Waving the Freak Flag in the Face of Playing the Game the “Right Way”

One of my favorite missionary stories is told by Peter Letchford, a 95 year-old long […]

Howie Espenshied / 4.24.14

One of my favorite missionary stories is told by Peter Letchford, a 95 year-old long time British missionary to Zambia, who relayed an exchange he had in the 1940s with a newly converted tribal chief. “The chief came to me with his newly translated bible in hand and a perplexed look on his face. It was open to Ephesians 5.  ‘Peter, please tell me how do I love all five of my wives like Christ loves his church?’, he asked”. It’s always fascinating to watch how the gospel speaks into a “not conveniently Western/American” cultural context. Peter simply smiled and said, “I’m so glad we have a lot of time in front of us as friends to figure this out together”. He didn’t suggest that the chief do it in a “right” or “biblical” way.

mlbf_25787409_th_13Though the culture clash is far less jarring, the way that Dominican baseball players are conditioned to express emotion while playing the sport is much different than U.S. born players. I  observed this first-hand while playing some recreation-level baseball with youth in the Dominican Republic a few years ago. There’s an inherent celebratory tone in their voices when they practice, let alone when they play in a game that counts. Exuberance for the game seems to be in their DNA. It’s kind of wonderful.

Last week, a Dominican MLB player, Milwaukee Brewer Carlos Gomez (allegedly) instigated a bench-clearing brawl by “flipping his bat” as he hit a triple in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. After sliding into third base, Gomez was greeted with a few choice words about the “right way” to play the game from Pirate pitcher Gerrit Cole. Gomez had flipped his bat because he thought he had hit a home run. If anything, all the bat flip did was get him off to a slow start around the bases – correspondingly making the play at third base much closer than it should have been. Nonetheless, Cole took exception to the celebratory display in the batters box. Gomez didn’t appreciate Cole’s “lecture” and walked toward Cole, causing both benches to empty and “several” punches to fly. Four players were suspended by Major League Baseball for their roles in the incident. Gomez was the most severely penalized – receiving a three game suspension (he is seen throwing a few punches in the video). Cole was not penalized. CBS Sports baseball writer, Matt Snyder had some interesting thoughts on the incident:

I continue to be baffled by this mindset where it’s OK for baseball players to pout over how an opponent reacts. It happens all the time, so I’m not singling out Gerrit Cole, as he’s simply the latest example. In this specific case, why does he care how Gomez reacts in the batter’s box? And couldn’t it be argued that Gomez cost himself a chance at an inside-the-park homer by standing there admiring his shot? If someone argues that Gomez looked like a fool, shouldn’t Cole just let him look like a fool?

Only the first 90 seconds are needed to view the full incident… Fair warning: an expletive or two can be faintly heard:

Young pitchers are always encouraged to control their emotions and keep an even keel, but here, Cole, a second year player, called out Gomez, a five year veteran, on the right way to play the game. Further, what may have appeared to Cole as a hitter showing him up may very well have been simply a player exuding the emotion for the game he learned in his homeland. Snyder continues:

I’m sorry but there’s no actual “right way” to play, speaking from a factual point of view. The “right way” rhetoric is all a matter of opinion. I’m a big “to each his own” guy. If Gomez really wants to watch a fly ball and possibly cost himself an extra base, that’s up to him…baseball is supposed to be fun. If I’m a baseball player and an opposing player like Gomez (or everyone’s favorite punching bag Yasiel Puig) likes to have fun in a manner different than other players, I don’t really care. Maybe he looks dumb to some people, but that’s his choice. If I’m a pitcher and have a problem with how an opponent pimps a long fly ball, I need to get him out and then we won’t have to see it. If I fail to get him out, maybe I should be upset with myself for not getting an out a.k.a. doing my job.

To be fair, there is a time and a place for a player to call out an opposing player on the “right way” to play – especially when it comes to a universally held virtue like “hustle”. Perhaps the best example is when Hall-of-Fame catcher Carlton Fisk famously called out a young Deion Sanders for not running out a ground ball. However, as Snyder points out, extending the “right way” rhetoric to how a player (especially of a different culture) reacts with emotion seems a tad subjective. Carlos Gomez has had some other documented issues with emotion on the diamond, but there’s nothing here to suggest that he was “showing up the pitcher”.

As I write this I’m reminded of Matt Schneider’s wonderful reflections in these pages last week on the children’s book  “The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbcher Goes to School”. In the book, Zoe (as Matt suggests) “breaks [free] from the demands to hide her true identity”. It strikes me that quite often, in an effort to call people to a vaporous, ambiguous “right way”, we elicit fight (in Gomez’s case) or flight (withdrawl in Zoe’s case) responses. Here’s hoping that Gomez’s next “exuberant display” will be met with a smile.