Chris Crowder: Make baseball fun again

Sunday, April 10, 2016 - 2:58pm

Imagine if Michael Jordan in his prime said basketball was boring. It would be sadder than the frequency with which we use the crying Jordan meme. Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper — arguably one of the top two young players in the game — said baseball is tired. Last week, he sported a hat that read, “Make Baseball Fun Again.”

I know from playing baseball for more than a decade of my life that it can be really fun or really boring. Making a diving catch in the outfield attempting to impress the softball team? Fun. Taking down stats and tracking the pitch count on the bench while eating a Subway sandwich with chips on it in 40-degree weather? Not fun.

As for Major League Baseball, the reason it isn’t fun is because there are unwritten rules that are too uptight. Not all of these rules are bad — my particular favorite is giving the opposing team a taste of its own medicine. If the opposing pitcher sends a mid-90s fastball to your teammate’s dome, you as a pitcher are basically contractually obligated to do the same thing in the next half inning. It’s like an honor code. If the benches clear, bonus. If you throw down the batter who charges at you like a sack of potatoes, even better. Here’s to you, Rick Porcello.

But the one unwritten rule I find incredibly stupid is that bat flips are a no-no. For those of you who don’t know, a bat flip is when the batter obliterates a ball over the wall with no doubt, and instead of setting the bat down like a gentleman, they toss the bat in the air as to say, “Won’t be needing this anymore.” If you haven’t seen it before, it’s majestic. The Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista did it so beautifully in the playoffs last season that a fan had the scene tattooed on his leg. I get goosebumps when I watch the replay as popcorn rains down from the upper deck of Rogers Centre.

However, players in Korea make bat flips an art form. Choi Jun-seok even did one off of a foul ball. You’re not supposed to do that, but more props to him. If that happened in the MLB, benches would no doubt clear, because, of course, it’s in the unwritten rules. The Fake Unwritten Rules Of Baseball, section eight, article seven: No bat flips, and if you flip your bat on a foul ball, Babe Ruth will haunt your dreams for eternity.

The problem with baseball purists — which include former and current MLB players and fans — is that hating bat flips is more about hating personality. Baseball purists want every player to act the same: to shut their mouths, hold onto their bats and not showboat. But some of the most beloved players were different from the norm. Ozzie Smith did backflips in the '80s. Ty Cobb put fear into middle infielders in the first two decades of the 20th century by sharpening his spikes. Prince Fielder will eat a fan’s nachos and Justin Verlander used to eat Taco Bell before every game. Those are accepted behaviors — well, except for Ty Cobb’s sharpening spikes (his opponents, as well as their fans, hated that).

But why do we hate when a player just wants to be himself? Let Ty Cobb be Ty Cobb. There shouldn’t be any griping when Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers wants to catch a fly ball behind his back or does a bat flip. Who are fans and opposing players to say what an individual should or shouldn’t do in a sport that needs flair because it’s so long and can be boring at times? Different is what makes baseball cool. Baseball is the best sport when its quirkiness from its fans and players come alive. There needs to be more things like fans trolling Hunter Pence with signs like, “Hunter Pence wears socks with sandals,” or how I noticed the Oakland A’s made the Oakland Coliseum the rowdiest and most rambunctious stadium come playoff time. The drums and noise makers were never enough to beat my Tigers every year, though.

Baseball needs crazy. It thrives off it. Fans love it. Like no other sport, it drives millionaires off their rocker to throw temper tantrums like little leaguers. 'Roid rage is a different story. Steroids have no place in the game. Though they led to more home runs, which lead to a higher probability of bat flips, it’s cheating, no matter how impressive the amount of work the players put in is.

Baseball is at its best and more fun when the players are free to be themselves. Baseball needs weirdos, outcasts and villains. It needs players who are way too cocky for their own good and will not be shy to tell you that.

Baseball needs the charm it had while I was playing baseball in high school. We clotheslined each other off walk-off hits, danced in the dugout while we mixed Gatorade and called it Slow Motion Potion. We despised kids on certain teams, my best friend threw knuckleballs in games for the hell of it, and we even got in yelling fights with opponents where benches cleared.

As Bryce Harper who at 23 years old is a kid in the game, wants, the MLB needs to play the sport like they are kids again. Baseball is not adult, it’s not perfect and it’s not vanilla normal. It’s a game when it’s being treated more like a business.

How will we make baseball fun again? We will build a wall keeping the purists out. How are we going to fund it? They will pay for it. I can’t explain how, but they’re going to, and I’m going to make sure of it.

Chris Crowder can be reached at ccrowd@umich.edu