Sports

By Douglas Farmer

Many perfect summer evenings have long consisted of a hot dog with everything on it, a beer, a scorecard and the crack of the bat. Take one away and what is left? A burger will suffice if need be, and switching to water more often would be better for everyone’s health. Scorecards are already discouragingly rare, so they must not be that crucial to a June Thursday.

Losing the crack of the bat, though, compromises the entire idyllic, Rockwellian notion. Yet, that is exactly what is happening, and aside from dramatic shifts to the rules of baseball, that is exactly what will continue to happen.

Nearly a third of Major League Baseball plate appearances—31.23 percent through May 26—this season have concluded without a swing leading to action. Last year, in the Northwoods League, that figure registered at 33.93 percent. In all of baseball, pitching has gotten better with specialization (21.1 percent of MLB plate appearances end in a strikeout), while batters defer to analytics and wait for a specific pitch (8.9 percent, walks).

Enter a defiant hero with eye-catching hair and a catchphrase encapsulated on a cap, Bryce Harper and his tongue-in-cheek cheer, to “Make Baseball Fun Again.” By no means does Harper intend to change the game’s official rules—MLB’s competition committee has already proposed raising the bottom edge of the strike zone. Instead, the Washington Nationals slugger and reigning National League MVP prefers to challenge baseball’s unwritten rules.

He is not alone. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Cuban immigrant Yasiel Puig endorsed Harper’s Opening Day rallying cry, along with others across baseball, including Chicago Cubs manager, Joe Maddon.

They have a point, and a realistic one at that. No, they do not intend to swing recklessly to produce more meek groundouts and lazy fly balls. They would rather celebrate their successes with more grandeur. Less than three percent of MLB plate appearances end in a home run. A far smaller selection of those homers are punctuated by a bat flip, at least partly due to the polite, even stodgy, behavior long expected on the diamond.

But why suppress those moments? To quote Puig, “Bat flips are just an emotional expression—not about taunting the pitcher.”

Those same players are not expected to color between the lines on their way to the big league. Go to any minor league game, or, more appropriately, go to a Loggers game. The players are encouraged to interact with the fans. Every half-inning is punctuated by some gimmick or contest, and as often as not, a player is involved in some small way or another.

If you listen to Copeland Park’s seeming anthem, we should all hang on with Sloopy and do what feels so good.

So should the players, be they Loggers or MVPs at the highest level. If not, it will truly devolve into a game of catch between pitcher and catcher.

Keep Local Baseball Fun.
Make Baseball Fun Again.

Douglas Farmer grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, before covering sports across the country with stops at The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from Aquinas High School in 2008 and from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now spends his professional time keeping an eye on the latter’s football team.