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Community Sports

Quill the umpire: Fun is the name of the game

Chris Rollin Walker
Chris Rollin Walker

Harry Caray often said, “You can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.”

So why is there a limit on how much you can have?

Wait, let me rephrase that question. Why is there a rule, written or unwritten, about having too much fun?

Technically, there isn’t. Rule 3-3-1-f-2 states, “A coach, player, substitute, attendant or other bench personnel shall not commit any unsportsmanlike act to include, but not limited to, use of profanity, intimidation tactics, remarks reflecting unfavorably upon any other person, or taunting or baiting. The NFHS disapproves of any form of taunting. PENALTY: The umpire shall warn the offender unless the offense is judged to be major, in which case an ejection shall occur.”

I saw some of that fun already in these first weeks of the high school baseball season, but I didn’t know what it really was. I watched players slide into second base with doubles and then grab a handful of dirt, rise to their feet, peer in toward the dugout while grimacing with delight and then sprinkle the dirt to the ground. Huh?

Apparently, I’m old and unhip because I was clueless to what I was witnessing, but it was nothing unsportsmanlike. Silly, but nothing that would offend anyone, right?

Thanks to fellow umpire Mike Finstein, I soon found out about this celebration. Apparently Mookie Betts of the Red Sox did this at first base during spring training as homage to, of all things, a video of Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, who became a hit on social media after a video of him flamboyantly sprinkling salt on a carved steak made the rounds. I wonder if Gökçe has ever thrown a baseball, owned a baseball card, such as Billy Ripken’s Fleer from ’89, or even knows the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I’m guessing he’d strike out on all three. Nonetheless, he’s now part of baseball!

While I enjoy celery salt on my Chicago-style hot dogs, I don’t think what Betts did makes him one, but I have to wonder how long before an opposing pitcher or coach gets ticked off about such a display of emotion.

I can imagine hearing it now, “C’mon blue, he’s putting salt in our wounds! That’s blatant taunting!”

Please. Sadly, it’ll probably happen sooner than later. What a shame.

Can’t we just let the players have fun while playing the game? Does everything have to be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb?

If anything, I’m happy kids are doing silly things like guys in the Bigs because it means that they’re watching the pros play the game.

What’s so wrong with someone showing some emotion? If you’re down to your last strike in the bottom of the seventh inning in the deciding game of a conference series and you hammer a three-run walk off homerun, are you just supposed to trot around the bases looking as serious as Christopher Walken and then grab a quick cup of Gatorade before picking up your bat bag and heading to the parking lot and then maybe to Steak ‘N Shake for a post-game treat? Why can’t you shout and give Tears for Fears a little 80s  flashback love to your parents while jumping for joy with your teammates without offending the other team?

The same can be said if the pitcher didn’t surrender such a bomb, but caught the batter looking to seal the victory. Why can’t he jump up in the air, pump his fist, scream “Yes!” and then get mugged by his teammates without hurting the losing team’s feelings?

Now, there certainly is a line, and as umpires we’ll take care of that if it’s crossed and celebrations turn into baiting, taunting or intimidation tactics. My guess is that it’s mostly going to continue being kids having fun, playing the game they love and finally being allowed to show more emotion this spring and beyond.

This has been a hot topic especially after Ian Kinsler of the Tigers took offense to the emotional play of two foreign countries in the World Baseball Classic.

“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,” he said.

What’s Kinsler’s problem?

What he doesn’t realize is the game is changing and it’s far more accepting of emotions from players than it was in the past, and I think it will continue to trend that way.

Consider Jose Bautista’s outrageous bat flip in the 2015 ALDS. Was it extreme? Yes. Was it unforgettable? No. Can you blame Bautista for reacting how he did when delivering such a clutch home run? No, and anyone in their right mind couldn’t.

The Rangers didn’t get over it though and let it linger until the following season and ended up getting into a brawl. Instead of fighting, they should’ve just gone out and beat them, like the Cardinals did to the Giants 30 years ago.

Jeffrey Leonard was the so-called transgressor showing off his “one flap down trot” in the 1987 NLCS. While it may have irritated St. Louis fans, it seemingly inspired the Cardinals who shut out the Giants in the final two games of the best-of-seven series to advance to the World Series.

Jose Oquendo, who blasted a three-run home run in the second inning of the decisive game, said that “[Leonard] didn’t need to do that. But that fired us up. He didn’t need to act like that going around the bases, but he did. And you see what happened.”

So, if you don’t like someone getting emotional, go out and beat them and wipe the smiles off their faces while doing so. Isn’t that the simple solution for true competitors?

Getting back to the WBC, I have to say I really enjoyed watching it. Seriously, how much fun were those games? And if you ignored it, that’s too bad. You really missed out on a lot of good, exciting, fun baseball.

There’s that word again. Fun. Like Harry said, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark even if those daddy downer old-fashioned purists try to convince you otherwise.

And, don’t forget, Crash Davis also agrees. Remember when he reminded Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh to relax? “Let’s have some fun out here,” he barked at him. “This game’s fun, OK?”

It’s always been fun. Unfortunately there’s always been some who try to take the fun out of it. Fortunately, fewer and fewer of those folks are around today and that’s good for baseball.

Continue to have fun fellas.

• Sugar Grove resident Chris Rollin Walker is a baseball umpire with an eye for strikes, balls, gerunds and participles. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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