball has changed it somewhat, and invariably for the better,” Thorn says. “Of course we’re moving in that direction as fewer major-league players arrive via the sandlots and colleges of America. It’s only natural that baseball becomes a blended phenomenon, just like America is.”

For their part, the Royals continue to say the right things about all of this. Nobody — at least publicly — has said the team is being regularly targeted, but the fact that this is even an issue shows how far behind other sports baseball is here.

Respect for the game is important, but so is being free to show natural emotion. If you don’t want the other team celebrating a home run, get them out. This is just as true now as it was in the middle of the previous decade when some Royals officials whined about their bad teams being disrespected.

Baseball would be more fun if it was played with more emotion. The Royals play with fun. And right now, the sport needs more fun.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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