Bryce Harper Praised for Blasting Unwritten Rules, But Why Are People So Fixated on Them?


Reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper is profiled by Tim Keown in the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine. He’s accurately painted as the infinitely talented and independent-minded face of baseball’s future.

Harper doesn’t mince words when it comes to his thoughts on the sport’s unwritten rules.

"“Baseball’s tired,” he says. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun."

"“Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling — hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry.”"

"He stops, looks around. The hell with it, he’s all in."

"“If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”"

As expected, people are tripping over each other to pat Harper on the back for his progressive views on celebration. Perhaps no one suffered more last year than the young outfielder as a result of the nebulous unwritten rules and Jonathan Papelbon’s interpretation of them.

Harper’s status as one of the game’s best players affords him the platform to speak on ways to improve baseball going forward. It also affords him the latitude to push the envelope in that department should he wish.

Allow me, though, to once again don my Luddite cloak and attempt to parse some issues that need ironing out before opening my arms to an anything-goes situation of extended celebrations after every event.

First, Harper’s suggestion that kids will turn away from the sport because they can’t celebrate like Steph Curry, LeBron James or Cam Newton doesn’t hold water. Admittedly, it’s difficult to suss out just where the opportunity for theatrics ranks in order of importance when choosing a youth sport, but my assertion would be that it’s near the bottom of the list. Aptitude, enjoyment and congruence with peer interest would seem to be larger factors.

Also, is youth baseball overrun with 11- and 12-year-olds enforcing old-school etiquette and stifling fun? Do college games look like a soul-sucking, joyless bore? Isn’t it only professional baseball that’s supposedly been handcuffed by the emotion police?

The narrative that baseball is hemorrhaging youth participation is also an idea that needs contextualization. My colleague Jason Lisk looked at the numbers last summer and found that decline in team sport participation isn’t just a baseball issue.

"Here are the changes from 2009 to 2014 in youth participation rates, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) (as summarized here), for the top 11 highest-participated team sports in the United States: Basketball (-6.8%) Soccer (-8.4%) Baseball (-4.3%) Tackle Football (-17.9%) Touch Football (-32.4%) Indoor Soccer (-11.6%) Volleyball (Indoor) (-21.4%) Slow Pitch Softball (-11.2%) Fast Pitch Softball (+1.2%) Lacrosse (+28.8%) Ice Hockey (+43.7%)"

That data suggests basketball and football — sports perceived to be open to shows of emotional celebration — are losing kids at a higher rate than baseball.

Baseball has clutched to old-school traditions more tightly than other sports. At times the code of conduct seems archaic, especially in a world with the Carolina Panthers, three-point goggles and choreographed soccer routines. Casual fans of the one-time National Pastime have long shouted that the sky is falling if changes aren’t made. Evolve or die.

Harper’s comments have initially been well-received by virtually every media person I’ve seen weigh in thus far.

It strikes me as interesting, though, how prominent the issue of unwritten rules is for the non-diehard baseball fan. It seems to be the one topic that holds the interest of the casual observers.

I can’t speak for all who live and breathe baseball but the inordinate time and energy spent fighting for the right to flip a bat after a home run amuses me. Of all the complex and beautiful parts of the game, the fixation on this old school-new school schism seems like a relatively unimportant topic.

Personally, I believe Harper and his fellow players should play the game with as much honest emotion and joy as they see fit without fear of wearing a 97-mph fastball. But the moment that emotion and showmanship becomes contrived and is pimped for the cameras, it loses some of the magic and joy.

So while it’s refreshing to see one of the best players be so candid on the topic, it’s also worth considering editing the unwritten rules of baseball in lieu of throwing them out completely.

It’s not an all or nothing proposition. There are traditions that should stay and traditions that should expire. So often the discussion is painted so that there are two factions eternally doomed to never compromise. It’s nice to hold out hope that some give and take could yield a fun, yet respectful game.