Baseball's cultural collision works

BY foxsports • October 17, 2013

Adrian Gonzalez hit two home runs Wednesday that helped the Dodgers beat the Cardinals, 6-4, and survive another game in the National League Championship Series. After the first of them, he celebrated by using his hands to flash “Mickey Mouse” ears toward his teammates as he neared the Dodgers’ dugout.

“Just having fun,” a smiling Gonzalez explained to me after the game.

He was having fun. All of us could tell that. But was it just about fun, as he said?

I don’t think so.

As cartoon references go, this one was serious business: Gonzalez was publicly – if lightheartedly – asserting his team’s right to play the game as it chooses. And I’m glad he did it.

The backstory: After Game 3, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright criticized Gonzalez for what he described as a “Mickey Mouse” gesture while celebrating an RBI double in the fourth inning. Wainwright also said – with a disapproving tone – that Gonzalez had been talking to him while leading off third base later in the inning. The Cardinals also frowned upon Puig’s bat flip in the same game.

By speaking out, Wainwright implied that he – and the Cardinals themselves – knew the proper way to play Major League Baseball, while the Dodgers did not. For a few moments, at least, Wainwright turned his postgame news conference into an impromptu seminar on proper baseball etiquette.

Wainwright is well-credentialed to speak on the subject. He’s one of the most respected big game pitchers in the sport. He’s played for the Cardinals – the best organization in baseball – since 2005. He’s made two All-Star appearances. He’s earned two World Series rings. He’s a big leaguer in every sense of the term.

But as we’ve learned this year, no player or team – not even Wainwright, not even the Cardinals – can claim to be the ultimate adjudicator of how the game ought to be played. As the population of major league players grows more international and diverse, the norms of what we see on the field will evolve, as well. And those bursts of self-expression – celebrations … elaborate fist pumps … mouse ears – should be cherished, not chastised. That’s particularly true during the postseason, when more eyeballs around the world are focused on the sport.

The Baseball Code is changing. Innovators are drafting new versions of the sacred text. A number of these scholars – Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez – happen to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And so the NLCS is unfolding as a sort of cultural collision between the old-school Cardinals and new-school Dodgers. I’ve found it wildly entertaining – not because I believe one side must triumph over the other, but because there’s plenty of room in our national pastime for the styles to coexist.

The Cardinals won’t change – and shouldn’t. “The Cardinal Way” is being lauded throughout the sport as the model for homegrown success, a union of smart drafting, conscientious player development, and fundamental soundness. Continuity is king. It works in St. Louis. It might not in L.A.

The Dodgers are different – different market, different owners, different payroll, different expectations, different roster. Not surprisingly, the brand of baseball is different, too. And clearly there is something right about the 2013 Dodgers – including the Puig bat-flips – because they led the majors with an average home crowd of 46,216. That was nearly 5,000 fans per game higher than the No. 2 team – the St. Louis Cardinals.

Puig, who was born in Cuba and only began playing in the U.S. last year, has rookie lapses. He has the potential to misplay a ball in right field or run into an out on the bases. He also has the No. 3-selling jersey among all MLB players this year, even though he didn’t reach the majors until June. Apparently, the paying customers – many of them young, the next generation of baseball fans – want to see Puig in all his unrestrained glory. Wednesday, that meant watching him lash a single to right in the second and then glare at an umpire, hands perched demonstrably on his hips, after striking out in the fourth. I laughed when I saw that from the press box. It’s all part of the show.

I don’t want the Dodgers to change. I don’t want the Cardinals to change, either. There are a lot of different ways to play the greatest game in the world. I’m lucky to be watching two of them in the NLCS.