Byline: Des Bieler
Before its playoffs got underway Tuesday, MLB took square aim at the infamous, unwritten rules of its own sport. In an ad featuring some of baseball's most demonstrative young stars, MLB made it clear that it wants nothing more than to see its postseason marked by bat flips, posing at the plate and other long frowned-upon acts of celebration.
Showing the likes of the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, the Astros' Carlos Correa, the Red Sox' Mookie Betts and the Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr., the ad has a voice-over from Ken Griffey Jr. The 48-year-old Hall of Famer quotes some of the criticisms leveled over the decades at baseball players who've had the temerity to express themselves in ways deemed by others as showing a lack of respect for the sport, the opponent, or both.
"They said, 'Rules are rules," Griffey begins, before reciting phrases such as:
"Don't stop and stare"
"Don't flip your bat"
"Respect the jersey"
"He didn't earn that right"
"Don't celebrate, keep your head down"
Griffey appears at the end of the ad, wearing his hat on backward, which was something of an iconoclastic trademark of his during his heyday as "The Kid" in the 1990s. "No more talk, let the kids play," Griffey tells the camera.
The ad appears to reflect an understanding by MLB officials that some, if not most, of their most prominent young players are chafing under an informal but oft-invoked code that seeks to promote conformity and self-effacement. The Nationals' Bryce Harper, for example, told ESPN in 2016 that baseball is "a tired sport, because you can't express yourself."
"You can't do what people in other sports do," Harper complained at the time. "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. If that's Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig - there's so many guys in the game now who are so much fun."
In the 2015 playoffs, the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista sparked a national discussion - an international discussion, really, given that Canada was involved - when he vehemently tossed his bat after hitting the go-ahead homer in a do-or-die game against the Rangers. The Toronto slugger was subsequently moved to write an essay for The Players' Tribune about his act, saying that some "backlash from small sections of the media took on a familiar tone," including, "Disrespectful, mocking, showboating."
"It wasn't out of contempt for the pitcher. It wasn't because I don't respect the unwritten rules of the game," Bautista wrote. "I was caught up in the emotion of the moment."
His reference to criticism from media members reflected the fact that the unwritten rules aren't always invoked by players, coaches or front-office executives. In the MLB ad, some announcers can be heard tut-tutting what they see as inappropriate, with one saying, "It's something you do not do in baseball."
According to The Associated Press, one of those voices belongs to longtime Braves announcer Joe Simpson. Earlier this season, Simpson and booth partner Chip Caray gained notice for sharply criticizing the Dodgers, after players from the visiting team had worn T-shirts and, in at least one case, cleats with no socks, during batting practice.
Noting that he came up with the Dodgers during his playing career, Simpson said that he was "taught how to play professional baseball, and do things the right way." He added, "They looked very unprofessional. . . . If I were a Dodger fan, I'd be embarrassed, and I don't know how Major League Baseball allows such attire."
Simpson subsequently apologized for those comments, shortly before he was compelled to backtrack from an on-air implication that Nationals phenom Juan Soto may be misrepresenting his age. That is a lingering suspicion that has dogged some Latin players, but arguably a greater issue has been a baseball culture that seeks to tamp down what many of them view as harmless, if not infectious, expressions of the joy they take in excelling at the game.
It's clear that, as the spotlight shines its brightest on baseball, MLB is on the side of those players, and all the "kids" who want to bring more playfulness to the diamond.