You’re forgiven if, in the middle of Monday’s freak snowstorm, you forgot that it was Opening Day in Major League Baseball for the majority of the league’s 30 teams. After a long offseason, baseball is finally back.
Of course, there’s another reason you might have forgotten that baseball has started again: The sport is less popular than ever, or at least, that’s what baseball haters will make you believe. They’ll tell you the game is too slow, too boring and without enough offense or fun to keep millennials engaged.
At the root of those problems lie the unwritten rules of the game, a code that dictates how players are supposed to act on the diamond. For example, if one of your guys gets hit by a pitch, your pitcher is required to drill an opponent the next inning. If you celebrate too much after hitting a homer, that’s a 90-mile-per-hour fastball to the ribs. And you better not run across the pitcher’s mound heading back to the dugout after an out, because that also means you’re going to be targeted soon enough. (Sense a pattern?)
It’s shocking how much certain acts are looked down on by some of the game’s greats. In last year’s playoffs, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista hit a three-run dinger to give the Jays a lead in a hugely critical moment. He celebrated with a bat flip of epic proportions — which, needless to say, irked a number of his Texas Ranger opponents.
It also irked Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage, who called Bautista a “disgrace to the game” and “embarrassing.”
Enter Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
Harper, the 22-year-old wunderkind who was the No. 1 overall pick at 17 and the National League MVP a year ago, has long been targeted by opponents and critics as someone who “doesn’t play the game the right way.” He celebrates in big moments, going so far to even blow a kiss once to a pitcher who he homered off of. He named his dog Swag. He says bold things, unafraid of the consequences.
And after hitting his fourth career Opening Day home run on Monday, in his fourth career Opening Day, he talked to reporters following the game while wearing a hat emblazoned “Make Baseball Fun Again.”
Now, I’m not claiming to be a fan of Harper. His obvious cockiness and brashness make him an easy target, and as a former baseball player (though I topped out at the high school varsity level, a far cry from the bigs), those players are the ones I hated to face.
But in this case, Harper is completely right. And to prove his point, one only needs to look at a childhood hero of mine: Ken Griffey Jr.
Junior, the longtime sweet-swinging center fielder for the Seattle Mariners, is one of the best players in baseball history. From the day he debuted in 1989 as a 19-year-old to his final season in 2010, Griffey electrified a staid game. His batting stance was imitated by every Little Leaguer for well over a decade, and his flashy defense sure didn’t hurt either.
Griffey changed the game of baseball, and even the country as a whole.
“The Kid” starred in movies, had video games named after him and even had a chocolate bar. He was the “Swingman” to Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman.” And, most notably, he popularized the trend of wearing hats backward.
When he started turning his hat around, he, like Harper, faced backlash from traditionalists such as then-Yankees manager Buck Showalter, who called it “a lack of respect for the game.”
That “lack of respect” was turned on its head in January, if it had not been long before, when Griffey was elected to the Hall of Fame by a record margin, with 99.3 percent of voters putting him on their ballot. The Hall even offered Griffey the option to wear a backwards hat on his Cooperstown plaque.
Griffey’s career changed the game and made millions of kids fall in love with America’s national pastime, and he did so through his infectious attitude and, yes, his desire to have fun. Harper seems poised to do the same. Yet why do so many people try to shut players like them down and halt this natural evolution?
There are too many young stars, too many incredible moments, too many causes for celebration to let this game be boring.
Harper is right. Let’s make baseball fun again.
Grant Bronsdon is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and former Sports Editor for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .