Dear Major League Baseball,
You’ve come a long way in recent years. Just a few short years ago, José Bautista created a minor scandal - and one of the most exciting moments in recent memory - when he flipped his bat in celebration of a walk-off home run in the 2015 ALDS. It may not have been the first bat flip, but it was certainly the most high profile, and it created a moment of reckoning for baseball. Even today, players are putting themselves in danger of getting drilled by a pitch - and possibly seriously hurt in the process - if they celebrate in a way the pitcher deems excessive. You have chosen the right path; the “Let the Kids Play” advertisements have served as a brilliant marketing technique and a way to normalize showing emotion in the game. However, the recent two-game suspension of Nick Castellanos shows there’s still a long way to go.
On opening day, Castellanos flipped his bat and skipped up the first baseline after launching an Opening-Day homer. In the following game, Cardinals pitcher Jake Woodford drilled him in the ribs with a 92 mile per hour heater. It is difficult to prove intent, and I like to think pitchers don’t intend to harm members of the opposing team, but it does appear that players get hit after a bat flip more often than would be expected. After rounding the bases and scoring on a wild pitch, Castellanos stood up, flexed in Woodford’s face, and appeared to yell “Let’s Go!” Then, Castellanos turned and attempted to walk back to the dugout, but Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina took exception and grabbed his neck. Both benches emptied, and there was the usual light pushing and shoving, but the umpires were able to restore order relatively quickly.
Absurdly, Castellanos was the only player ejected from the contest, despite not initiating any physical contact. To make matters worse, it was announced that he had been suspended for two games, but not before he hit another home run in the subsequent game, with another major bat flip. The league’s statement cited his “aggressive actions” as the primary reason for the suspension, despite the fact that Molina grabbed his neck as he attempted to walk away.
Instead of suspending a player whose only crime is showing a little emotion while he plays the game, maybe you should move towards addressing the problematic culture of retaliation in baseball. With pitchers throwing harder and harder, hitters shouldn’t have to be afraid that they will be intentionally hit with a projectile approaching 100 miles per hour if they violate the so-called unwritten rules of baseball. No one knows exactly what this metaphorical rulebook contains, but the main component appears to be “Don’t play with any sort of passion.” Some, like Castellanos, seem not to care, but others may simply avoid all controversy. We’ve seen some horrific injuries due to being hit by a pitch-most prominently Giancarlo Stanton’s facial fractures after being hit directly in the face. This prompted a number of players to begin wearing a faceguard attached to their helmets. It is daunting to stand just 60 feet, 6 inches away from a pitcher who can touch triple digits with his fastball, even without having to worry about if said fastball is going to be hurled directly at you.
If you really wanted to “Let the Kids Play” as your advertisements claim, you wouldn’t suspend someone for doing just that, while looking the other way while pitchers attempt to do them harm. It goes without saying that the vast majority of HBPs are unintentional, and the point of this piece is not to claim that Woodford hit Castellanos on purpose. It is merely intended to point out the hypocrisy of claiming that you want players to show more passion while punishing those who do exactly that. A common reason for sports fans not following baseball is that it is “boring.” The league undoubtedly knows this, and the aforementioned marketing campaigns target that demographic. But if you’re not willing to back it up by protecting the players who do as you ask, it is merely empty rhetoric.
There is no easy way to deal with the problematic culture of retaliation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove intent. The best way forward in this regard is to promote a culture where showing passion is encouraged, rather than seen as unsportsmanlike. Obviously, there is a gray area between mere passion for the game and unsportsmanlike behavior. But if you continue to punish those who show emotion, it provides more ammunition to those who will continue to claim that celebrations like bat flips are antithetical to the spirit of baseball.
You still have time to remedy the situation. Castellanos has appealed his suspension, and you would be well advised to grant his appeal. A two-game suspension is not an especially lengthy punishment; the problem instead lies in its inconsistency with your supposed values. The desires of a sports fan today have shifted dramatically with the advent of social media. Today, the most popular athletes are those who produce highlight-worthy clips, rather than those who succeed quietly. Due in large part to this shift, baseball has lagged behind football and basketball in viewership.
Players like Castellanos, who aren’t afraid to display their passion, and other up-and-coming, exuberant stars such as Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr., are how the league is going to attract and retain new baseball fans. It’s past time you recognize that.
A concerned fan.
Coolican: An open letter to Major League Baseball
Dear Major League Baseball,