Flippin' Bats: Emotion vs. etiquette in sports

May 18th, 2017

So you might remember a couple of years ago, when launched the bat flip heard around the world during Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers. "The Good Place" executive producer Michael Schur and I co-wrote a piece after that game, and here's what we said about it (Michael's words are in bold):

I understand there are traditionalists and purists and whatever-ists who think that flipping a bat after you hit a home run is bad form, or disrespectful, or something. I disagree. I think it's awesome, frankly, and if you can't enjoy Joey Bats, who had that crazy itinerant baseball life and then found a home in Toronto, and who is the soul and beating heart of this team - a team which hasn't been in the postseason in 22 years and which has brought sports life and sports relevance back to one of the world's great cities -- and whose team went down 0-2 at home to a clearly inferior team and then stormed back on the road and gutted out two big wins and then went back to Toronto, fell behind early, scratched their way back to even, then went down by a run on one of the weirdest plays in postseason history, then loaded the bases on three errors and had a guy forced at home and then only scored one run and had a guy thrown out at second on a single to the outfield … if you can't enjoy Joey Bats flipping his bat towards his own dugout in a badass and life-affirming and glorious and barbaric yawp of baseball excellence after hitting a home run in that situation, then I feel bad for you. Or you're a Rangers fan, in which case, well, I still feel bad for you, because your team lost.

When Blake Griffin jumps 30 feet in the air and dunks, you want to watch him howl at the moon and strut up the court. When Serena Williams lunges and rips a cross-court winner you want to see her pump her fist and scream. Same for Tiger draining a 30-footer, Brandi Chastain drilling a World Cup penalty, Tom Brady diving for a 1-yard TD. We're fine with outward displays in every other sport. Why do we ask baseball players to bury their emotions like students in a seminary?

Yep. I mean, the Tom Brady part I disagree with, but the rest is dead on. Baseball is so quirky about this stuff. It is, on the one hand, a brutally tough sport, Ty Cobb's sport, Cool Papa Bell's sport, Pete Rose's sport, 162 games, played every day from spring to autumn, through preposterous heat and air soaked with humidity. You're supposed to run out every ball, even fly balls you know are outs. You're supposed to shake off getting hit by a pitch and take your walk.Bob Gibson throws inside. Cal Ripken plays thousands of games in a row. comes back from like 44 Tommy John surgeries. Tough as nails. There's no crying in baseball.

And then, on the other hand, it's like a dinner party in "Downton Abbey" -- pinkie out, silverware in order, keep the subjects light, don't flip your bat, don't look at your home run, don't pump your fist when you get a strikeout, don't do anything that might offend. I get that the Rangers and their fans aren't too thrilled seeing Bautista hammer-throw his bat after hitting a moon-shot homer that broke their spirit. I get that. But man if you can't bat flip after that home run, seriously, why even play baseball?

If Neil Armstrong had played by baseball's unwritten rules of decorum, he would have whispered, "Yeah, I'm on the moon."

"Act like you've been there before, Neil," he said to himself quietly, as he slowly descended onto the surface of an alien planet.

On Wednesday in Atlanta, Bautista bat-flipped again. This was a little bit different situation. This time the home run meant exactly nothing -- or just about as little as a long home run can mean, though it came on the heels of a heated exchange an inning earlier, when Blue Jays center fielder took umbrage with what he perceived to be a quick pitch from Braves reliever , and Pillar ended up having to apologize postgame for using what was believed to be a homophobic slur. That whole mess is probably a whole other discussion, but there is no question it added an edge to the game and heightened the intensity for Bautista's at-bat.

The Blue Jays trailed by five runs when Bautista came to the plate in the top of the eighth and launched a homer before giving Braves pitcher an "Oh, I dislike you so much right now" look, then sent his bat into orbit, not in a celebratory way but more like, "I have now employed the power of this slab of wood; it is of no more use to me."

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The Braves didn't like that. Benches cleared. Jaws flapped. At some point, it does look like Bautista is pointing to himself as if to say, "Hey, look, I might have overdone that." But maybe he isn't saying that. Body language is hard to read. O'Flaherty said some unhappy words about Bautista after the game. Bautista talked about baseball being emotional.

Look: I don't think it's especially cool to show up other players in sports. I am enrolled at the the Barry Sanders School of Flipping the Ball to a Referee After You Score -- I think that sort of understated grace has its own kind of power.

And I'm definitely not for celebrating individual achievements when your team is losing. The Kansas City Chiefs used to have this player named Mark McMillian -- "Mighty Mouse," everyone called him -- and he would celebrate every play he made or almost made or didn't quite make, no matter the situation. If he knocked a ball down, he flexed. If the receiver dropped the ball and McMillian happened to be nearby, he flexed. If he made a tackle after the receiver made a long gain -- and with the Chiefs down three touchdowns -- he flexed.

It seemed so goofy, so annoying, but as the years have gone on, I've looked at it a little bit differently. No, flexing after making a meaningless play is not a great visual. But McMillian was 5-foot-7, he weighed 154 pounds, he didn't even try football until he was a senior in high school. He played for a junior college and then transferred to Alabama. McMillian was drafted in the 10th round. They don't even have a 10th round anymore.

For McMillian at that size to become an NFL player -- for him to play in 127 NFL games, to make 23 interceptions and return three of them, for him to start in playoff games -- required a sort of maniacal will, a sort of energy, a sort of crazy ambition that is almost unimaginable. If he needed to celebrate himself to push through the pain and the odds, to reach the crazy high level of engagement he needed, well, maybe we can appreciate that. Maybe we can even say, "Hey man, flex if that's what you need to do, we're all just in awe of what you're doing."

Bautista was a 29-year-old journeyman with a .238 batting average and 59 homers in 575 big league games when he found the swing and the fury that would make him a star. He plays baseball right on the edge. Now Bautista is in his late 30s, and his numbers are on the decline, and many people think he's through. So he hit a home run in the midst of what has so far been a frustrating and soul-crushing season. He flipped his bat.

Maybe that isn't the crime of the century.