The Politics of Celebration and Baseball’s Unwritten Rules

This is the second of two posts on Baseball’s Unwritten Rules. The “unwritten rules” entail issues of masculinity and decorum. They’re often contradictory and at times fans, players, and former players in sports media disagree on what they really are. In this series we want to take a closer look at them and try to parse out the values and assumptions embedded within them. We argue that the very concept of ‘unwritten rules’ reveals coded language that highlight and expose the competing values in regards to race, class, masculinity, and fair play in American culture. Indeed, narratives surrounding the “unwritten rules” are a way to combine nostalgia, history, and sport into a type of cultural pedagogy.

In the first post Andrew McGregor used narratives surrounding the Kansas City Royals as a lens to try to understand some of the “unwritten rules” and expose contradictions within them. Here, I use a series of incidents from late in the 2013 baseball season to interrogate coverage of brawls, fights, and “showtime” personas to tease out issues of race, masculinity, and citizenship within the “unwritten rules.”

By Dain TePoel

Major League Baseball’s (MLB) 2015 All-Star week festivities concluded Tuesday night with an American League victory in the 86th “Midsummer Classic” in Cincinnati. But beyond the game, the home run derby, or any other myriad possible story lines, having the contest in the Queen City mostly fueled the latest installation of media commentary and discussion surrounding the ever contentious and controversial figure of Pete Rose, longtime Cincinnati Red (1963-78; 1984-86) and MLB’s all-time hits leader. The debates revived and continued now two-and-a-half-decades-old questions of whether Rose, who has been serving a lifelong ban meted out by MLB in 1989 for gambling on baseball as a (we now know) player and manager, should 1) receive formal reinstatement, and 2) be elected to MLB’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

While gambling on the game is often seen as baseball’s number one cardinal sin, in other words definitely one of the written rules, Rose was in the limelight at MLB’s All-Star Game (ASG) 45 years ago for his part in perhaps the ASG’s most “infamous play”, plowing through American League (AL) catcher Ray Fosse to score a decisive, thrilling, 12th-inning run to secure a 5-4 comeback victory for the National League (NL) in front of Rose’s hometown fans.

Rose crashes into Fosse. July 14, 1970. From Deadspin.com

Rose crashes into Fosse. July 14, 1970. From Deadspin.com

Over the years this type of high impact play at home plate has formed one thread of discussion around baseball’s “unwritten rules.” After San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey sustained an ugly broken leg injury following a collision with Scott Cousins in May 2011, MLB weighed in and implemented a new rule banning such home-plate hits. Given increasing concerns around sports injuries, MLB did not hesitate to take this public relations and safety measure despite upsetting purists and those who decry the loss of home-plate collisions as taking away from how the game is “supposed to be played.”

Despite injuries like the one Posey sustained, losing an entire season, and Fosse, who suffered a fractured, separated shoulder and only hit 49 more home runs in 7.5 more seasons in the majors (he had 16 entering the 1970 ASG but only hit two more that season), neither Rose or Fosse, nor most players, would see home-plate collisions as needing intervention or official policing. It was just part of the game; baseball players’ chance to puff their chests and demonstrate their masculinity in one of the few sanctioned moments of head-on collision and contact.

How would Fosse or other players have responded if Rose had crashed through him earlier in the game though, say with the NL leading 13-2? While still within the rules, it certainly might have violated baseball’s “unwritten rules” to explode through the catcher when the game was not hanging in the balance. Until interleague play began in the 1990s, the leagues didn’t face each other save for the World Series. They didn’t play the ASG for home field advantage. They played for bragging rights (and some extra cash). As Andrew McGregor nicely explained in part 1 of this mini-series, many of baseball’s unwritten rules seem to center over the issue of pride, which isn’t so nicely written into the rule books. Clearly pride was on the line in the Rose-Fosse collision, and pride plus the normative boundaries of play rationalized Rose’s decision to risk injury in a game played as an exhibition.

Rose was known as “Charlie Hustle” for his gritty play and determination to win above all else. He played without much concern for “style” or “flash”, or at least that’s what many sports journalists and admiring fans often claim. But that isn’t quite right. Playing hard, tough, and fierce in the name of winning and sacrificing all for the team is a style of play that operates as baseball’s invisible norm. This orientation towards the game is often coded, but not explicitly stated as the white, masculine, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-All-USAmerican-way. When the men who own the teams, the players playing the game that way, and the men who write about them, are also white, masculine and support a rugged individualism ethos mapped onto subservience to the team, Rose’s style of play – a repertoire of behaviors, attitudes and values developed over time throughout organized baseball’s U.S. history – becomes defined, recognized, celebrated and honored as the way to play baseball.

