Playing the right way?

The most overused, overwrought cliché in baseball? Play the game the right way. What does that even mean, though? The answer to that question must take into account three important factors: When, Who, and Where.

When. We learn this game as children, when our reasoning skills are developing and our emotional awareness is in its infancy. The reason grown men cry and cheer and cuss and throw beers at baseball games is because baseball turns us into our 8-year-old selves for three hours (or five hours, if it’s a Red Sox-Yankees game).

Who. Everyone who’s played or watched baseball has learned about the game from someone. We could have been taught by Dad, an uncle, a grandmother, maybe a beloved Little League coach. Someone taught us how to play before MLB Network and "Baseball Tonight" began bombarding us with new catch phrases for homers and endless highlights of bat flips, punch-outs, and diving plays.

I learned about baseball from my dad. A former professional player himself, with a degree in Psychology from Stanford, my father hammered one nail of an idea into my brain over and over again: “Son, it takes NO talent to hustle.” And so I hustled. I never flipped bats, celebrated excessively, or anything else. I never even thought about doing those things. Whatever one’s personal opinions about these ever-changing “unwritten” rules, they were implanted by someone during childhood. 

Where? I’m from suburban Northern California. I grew up an avid fan of the entire Oakland Athletics, and one San Francisco Giant: Will Clark, because of his beautiful swing. The only baseball-related altercations we had involved over zealous slides into second base or balls being thrown too close to someone’s head. I never thought about bat flips as sources of debate until I caused benches to clear with one of my own against the University of Arizona in 2002. I had never heard of Dallas Braden’s “Respect My Mound” idea, and we grew up forty miles apart. Original location might be the most important piece in a baseball player’s fundamental development.

The longer I played baseball, the more I realized that across America, that cliché – Play the game the right way – actually means something very specific: Play the game MY way.

After the 2011 baseball season, I accepted a contract to play baseball for the Toros Del Este of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. I’d just completed my tenth pro season, but had missed most of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

When I arrived in the Dominican, one of the first people I met was a young, power-hitting American first baseman in the Padres system. He had been called up for a month or two the year before, but really struggled, and was down in the Dominican for more at-bats. After the usual pleasantries, we boarded a bus to San Francisco de Macoris to take on the Gigantes. On the way, we had a conversation I’ll never forget. (I am paraphrasing here, because I can’t remember the exact wording. So much for never forgetting.)

Him: “Bro, wait till you see a game here. It’s incredible.”

Me: “Whaddaya mean? Like, the atmosphere or something? I’ve seen a lot of games.”

Him: “No, everyone pimps everything down here. Everything: groundball base hit in the four hole: huge bat toss, and wait until you see the antics after homers. It’s unbelievable, I love it. I can’t wait to hit a homer and pimp the hell out of it. The best part is that no one cares. It’s just part of the game down here. The pitchers will do ridiculous fist pumps after strikeouts, and infielders will pimp ground balls. It’s crazy!”

Me: “Seriously, all of that is just part of the game?”

Him: “Yep. Part of the game.”

At a truck stop in the middle of our long drive, a vendor was selling handmade jewelry, including brightly painted rosaries. My new friend bought one of the rosaries and then outlined his plan.

“I’m going to hit a bomb today, pop this rosary out of my jersey, and spin it around my neck before I walk halfway down the line.”

When the game began, it didn’t take long for this Ruthian prophecy to come true. He hit a towering home run 450 feet, stood there, popped the chain, spun it around his neck, looked at me in the dugout and walked half way to first. My first instinct was to look into the other dugout, where the Gigantes seemed to find the display funny, as did our dugout. He came in after his trot around the bases and we laughed and laughed. Baseball is supposed to be fun, and we were having fun. Had the same thing happened during a game in the U.S., the other dugout would have freaked out, both teams would have to play the “Hold me back, no hold me back” posturing game we play when we’re all too scared to fight (everyone except Jeff Samardzija). There was no fake posturing, nobody’s feelings were hurt, the pitcher didn’t care. Just a part of the game.

The next day I asked some of the local players why they participated in what I’d been taught was excessive celebratory behavior. Their consensus answer was perfect and humbling. They explained that most of them hadn’t spent much time in school beyond fifth grade, and they practiced baseball all day because they didn’t want to chop sugar cane in the fields or do laundry at Casa De Campo, the main resort in town. Job opportunities were slim, and job opportunities with potential upside were nearly nonexistent. They weren’t flipping the bat to show up the pitcher. They were flipping the bat to show everyone watching that they appreciated where they were, and that they really, truly loved playing baseball. They pimped everything, and it was awesomely poetic.

Every day on our way to the ballpark, we passed a large field, almost always with a bunch of kids practicing. The style of baseball on that rundown field was the same as the style I saw in our professional games. The kids in La Romana were learning a very different style of baseball than what I’d learned in California. The main point of their practice, however, was the same as mine: learning to score more runs than the other team. The more one practices, the better one gets and, ideally, the better the opportunity. More than their abilities and their accomplishments, these kids celebrated their opportunities. Their celebrations were, in essence, highly personal thank-you notes to the game for the opportunities.

My experience in the Dominican Winter League shifted my point of view. As I played the game I loved in a different country with a different set of unwritten rules, I was forced to adapt. Down there, I didn’t get mad when someone watched a home run. I wasn’t bothered when the pitcher celebrated after he struck me out. And there were a lot of strikeouts. Still, I enjoyed learning from my teammates. I also didn’t change the way I played, I still ran out ground balls, still hustled to back up first, still played to win, still played the way I was taught. I played my version of the right way. Plain and simple, I was what I had learned. 

When we watch Major League Baseball in 2015, we are watching the game’s elite, through the lens of what we have learned. These players bring their own unique perspectives, their own nuances, their own personalities to the field. Foreign players do their best to learn unwritten rules in a foreign language. Some are written off as hot dogs or showboats, when in many (but not all) cases, they are merely showing anyone watching how much they love playing baseball.

I challenge baseball fans to learn a little more about the players and the situations that lead to confrontations in baseball; ask questions that go beyond whatever statistical acronym we create next. When and where did your favorite player grow up? Who taught him the game? If we’re supposed to “act like we’ve been there before,” how come the power hitters that go there the most often are the ones we allow to stand at home plate and watch their home runs? Our media has taught young players that acting like they’ve been there before must involve some sort of Brett Boone-esque bat flip. It will teach a new generation of kids to shoot imaginary arrows after pitching accomplishments, pantomime deer antlers or binoculars after base hits, and (we hope) take home run celebration to a new, unforeseen level. It must be incredibly difficult for a Yankee fan to watch David Ortiz become a spectator to one of his clutch home runs, but ask yourself: Had you hit that baseball on baseball’s biggest stage, how would you act?

That first baseman from my winter-ball team was Anthony Rizzo, who (in my view) plays the game the right way. Without him calling his own shot, my point of view might not have shifted. That moment gave me the courage to reassess what I had learned, allowed me room to grow as a student of baseball.

When we discuss these things unwritten, there are no absolutes. I do, however, know one thing. I know that the more I watch the game, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the more I find how little I actually know.