On Monday night, after Puerto Rico’s Carlos Correa drilled a hanging curveball about four million feet to tie the semifinal of the World Baseball Classic, his teammates, in a scene we have become accustomed to in this thrilling, almost hypnotic World Baseball Classic, ran onto the field and began celebrating. Javy Baez started jumping up and down and pretending like he was ripping off his jersey; Francisco Lindor smiled and screamed like he was a 10-year-old boy who just dunked on LeBron; even Carlos Beltran (who with his dyed facial hair looks terrifyingly like late-era Mark McGwire) grinned a little bit.
It was a big ol’ party, and why wouldn’t it be? Correa’s homer tied the score in an elimination game that Puerto Rico, the story of this World Baseball Classic, desperately wanted to win. It was a super exciting moment. Everybody went nuts.
There have been so many moments like that in this World Baseball Classic, haven’t there? Moments where people just went nuts? You have to be a pretty diehard World Baseball Classic skeptic — that is to say, you have to have made the active, conscious and consistent decision not to watch a single game at all — not to be at least somewhat entranced and charmed by the joy and the competitive spirit of these games. This is baseball played in a different, more urgent and exuberant, way than we typically see it in the United States. (Plus, as Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Tayler noted, “the WBC games have all the drama of playoff baseball with all the baserunning and fielding mistakes of Spring Training, which is a fun combo.”) It has been a blast. I’m so sad there are only two games left.
Before Correa had even completed his trot around the bases, though, MLB Network analyst John Smoltz needed to get something off his chest. Now, Smoltz has only recently been named the top analyst for the World Series and national FOX games, taking over the old Tim McCarver role, and I have to say, I think he has been great. He’s a natural communicator — he has a way of talking that is assured and informed without being pedantic and lecturing — and he clearly prepares for each telecast the way, say, a Hall of Fame starting pitcher might prepare for the lineup he’s going to face the next day. I’ve worked with Smoltz on television a couple of times, and he’s simultaneously enjoyable and intimidating to work with. He’s friendly, but he’s also so smart and focused that you find yourself trying really, really hard not to screw up in his presence. He’ll have that McCarver spot next to Joe Buck as long as he wants it, and he’ll deserve to.
But Smoltz — like many former players — holds a lot of what would be classified as “old school” views on baseball, and here’s what he had to say about the Puerto Rican team’s celebration.
I’ll say that Matt Vasgersian has been a perfect broadcaster for WBC ’17 games: He has natural excitement and flair, fitting for a guy who used to call XFL games. I like Joe Buck (I can prove it, with this piece titled “Why I Like Joe Buck”), but he’s almost too established a broadcaster to do the Classic right; Vasgersian understands that this event is different and has ratcheted up his enthusiasm accordingly.
But Smoltz’s comment there, that “a lot of these guys are enjoying themselves, maybe they’ll get it out of their system in about two weeks” — that’s pretty much the whole baseball thing right now, isn’t it? The whole culture war in baseball, the “keep millennials engaged” business, the how-do-we-keep-the-game-relevant discussion … you can see the whole damned fight in that comment.
There are two takeaways here.
- It’s OK that Puerto Rico is having such “over-the-top” celebrations — over the top in Smoltz’s eyes, not necessarily mine — because this is the World Baseball Classic, and thus an exhibition, and thus not “real.” This event is what this is for, but obviously that will have to stop when games get “serious.”
- When Major League Baseball actually begins … man, that sh-t is not gonna fly.
Now, before I attempt to systematically dismantle Smoltz’s argument, let us make sure to give it its just due. There are two good arguments against such excessive celebrations during the regular MLB season, and they go hand in hand.
The first is that individual regular-season games just aren’t that important, and there, exuberance does start to look a little too much like aggressive gloating. Every Classic game, more or less, has resembled an elimination game: You’re usually one loss away from going home. Thus, this has been a postseason-style blitzkrieg, every play magnified and every big hit taking on outsized importance, and that’s even before you bring national pride into it. You’d look awfully silly if everybody ran out of the dugout and congratulated a guy on a solo homer in the second inning of a hot August afternoon game in Cincinnati. The time for celebrations like this is now.
The second is that the season is looong. Not only will you wear yourself out if you try to do that 162 times a year, you will find your celebrations lose some luster when they are just one small moment in a protracted marathon. You maybe need to chill a bit.