While concussions, separated shoulders, broken legs, lost seasons and careers might not be enough motivation for players, fans, league officials, or media pundits to challenge baseball’s written or unwritten rules, pride and style of play can and do trigger questions of “respecting” the game. Respect for the game, in turn, often boils down to the contested cultural terrain of “ownership” of baseball in terms of race, ethnicity, masculinity and nationality.

A phenomenal young Cuban athlete, Yasiel Puig, took MLB by storm in June of 2013 after making his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His presence facilitated a prolonged discourse in sport media surrounding baseball, race, ethnicity, masculinity and the ostensible proper codes of conduct for an MLB player. In “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Yasiel Puig” Jay Jaffe of SI.com questioned the drawbacks of Puig’s “level of maturity” and “unbridled play” though ultimately argued for a balanced perspective on the rookie-catalyst for the Dodgers rise that season. Shortly after Puig’s rapid ascension, though, sports commentators repeatedly voiced their concerns with his bat flips, expressive exuberance, and spontaneous outward enjoyment of the game. They considered Puig’s “showmanship” an insult to MLB’s traditional behavioral norms that emphasize work over play and fun. For example, Bleacher Report’s Jason Catania asked “Is Yasiel Puig Letting Phenom Status Turn Him into MLB’s Next Big Diva?” 

Two specific instances illustrate how the issues enveloping Puig signified a fomenting controversy across the league that season. On September 25, Brian McCann (a white player from the U.S. south) reprimanded veteran Carlos Gòmez (from the Dominican Republic) after the latter blasted a home run, leading to a brawl and Gomez’s ejection.

Sep 25, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez (27) reacts with Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann (16) after hitting a home run during the first inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 25, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez (27) reacts with Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann (16) after hitting a home run during the first inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks prior, McCann admonished Josè Fernandez, then a twenty-one year old Cuban native, following a similar incident in which Fernandez joyously flaunted his home run.

Sep 11, 2013; Miami Florida. McCann approaches Fernandez following home run. From Zimbio.com

Sep 11, 2013; Miami Florida. McCann approaches Fernandez following home run. From Zimbio.com

Latin American players, however, now consist roughly 25-30% of MLB rosters each year, and 50% of minor league teams. White U.S. players maintain a significant presence on MLB rosters, but are losing status among the best. McCann’s outbursts, justified by baseball pundits as enforcer reactions against immature and unbridled, emotional breaches of unwritten rules, reflect a threatened sensibility of the decline of whites in the now less heralded “national pastime.”

Weeks after the McCann confrontations, some factions chided Puig for running toward first base belatedly, following his triumphant pose, while others defended him. Outward displays of celebration are commonplace in baseball, although usually less spectacular or elaborate in comparison to professional football or basketball. Following a pause to admire the trajectory of the ball, the way a player proceeds to run the bases can either magnify or quell the initial show of emotion and elation. MLB players and sports reporters often uncritically call boastful actions following a home run “pimping.”

Clearly, celebrating one’s achievements on the field is a hotly contested act that engages racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, notably through the use of terms such as diva and pimping. The former is used to denigrate a player as crossing “acceptable” lines of masculinity while the latter is more or less commonly used within the game to describe a player’s outward reaction after hitting a home run, but can be linked positively or negatively based on the player and context under which said “pimping” takes place. The questions we should be asking, then, are not entirely wrapped up in the language of unwritten rules but relate to the intersecting lines of identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, able-bodied) the media discourse emphasizes in discussions of “the right way to play the game.”

How do sports commentaries address issues of race, ethnicity, age, class, sex and gender in relation to “respecting” the game of baseball? What does the sport media discourse reveal about contemporary media practices that “Other” black male athletes in general? Looking into these questions could shed light on the dynamics of these social power relations for the millions of USAmericans who consume sports television, read its online content, and engage with messages about racial, gender, and nativist ideologies inherent to U.S. baseball that are disseminated to a largely white male audience.

