If the World Baseball Classic taught us anything about our "national pastime," it might be that some other countries have a lot more fun playing baseball than we do.
Maybe it comes from having your country’s name on your uniform -- especially for Latin players -- but when Nelson Cruz hit that huge home run to help the Dominican Republic score a heart-stopping comeback victory over the United States in the first round, his joy was unrestrained and nobody in a Team USA jersey complained after the game that he was violating some stodgy unwritten code of conduct.
Nobody said, "Hey Nelson, act like you've been there." No one begrudged him or the Dominican fans for the excessive celebration of their magic Miami moment. But for some reason, it took a year to let go of Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista's notorious bat flip in the 2015 playoffs.
Sure, there's a difference. Bautista's defiant reaction after his decisive home run in Game 5 of that American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers was an in-your-face, get-off-of-my-cloud eruption in a hotly contested and high-stakes game. Still, the backlash was way over the top.
Cruz's immediate reaction had nothing to do with who his team was playing. It was all about his own team and his country, and it was so spontaneous, so jubilant and so sincere that anyone watching could identify with it. Team USA didn't enjoy it very much, of course, but it was obvious during the tournament that even the American and Asian players were shedding their old-school inhibitions and joining in the fun.
Well, not entirely. Second baseman Ian Kinsler dropped an old-school rant about playing the game the right way before Team USA trounced Puerto Rico, 8-0, in the final on Wednesday night, but more than 50,000 fans didn’t pack Dodger Stadium to watch the players on either team look like they weren’t having a good time.
“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays,” Kinsler told the New York Times. “That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”
Kinsler and his teammates certainly seemed to be having a great time when Adam Jones, Christian Yelich and a dozen or so teammates were running laps with the American flag after winning Team USA’s first WBC title.
To be fair, every team and nationality has its own way of displaying its passion for baseball. But the WBC creates a unique opportunity for that passion to cross cultural boundaries because so many American players and coaches with ancestral connections to other countries are able to take part in the event on those teams.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter often talks about his experiences traveling to other baseball-playing nations in the Western Hemisphere and marveling at the level of energy and excitement on the field and in the stands. The WBC put that on display at each location across the globe and even the staunchest traditionalists had to see how well it played.
This much is certain. It’s going to take a long time to wipe the smile off of Jones’ face. He came up huge in the WBC – with his bat, with his glove and with his leadership – and it has been obvious that he enjoyed every minute of it.
That's great for him, and the WBC has been a terrific showcase for the Orioles stars who chose to take part in it. But there's a different takeaway here, partly because Team USA won the tournament for the first time and partly because of the times we live in.
Major League Baseball has been trying for years to attract more young fans and make the sport more appealing to a generation of budding African-American athletes who have increasingly gravitated toward basketball and football. The result has been a solid effort to increase baseball opportunities for urban kids and all sorts of rules changes intended to shorten games and make them more television-friendly.
MLB's RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) has done a great job of adding youth baseball infrastructure in urban areas around the country and needs to continue that effort. But the obsession with changing the way the major league game is played might be missing the point.
The celebratory atmosphere in the WBC games involving the Latin countries was infectious and added to the playoff-caliber drama even in the first round-robin pools.
MLB Network broadcasters Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz pointed out during Tuesday night's game between the U.S. and Japan that the staid and disciplined Japanese team even tended to be more animated when pitted against a more demonstrative opponent. What nobody seemed to be talking about was how the games were too long, even though some lasted four hours.
It would be foolhardy to predict that this just-completed WBC will change the way baseball is played in the major leagues, but there is a new generation of major league stars who seem more open to wearing their emotions like commemorative sleeve patches when the competition gets hot and heavy. Even if some veterans like Kinsler are not.
Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper made headlines nearly a year ago when he called out the old school in an ESPN The Magazine article and said that baseball had become "tired." He defended histrionics like Bautista's bat flip and said it's time for MLB to celebrate the personalities and passions of the games' exciting stars instead of trying to repress them.
"It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself," he said. "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."
There were other young stars, including Machado, who agreed with Harper. So, maybe we're already on the cusp of a new era in which players will be able to put their passion for the game on full display without evoking the wrath of their elders.
If you watched the WBC, you already know what that might look like.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.