By Alex Frandsen, sports columnist
Bryce Harper drops bombs. It’s what he does. He hit 42 home runs last year, an impressive figure that becomes astonishing once you realize he is only 23 years old. But a couple of weeks ago, he dropped a different kind of bomb on the baseball world. In a profile written by ESPN’s Tim Keown, Harper came out and launched a full attack on the conservative nature of the game.
“It’s a tired sport because you can’t express yourself,” Harper said. “You can’t do what people in other sports do. 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.”
So despite his qualifier, he pretty obviously did call baseball boring. The quote circulated around the sports world, and reactions started pouring in. Famed ex-pitcher Goose Gossage criticized Harper, saying, “What does this kid know? This kid doesn’t know squat about the game and [has] no respect for it.”
Reporters on his front porch presumably recorded his comments while Gossage waved a cane at young whippersnappers on his lawn.
Sergio Romo, reliever for the San Francisco Giants, was more succinct in his response, telling Harper, “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”
The thing is, Harper is 100 percent right. Baseball is tired, and it is boring. The number of kids playing baseball has been on the decline for years, according to a May 2015 report by The Wall Street Journal, and the number of black athletes in the sport has dwindled. Baseball is becoming the sport for old white people, which is possibly the most boring demographic to be associated with.
Professional baseball’s strict and ridiculous adherence to its “unwritten rules” is a large part of the problem. Most types of on-field celebrations are heavily discouraged. Even watching your home run fly out of the park a few seconds too long can earn you a fastball in the ribs.
These “rules” are meant to maintain dignity and “respect” for the game, and they have been a tradition for ages. But what they really do is limit player expression to the point where it lessens the level of fun. Watching Mike Trout clobber a pitch over the center field wall is entertaining, but watching Harper smack one, admire its flight for a few seconds, and then pump his fist as he rounds the bases is an experience. Simply put, it’s cool.
When you were a kid, what did you do when you made a great play in a pick-up game? Odds are you didn’t put your head down and act like nothing happened. You probably celebrated, shouted, whatever. Because when do you something awesome, relishing the moment only makes it better.
So when an 8-year-old watches someone like Toronto Blue Jay Edwin Encarnacion launch a rocket and then promptly get reprimanded for a sweet bat flip after, it sends a clear message: Baseball is a deathly serious thing, and there is no room for flair. Why would that kid then pursue baseball? Why would he enter an already slow-moving sport if he knew he would have to stifle his self-expression?
Proof that allowing for player self-expression makes for a stronger sport lies in another pro sports league: The NBA. The league is the best in terms of connection with the youth, and it is quickly becoming one of the most globally popular sports. The reason lies in the players. The NBA has a wide cast of recognizable and charismatic figures from Lebron James to Russell Westbrook to Steph Curry. Those players aren’t admonished when they blow on a pair of finger guns after canning a three. Those players aren’t criticized for shouting exuberantly or for smiling during an “inappropriate” time. They are allowed to be themselves, which in turn allows the fans to better connect with them. That is why kids on the playground will block a shot and then wag their finger like Dikembe Mutombo. Those little flairs in the game make it notably more attractive.
Plus, those celebrations or outbursts can turn a great play into an unforgettable one. Last year in the playoffs, Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder Jose Bautista hit a home run over the left field wall to give his team a lead in the late innings. After he clocked it, he watched it for a moment and gave the world one of the greatest bat flips of all time. That bat flip was seared into the minds of everyone who watched it. It added an exclamation point to an already exceptional moment.
Of course, Goose Gossage called Bautista a “disgrace to the game.” Now Gossage was an outstanding pitcher, but he is retired and now irrelevant to the sporting world. If baseball wants to avoid a similar fate, it needs to embrace the sermon of Bryce Harper. Unwritten rules are tradition, but bat flips are the future. The MLB must get with the times.