The politics of race and representation help grasp the multiplicity of identity and multiple lines of power relations present in the cases of Puig, Gomez, and Fernandez. Theories of intersectionality from Black feminist theory and gender studies link alternative masculinities and resistant counter-representations together, inclusive of the mutually constitutive aspects of identity. bell hooks’ notion of “eating the Other” informs an interpretation of black male athletes media construction as enticing for white consumption as a site of desire and danger. Further, Patricia Hill-Collins’ readings of the ways mass mediated representations of black individuals (including male athletes) exemplify a new racism that justifies the persistence of racial inequality, provides a conceptual benchmark for an interrogation of media constructions. This framework opens up the possibility for broader understandings of the ways in which sport media respond to and represent non-US born transnational athletes in the current context of US professional sports leagues.

RW Connell argues that in a globalizing world, research on men and masculinities must pay attention to very large scale structures of finance, trade, economics, and communications dominated by the North, that help to construct the contemporary world gender order. According to Connell, a transnational business masculinity is the emerging dominant form of masculinity, based institutionally in transnational corporations. It is exactly these types of white businessmen (gender signifier intentional) in corporate media, sport journalism, and professional sports leagues that foster the conditions and environment against which athletes such as Puig must negotiate counter and alternative masculinities. These conditions also establish a milieu through which Latin ballplayers are often interpreted as immature divas, brashy showmen, or uneducated and inflexible cultural newcomers.

As a Cuban defector to the United States, Puig is situated within the interactions of global masculinity that are important landscapes for future research on gender politics and hegemony. More recently, Connell and James Messerschmidt have suggested a reformulation of the concept of hegemonic masculinity to recognize the geography of masculinities that emphasizes the interplay among local, regional, and global levels. They claim, “it is clear that processes such as economic restructuring, long-distance migration, and the turbulence of ‘development’ agendas have the power to reshape local patterns of masculinity”, although limited research to this point has not shown a formulation able to overthrow local or regional masculinities.

Further, caricatures of Latin American masculinities must be situated within broader “imaginings of maleness” that are layered, socioculturally and economically contextualized, and conceived contingently in relation to social relations and production. David Forrest cautions against representations of the stereotypical localized macho individual in favor of broader societal structures and the global capitalist economy. Thomas F. Carter, contrastingly, in a more localized and specific context in Havana, stresses the value of willing confrontation and self-control as a core aspect of Cuban masculinity, embodied and displayed through lucha (struggle) and disciplina (discipline) as characteristic cubanidad (being Cuban). I place Puig and other young Latin American athletes contesting the unwritten “right way to play the game” within the growing body of literature which investigates the vulnerability and exploitation that men confront in global flows of labor throughout the developing world, particularly in reference to experiences of migration and transnational mobilities.

Carter adopts an ethnographic approach to understand baseball “as it is experienced in Cuba”  and the ways in which facets of Cuban baseball embody and express “the very sense of what it means to be Cuban” or cubandiad. He also focuses on the meanings of Cuba as a nation and theorizes identities as transcendent, crossing social, political, economic, spatial, and temporal divides. They are imagined, multiple, and mobile. Places, too are conceptualized beyond the concrete as social events, repeated performances and interactive processes that are continuously negotiated. Places are, but they also happen. For Carter, sporting practices, consumption, and spectacles could be considered symbols that are empty until imbued with meanings that are struggled and contested over, but central to the formation of community and place.

Carter’s deep understanding of the development of masculinities around Cuban baseball, in particular, can add an understanding to the performances of athletes such as Puig that mainstream media outlets, such as ESPN, fail to relate or badly misconstrue.His arguments link baseball, power, culture, sport and spectatorship with structures and meanings, but of central importance is the body. “The very essence of sport, its most vital aspect, consists of the bodily actions and the emotional responses among all participants: athletes, officials, and spectators. The significance of sport cannot be understood in any given place at any given time without considering these actualities.” He claims that baseball is an embodied performance of a language of contention – of Cuba and cubanidad – which is central to the formation of Cuban society and culture.

Carter’s work offers lessons for studying the politics of celebration and style of play in baseball by looking for resistance not only in the direct and explicit, but also the careful, subtle, and difficult to identify. He notes how globalized sports reflect historical economic inequalities resulting from neocolonialism and uses ethnography to learn the cultural meanings of sport which emerge from social frameworks/categories of meaning created through even the simplest of individual actions, or as he puts it “the making of identities occurs in the minutiae of everyday practice.”

Sports and their communities of fans and followers are necessarily locally situated, produced and contested, but both context-driven and context-generative. Power works in sport through dynamically interdependent spheres of social life. Linkages are disparately located, discursively and materially. Thus, the struggle for meanings of Cuba and cubanidad, through baseball, are constituted in a disjuncture of localities and spectacles, or languages of contention.

