MLB must evolve to let players express themselves without rebuke

Carlos Gomez is restrained by umpire Fieldin Culbreth after being chastised by Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole.

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Sorry, everyone. I must have been busy waiting for Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales to sign when this transaction came across the wire:

NATIONAL LEAGUE — Named Gerrit Cole as Special Baseball Ethics Instructor to Carlos Gomez, succeeding Brian McCann.

Look, I can’t support everything Gomez does. Sunday’s bat toss and trot to first on what he thought was a home run probably cost the Brewers a run. With his speed, he could have had an inside-the-park homer if he had sprinted out of the box; instead, his potential run was stranded at third base.

It’s also difficult to defend the way Gomez turned a verbal altercation with Cole into a physical one, touching off a benches-clearing melee in Pittsburgh. 

But for the most part, Gomez needs to be celebrated — not discouraged — for what he brings to major league baseball. At a time when the sport’s message on instant replay and home-plate collisions has become muddled, Gomez illuminates an even greater concern: Why do major league players take exception to peers who have the audacity to enjoy themselves on a baseball field?

If Gomez’s story sounds familiar, it should. Replace "Carlos Gomez" with "Yasiel Puig" or "Jose Fernandez," and the basic theme holds true: A Latin American-born player has become a star in the major leagues, and he’s supposed to "tone down" his celebrations and remove the individuality from his game because "we don’t do that here."

Well . . . why not? Because baseball’s playing, coaching, executive and media establishments don’t remember Joe DiMaggio pimping his home runs? Why do the old unwritten rules apply when there has been such profound change in the demographics of those playing — and watching — the game? Shouldn’t our national pastime mirror the evolving desires of the U.S. ticket-buying public in the social media age?

MLB has, in fact, enhanced its marketing efforts on numerous fronts, seeking to draw fans and prospective players from new and more diverse populations. But what message do current players send when they discourage opponents — and even teammates — from performing in a way that would broaden the game’s appeal?

Gomez, 28, was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, the country that accounts for the largest share of major leaguers outside the United States. He grew up in a different baseball culture than Cole, a 23-year-old native of Newport Beach, Calif., who attended UCLA. Both should be free to express themselves — and entertain the paying customers — as they wish, without fearing rebuke from the other.

I’ll never understand why it’s OK for football, basketball and soccer players to celebrate great plays, but baseball players are supposed to stifle their emotion for fear of "showing up" the other team. The double standard is nonsensical and counterproductive to baseball’s growth. Gomez, an All-Star last year, plays with the sort of style that kids should want to emulate on playgrounds and in the backyard. Apparently Cole wanted Gomez to remain artificially stoic.

That’s not to criticize Cole personally or suggest that he demonstrated some bias toward Gomez. This is an institutional failing within baseball, perpetuated by caretakers of "The Code" that veterans explain to rookies. I do believe basic tenets of sportsmanship must apply. But if Gomez rockets a ball to center against a division rival and tosses his bat out of competitive joie de vivre, then, really, where is the harm in that?

Jackie Robinson’s legacy was at the forefront of the nation’s sports conversation last week, as MLB commemorated the 67th anniversary of his debut. Robinson secured the right of all people to play baseball at the highest level, regardless of race or country of origin. But now the sport of Robinson needs to evolve again — this time, from the inside. It’s not enough for the world’s best players to have access to the major leagues. They must be given the platform to succeed, entertain and — yes — express themselves. The game’s future depends on it, whether The Code’s protectors realize it or not.