Athletes sometimes do stupid things. That’s because athletes are people, and people sometimes do stupid things – Johnny Knoxville, for instance, has somehow made a living out of it. So when athletes do stupid things, the most one should really do is laugh – mistakes are not a referendum on one’s character.
Nick Young took a shot that looked like it was going in – watching live, even I had thought so – so he turned around and raised his arms in celebration, only to realize the ball had spun out. After the miss, Young, or “Swaggy P,” got a little annoyed that he missed and got back on defense.
That was the end of the play.
Neither Amare Stoudemire nor Pablo Prigioni, nor any other Knick, chided Young after the play or even after the game (though it didn’t help that they had lost to Young’s team by 34 points). Fans weren’t angry at Young for “disrespecting the game” or “showing up” his opponent – we laughed. We GIF’d and Vine’d the play, chalked it up to Swaggy P being Swaggy P.
What Nick Young did on that play is, in reality, no different than what Carlos Gomez had done on Easter Sunday.
Gomez hit what he believed was a home run, flipped his bat, and took a couple of slow, admiring steps out of the box only to realize the ball had hit the wall, at which point he hauled ass to third base. It was a play that, at most, deserved a facepalm (especially for Brewers fans, considering that Gomez had potentially cost himself an inside-the-park home run).
Pirates’ starter Gerrit Cole, however, took exception to this, and shouldered the responsibility of reminding Gomez of baseball’s normative decorum – never mind the fact that Sunday’s was only the 23rd start of Cole’s career while Gomez is an eight year veteran, or that Gomez’s pre-mature celebration saved Cole and his team of an earned run – because baseball, you see, must be played “the right way,” which is to say that baseball must be played in a manner approved by folks like Gerrit Cole.
Incidents like this don’t happen that often, but they occur often enough that a familiar pattern has begun to emerge. Just last season we had different situations involving Carlos Gomez and Brian McCann, and Jose Fernandez and McCann. In each of these three situations a white, American ballplayer has decided to inform a Latin American player how they can/cannot act, and how they can/cannot celebrate their considerable feats.
(Gerrit Cole claims to have allegedly told Gomez that he can celebrate if he hits a home run, yet McCann took exception to Fernandez and Gomez celebrating after home runs – so apparently even the Protectors of the Game can’t agree on the “right way to play the game.”)
That a 23 year old in his first full big league season believes he can tell a veteran player like Carlos Gomez how to handle himself speaks, at best, to his personal privilege as a kid from Newport Beach, California, and, at worst, to his (false) sense of paternalism, an attitude which – no doubt – has been fostered by the game’s prevailing white power structure.
In 2012, Major League Baseball was 63.9% white – a number which doesn’t take into account all of the white coaches, scouts, executives, etc. around the game – and 26.9% Latino. That same year, the NBA was 78% African-American, and a majority of NBA head coaches were people of color. There’s a reason why Nick Young’s mistake is brushed off while Gomez’s is considered “disrespectful to the game”; there are no “unwritten rules” in the NBA or the NFL, but there are in baseball and golf. In a league dominated by white American culture, the majority has taken it upon themselves to dictate, judge and otherwise punish the behavior of others – assimilate, or face consequences.
Worse, this nonexistent code of conduct is seemingly enforced by umpires and the commissioner’s office, which appeared to be the case last season when Bryan Morris (perhaps not coincidentally of the Pittsburgh Pirates) plunked Jordany Valdespin after he “pimped” a home run one night earlier and faced no retribution (thanks to Zachary Levine for bringing this to my attention). Major League Baseball’s failure to suspend Morris, Cole or Brian McCann, is an implicit endorsement of these players’ actions. Their failure sends a message that white ballplayers have carte blanche to say or do whatever they’d like to black or brown players without repercussion; it sends a message to black and brown players that they cannot react to those rules henceforth established by their white counterparts, lest they be branded as “thugs.”
This isn’t to defend the actions of Carlos Gomez, he clearly overreacted, but an overreaction is the result of consistently being told that you’re not carrying yourself correctly, or playing the game properly – even if you led the entire league in bWAR last year. As Tomas Rios told me on Twitter, Gomez has taken so much shit over the years that he’s simply decided to stop taking it – he’s earned his place in the game, same as McCann and especially Cole. He’s one of the best players in the entire sport, who the fuck is Gerrit Cole to tell him what he can or cannot do?
These incidents, however, aren’t truly about “respecting the game” or “playing the game the right way” (Craig Calcaterra’s done a pretty good job of illustrating why that’s bullshit), after all one of the most storied (and perhaps apocryphal) moments in baseball history is Babe Ruth’s “called shot” during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. (Could you imagine the reaction if Yasiel Puig had done this?) What these incidents are about is one group of people enforcing certain behaviors and attitudes on others without consideration for their own cultural norms. This does not mean that they’re racist, rather that they’re staking a false ownership claim over the culture of baseball.
Baseball does not have to represent all things to all people; it’s a game that is played differently all over the world, whether in the US, Japan, Cuba or the Netherlands. Kids in the Dominican Republic and kids in Orange County both grow up playing baseball, but they might learn to play different styles of baseball in the same sense that English is spoken in England, the US and Jamaica, but they’re all different dialects – different cultures have adopted the game and made it their own.
(There’s an argument to be made – one that I do not possess the data nor time to make – that baseball’s cultural exclusivity plays a role in Major League Baseball’s steady decline in African-American players. Sure, blacks and Latinos can play big league ball, but if the sport isn’t accepting of their cultures and personalities, why would they want to play baseball if they could play a sport like basketball, where their cultures and personalities aren’t just accepted, but embraced? Characters like Nick Young/Swaggy P, JaVale/Pierre McGee or Ron Artest/Metta World Peace could never exist in baseball, the closest we’ve ever gotten are Nyjer Morgan’s “Tony Plush” days in Milwaukee, and he found himself in Japan two years later [though he’s back now].)
If Major League Baseball wishes to become the globalized sport that they clearly aspire to, they cannot, and should not, expect for their players to assimilate into this milquetoast version of baseball we play here in the States. Carlos Gomez – a man whose playing style places his body at risk of injury on a nightly basis – plays the game “the right way.” So, too, does Brian McCann; and Gerrit Cole; and every other player in baseball. That’s because there is no right way. Everyone who has ever stepped foot on a baseball diamond – whether they be from California, the DR, Japan or any other place where baseball is played – has their own way of playing the game, none is more right than the next.
Likewise, maybe there’s no way to “respect the game” other than by playing hard and embracing the styles, cultures and norms of all others who do, even those who “pimp” on triples – as the old pimping proverb goes: game recognize game.