In another context, Alan Klein has asserted that, from a political economy perspective, the “Latinizing” of the national pastime is taking place. Meanwhile, Adrian Burgos, Jr. and others counter Klein with the notion that cultural productions of Latinos in media coverage, sports marketing, and self-presentation sustain images of Latinos as “persistent foreigners in baseball and U.S. society, arrivals in a ‘recent’ wave” which serves to deny the social forces that have shaped Latinos’ experiences for over a century in MLB and present them as culturally deficient.

By expanding an understanding of baseball’s unwritten rules to include scholarly analysis, particularly in response to on-field shows of emotion that face resistance from the old guard, the supposed transgressions of Puig, Gomez, and others could just as easily be understood as normative, as in the way Pete Rose, Brian McCann, and other white US natives have played the game.

But as Jennifer Slack contends, “in the struggle to construct (articulate and re-articulate) common sense out of an ensemble of interests, beliefs, and practices,” ideological and hegemonic processes work to cement whose behaviors are dominant and which others subordinated. In this way, “modesty” and a “lack” of excessive display of emotion following big plays, hits, or home runs are constructed as “correct” and still heartily celebrated.

Just ask All-Star Game MVP Mike Trout, who reiterated upon receiving the award “I try to respect the game as much as I can, play the game the right way and just have fun. Never disrespect it, and give it my all everyday.” As opposed to whom?

2015 All-Star Game MVP, Mike Trout. From bleacherreport.com

2015 All-Star Game MVP, Mike Trout. From bleacherreport.com

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. As a youngster playing baseball he definitely thought the modest and serious approach on the field was “the right way.” You can reach him via email at dain-tepoel@uiowa.edu or on Twitter: @DainTePoel

8 thoughts on “The Politics of Celebration and Baseball’s Unwritten Rules

  1. Dain-

    This is a very interesting article. Especially for me who is a baseball player, and experiencing these celebrations and unwritten rules everyday. But one question that instantly comes to mind when reading the paragraphs about how Brian McCann interacts with Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez is, do you think that this is just a different way other players from different regions of the world celebrate? Rather than us perceiving it as being, “flashy”. In addition with the MLB being more and more diverse every year, wouldn’t the thought that the game is changing from such as an, “Old Way” of playing to a “New Way” of playing with better, bigger and faster player, which would make the game even more competitive raising the masculinity factor of the game of baseball that would eventually create new form unwritten rules with the new implicated rules that are enforced now, for example; the collisions at home plate. I believe the way new players in the league play is just a new way to look at the game of baseball and with baseball being, “America’s Pastime” it’s tough to adjust to new styles of playing.

    -Greg Antoine

    Like

  2. The ideas surrounding the unwritten rules of baseball is an interesting topic. The unwritten rules came about as a way to enforce fairness in the early years of baseball in this country, but has been on display recently. The “fight” between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon this week was supposedly based on the idea of “playing the right way”. Those two players are both white, which goes against the argument that non-white players break this unwritten rules more in recent years. Are there different sets of unwritten rules for the different groups of players (whites, Cubans, African Americans, etc.) in Major League Baseball? Do white players follow the older unwritten rules based on playing the game the right way and a new set of unwritten rules governing celebrations and the like for the newer groups of players that have expanded in baseball? It seems like there a clash between unwritten rules in baseball today and it will be interesting to see in the future how the book on unwritten rules changes and evolves. Nice article.

    Like

  3. I couldn’t’ agree anymore. I really dislike how people are coming in to the game of baseball and every hit they celebrate like it’s the best hit ever. Well look at the reality baseball players you have to respect the game like the man himself, Mike Trout. To win the all-star 2015 game MVP and not thank everyone in the world for your accomplishments. He simply respected the game of baseball by respecting it as much as he can. Baseball is not about showboating or showing how much better you are then everyone else, save that for football or basketball. I have also noticed that it is specifically ‘Latinos’ celebrating about a hit or homerun like it is the best hit ever, while the white Americans simply hit the homerun round the bases and look for high fives in their own dugout.
    -Antonio DiSilva

    Like

  4. Pingback: Flippin’ Out: | Twelfth floor

  5. Pingback: Review of When Baseball Went White | Sport in American History

  6. Pingback: The Politics of Sports in Trump’s America | Sport in American History

  7. Pingback: Baseball Myths in Trump’s America | Sport in American History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s