But I don’t think that’s what Smoltz was saying, or at least that wasn’t the primary thing he was saying. Smoltz was drawing a line in the sand. That’s fine for this tournament, but that won’t fly in the bigs. What Smoltz was saying is that if any of these players try this in a Major League game, they’ll get a fastball in the ear.
For all the discussion of baseball’s supposed “pace of play” issues, this is the key problem, isn’t it? The main reason these Classic games have been so much fun is not because we fans are particularly invested in the outcome. It means a lot to the players who wins, of course, but the average fan won’t have their lives profoundly altered one way or the other if Puerto Rico wins or Japan wins or Team USA wins or whomever. We’re responding to how much they care. It’s fun for us because it’s fun for them, and we can see it. The game is instantly more compelling, no matter how fast or slowly it might be moving, because it is obvious that the competitors are deeply invested, in a real emotional sense, in the outcome. We want to watch people want to win.
But emotion is often suppressed in baseball. Remember, this is a sport in which many players put their gloves over their faces so no one can see them scream with joy (or anguish). There might originally have been feasible reasons for this. It’s a humbling game; you don’t want to get too high or too low; you don’t want to “show anybody up.” In a sport in which failure is constant and perpetual, too much joy in one particular moment betrays a lack of understanding of the game’s inherent cruelty. But it is difficult to argue that this has not gone too far.
Quick, what’s the most exciting baseball play of the last three years? What’s the one moment, when you think of baseball causing you to lose your damned mind for a second, that comes to mind?
I bet it’s this.
That is, in the words of ESPN writer Sam Miller, “the most psychologically violent thing I’ve ever seen in a game.” That is a pure, unvarnished eruption of emotion, from everybody, starting with Jose Bautista and rippling out dangerously through the crowd. That is something you remember, forever. Did Bautista overdo it with the bat flip? Probably! Wasn’t it great? That’s what you do when you do something amazing: You show emotion. You lose your damned mind.
That is what people want out of baseball, out of sports, out of life. They want a moment that makes them never forget where they were, where the people involved look as stunned to be a part of something amazing as we are to watch them do it. They want to see a guy so happy that his team is about to win its first World Series in 108 years that he can’t help but smile while fielding the clinching groundball. They want to see fun.
Smoltz’s admonition, his instinctive urge to tamp down emotion whenever he sees it, has ruled baseball for several generations. This, not pace of play, not four pitches for an intentional walk, not extra innings, is the primary thing holding baseball back, why young people have been slower to embrace the game than, say, the NBA. Have you watched an NBA game recently? That game is all emotion. Russell Westbrook might be the most compelling athlete on the planet right now because he plays like his heart is about to leap out of his chest: He plays like he’s about to burst into flames. It’s infectious. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
And in baseball, the response to that emotion would be for Madison Bumgarner to whip a 95-mph-fastball by his chin, to establish some sort of fake semblance of “order.”
That’s the problem. And WBC ’17 has exposed this as bare as any event I can remember. The Classic is a joy because everybody cares so damn much and, more important, shows that they care. Baseball is not a private game. It exists because fans want to watch it. Emotion lets us all in. It lets us all be a part. It does not shut us out.
You know another thing that has been encouraging about the Classic? It’s proof that times are changing … that guys with Smoltz’s protectionist attitude are losing. It’s not just that so many great players are from Puerto Rico and Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, where on-field emotion is more accepted and encouraged, and that their values and attitudes are becoming more common. It’s that the United States team, which has made its deepest run ever in this tournament and been as much a joy to watch as any U.S. team, is giving itself up to emotion as well.
Look at how happy everybody is after Giancarlo Stanton hit that crazy homer against the Dominican Republic on Saturday night.
And oh, man, did you see that Adam Jones catch? High fives in the outfield, fans going nutty in center field, even Tyler Clippard — hardly known as some emotional firebrand — hopping up and screaming.
And even the last out had some dancing and fever to it.
The American players — raised in this hide-your-face-if-you’re-happy culture — have seen the World Baseball Classic just like we have, and, quite reasonably, have concluded, “Hey, I want to be like that.” Who wouldn’t? I understand what Smoltz is trying to say. I understand what he’s trying to hold on to. But it is slipping out of his grasp. This is what baseball is becoming. This is what baseball needs to become. The World Baseball Classic is just the start. You want to make baseball more fun? This is how it’s done. This is how you save it. Isn’t it fantastic? Isn’t it just the best thing in the world?