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Modern Baseball Has Everything Going for it Except an Identity

Modern Baseball Has Everything Going for it Except an Identity : Illustration by Joseph Ciardiello

Illustration by Joseph Ciardiello

“Baseball is a bunch of thinking,” a New Jersey 15-year-old told The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher in April, “and I live a different lifestyle than baseball.” This was in one of the “baseball is dying” articles that arrive every year around opening day and then again usually in October, even amid record revenue and attendance, unprecedented labor peace and billion-dollar television deals. This is a very baseball thing—even in triumph, the sport can be counted on to worry aloud that it’s too meditative, too smart, too good for this world.

But if the game cannot and should not mess with its beautiful, languorous essence, it’s worth noting that baseball in 2015 is kind of boring—not because of its pace or aesthetics but because of its personality.

Because of how the game is shaped, baseball does not allow as much on-field expression as other sports. Watching Russell Westbrook assault the basket or Marshawn Lynch vaporize a defensive back is thrilling because of the style and personality that animate the performance. Baseball players, by contrast, mostly do things the same way, out of necessity—there are only so many ways to throw a slider and even fewer ways to hit one.

And when Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals’ ultra-brash 22-year-old prodigy, experimented in spring training with luring base runners into testing his laser of an arm through some strategic lollygagging, his manager quickly shut it down. Not because it didn’t work—Harper threw the baited runner out—but because it’s risky and because such things are just not done.

Baseball’s unwritten rules are followed a lot more scrupulously than its written ones. These rules had a purpose back in the game’s raggedy prehistory. “The early struggle of pro baseball was to transform itself from a place for rowdies and gamblers to something you could feel comfortable bringing the kids to,” says baseball writer Steven Goldman. “It’s amazing how much of the early ethos of the game was avoiding conflict through not embarrassing the other guy.”

Generations on, baseball continues to police itself with grim, constipated zeal. If Yasiel Puig has the audacity to act impressed after doing something awesome, he’ll be dodging fastballs and salty quotes from opponents. Mets closer Jenrry Mejia’s elaborately choreographed victory celebrations drew priggish public criticism from his own manager.

There are other, practical reasons for baseball’s personality deficit—more than a quarter of big leaguers speak English as a second language, and American-born MLB players are more likely to be white, well-to-do and from a handful of warm-weather states than before. If the various interchangeable white dudes of Major League Baseball all seem alike—an ocean of tall guys with beards—it’s because they mostly are.

While baseball is currently without radicals like Dock Ellis—the cornrowed iconoclast who pitched a no-hitter while frying on acid back in 1970—there are exceptions to the scrupulously square rule. David Ortiz says and does whatever the hell he wants, and we’re all richer for it; Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy is as funny as anyone on Twitter; Puig’s pound-for-pound swagger is unmatched in any sport. These are outliers, but they’re a start, and a reminder that the sport could close the fun deficit if it wanted to. Baseball is not dying, which is good. It might as well live a little.

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