At the conclusion of the 2019 MLB season, baseball will run a series of clips highlighting the best moments in the sport of this decade. It’s hard to think of a more memorable – and controversial – moment in baseball than Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista’s three-run home run, subsequent stare down of Texas Rangers reliever Sam Dyson and dramatic bat flip in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS.
Phillies icon and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was so turned off by the moment that he penned an op-ed for the Associated Press, saying that while he wasn’t against emotion in baseball, he thought that Bautista’s stare down and bat flip “crossed the line.” Tensions between the Blue Jays and Rangers spilled into the 2016 season, when Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor punched Bautista in the face following a hard slide into second base during a game on May 15.
And yet, the clip of Bautista’s home run has over 1.3 million more views on YouTube than the final out of the Chicago Cubs-Cleveland Indians World Series in 2016. Not only did the Cubs defeat the Indians in Game 7 of one of the greatest World Series of all-time, but they ended a 108-season World Series drought. And yet, when you think of memorable moments in baseball this decade, it’s hard to say that Bautista’s bat flip isn’t the most memorable, and therefore, positive for a sport that’s desperate to draw in a new audience.
That hasn’t stopped the debate about baseball etiquette and the unwritten rules of the sport from continuing in 2019. The now-retired Chase Utley gave a nuanced answer when asked about the topic last week.
“I’m torn,” Utley said of bat flips to Boomer Esiason and Greg Giannotti on WFAN Sports Radio in New York. “Like you said, I was a guy that put my head down and ran around the bases [after hitting a home run]. I didn’t want to show up the other team. I didn’t want to give myself more attention than I deserved. But I get it, and I understand why guys do it. Guys are excited, so the game is slowly evolving and changing. In my opinion, the players are better than they were 10 years ago. The pitching now – I mean, you guys see it on a nightly basis – guys are throwing hard. Guys are throwing 97 or 98 mph, everybody coming out of the bullpen is throwing hard. That wasn’t the case back in 2008. So, again I’m on the fence.”
Ahead of the 2018 postseason, MLB enlisted the help of Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. in their “let the kids play” campaign, ostensibly taking the stance that bat flips and flare were good for a sport that struggles to lure in fans who didn’t grow up in houses that watched baseball. The league doubled-down ahead of the 2019 season, using a slew of stars – including Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Rhys Hoskins, Alex Bregman and Christian Yelich – in an ad designed to break any stigma against self-promotion and emotion in baseball.
That doesn’t, however, mean that the whole league agreed to, uh, let the kids play.
Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson hit a titanic home run against the Kansas City Royals on April 17, 2019, only for the Royals to throw at him later in the game after he threw his bat after hitting the home run, leading to a benches-clearing brawl. The official MLB YouTube channel was happy to promote the moment, as they literally uploaded a video entitled “All Angles of Tim Anderson’s HR + Bat Throw.” But as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic noted, simply because the league has decided that bat flips are good for business doesn’t mean that players and coaches universally agree. For his part, Anderson doesn’t appear gun shy about flipping his bat, even after some push back.
For his part, Utley played with both Odubel Herrera and Yasiel Puig, two players not afraid to flip their bat or show antics that tend to enrage opponents. He said that while he wasn’t personally offended by any of his teammates showing more emotion than he does, he didn’t feel inclined to change his playing style.
“I’ve played with some guys, with both the Phillies and Dodgers, that flip bats,” Utley continued. “It didn’t make me mad, but I didn’t want to do that myself.”
There was a debate in the NFL in 2015 about whether eventual league MVP Cam Newton went too far with his endzone celebrations. The Charlotte Observer even published a letter from a Tennessee mom that was outraged by Newton’s celebrations, which she claimed her young daughter said made him looked like a “spoiled brat.” The conclusion that most arrived at – whether they are pro celebration, anti-celebration or agnostic on the matter – was that if you didn’t want Newton to celebrate, you shouldn’t allow him to score. Hoskins had a similar message after the Braves – a team that isn’t short on flair – hit him with a pitch following a Bryce Harper home run that the Phillies celebrated outside their dugout.
Utley seems to have adopted a “to each their own” approach. That’s something that Phillies manager Gabe Kapler endorsed last summer.
“I like emotion in baseball,” Kapler said last July on the SI Media Podcast. “I like players celebrating, I like high fives, I like seeds getting thrown up in the air. I like bat flips. I don’t believe in everybody has to be the same. I loved Matt Williams style. When he used to hit a home run and put his head down and run around the bases, I thought, ‘that’s really cool,’ but I would not like to have everybody be like Matt Williams. I think the game would be boring. I love Chris Archer’s style. I love Odubel Herrera’s style at the plate. I love Fernando Rodney with the arrows. I love bat flips. I love Bryce Harper celebrating. I love all of it. I think it’s good for baseball.”
As far as Utley? Well, he doesn’t seem to think bat flips and emotion in baseball are a bad thing, perhaps a change from what his stance would have been at the outset of his career.
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