In America, when professional baseball was still played and when it might be played again (it’s anybody’s guess, educated or otherwise), the game remains a wrestling match of a sort. It’s between letting the kids play and letting the old farts persist with enforcing and applauding too many unwritten rules that seem too many times to enjoin against—oh, that vulgarity—fun.
The old farts lost their credibility long enough ago. They did it with rank hypocrisy. They’re all in favour of baseball being played like a business until the game’s business comes out to play.
Let a home run hitter flip his bat or a pitcher pump his fist or fan his imaginary pistol upon a strikeout, and it’s time to remember “respect for the game.” Let a player negotiate on a properly open market for however many millions that market determines he’s worth, and it’s time to remember they’re already being paid many millions enough to play a goddam game.
Enter the Korean Baseball Organisation, that ten-team league where baseball is underway thanks to South Korea being a little bit more alert than other countries when it came to coronavirus safety measures. And, where (the horror) baseball is played under the distinct encouragement to take and give joy in the playing. Even if the coronavirus compels near-empty stands.
You can conjugate numerous differences between the KBO and the American Show, but Yahoo! Sports’s Leander Schaerlaeckens reduces it to simple terms: “At a big league game, the loudest person in your section is often the ice cream guy.”
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. But only slight. Two days ago, Chang-min Mo blasted one into the empty left field bleachers and flipped his bat in the same motion. He swung and the bat flipped out of his hands on the follow through. Americans might say ok, he did it in one motion and didn’t put on a show out of the box. Enough American pitchers would still want to rumble over it.
Not Josh Linblom, who spent some time pitching in Korea (and was the KBO’s MVP last year) before signing for three years and mucho million to return to the United States courtesy of the Milwaukee Brewers. “I’ve never had more fun playing baseball than I did there,” Lindblom tells Schaerlaeckens. “Just the joy of it.” Major league baseball and its fans, do take note.
Take note, too, that it doesn’t stop with demonstrative hitters and pitchers, Schaerlaeckens continues.
Korean baseball also leads the way in weird glasses. Fans sing and chant in unison. Cheerleaders hype the crowd. Players scrub each other’s backs in the showers. They have coordinated mascot dances. There are fire-breathing robot dragons, even though they have nothing do with their team or its mascot. Each player doesn’t merely pick his own walk-up song – no no. Special theme songs are composed for them and they’re amazing. The atmosphere, above all else, is generated by the crowd itself, rather than being orchestrated by a PA system as spectators are tamely shepherded through whatever “fan engagement” is expected of them.
Why do you think the Washington Nationals were such engaging World Series winners last October? Because they managed to vanquish the Houston Astros subsequently exposed as barely-if-at-all apologetic 2017-18 high tech cheaters? Well, yes, that was part of it. But there was also the irrepressible sense that the Nats actually had fun playing the game, even in the Serious Postseason, and couldn’t have cared less who knew it or who objected.
They Baby Sharked, dugout danced, and pantomime drove their way to something unseen in MLB in Washington since Calvin Coolidge’s first and only election to the White House in his own right. It was almost as infectious as the coronavirus and a hell of a lot more entertaining. You had to be a terminal grump to say the Nats won a world championship by disrespecting the game—and there were enough such grumps who probably did.
Maybe the cheerleaders in the KBO are a little bit much. But Schaerlaecken’s observations otherwise look like precisely the kind of things that would engage and amuse. And they’re far more creative than stuff like the Brewers’ Racing Sausages who only run their races once a game anyway.
Worried about the time of game, you say? The KBO is taking that bull by the horns. They’ve already instituted a twelve-second pitch clock. They’re kicking around a slightly wider strike zone. (The width of the plate, the traditional old top-to-bottom between the batter’s shoulders and knees, however the batter positions himself at the plate, and umpire accountability to enforce such a uniform strike zone, wouldn’t hurt.)
Maybe the one flaw in the KBO is that it’s as offense-weighted now as the Show was in the 1990s and the past couple of seasons now. Schaerlaecken observes that, in 2019, the KBO’s league-wide batting average was .286 and league-wide ERA was above 5.00. It has work to do to re-balance the game.
But I wouldn’t bet against them. All evidence thus far indicates they’re always trying to improve things for the fan’s and the game’s sake. Real baseball fans love good pitching duels—whether it’s the periodic starters’ clash or a battle of wits between bullpens—as much as batting clinics.
Come to think of it, real baseball fans love entertaining pitchers as well. Those my age remember how much fun Juan Marichal was on the mound, as well as being great, with his maybe twenty different windups and fifteen different leg kicks including the one that became his most indelible image. Or how Dennis Eckersley in his early seasons thought nothing of fanning an imaginary pistol after striking a batter out.
Or Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, who was a package of fun and laughs before he even threw a pitch. And anyone who could infuriate the Bronx Zoo Yankees with his antics—and, in his Rookie of the Year season, the pitching to back it up—should have been given the keys to his city. It was more the pity that Fidrych’s knee injury the following spring led to too many premature comebacks, shoulder demolition because of them, and career killed in its crib.
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I don’t care if a pitcher fans his pistol, a batter flips his lumber, or a slick double play combination goes into a tandem juggling pantomime after delivering a slick double play. I haven’t seen the juggling act among Korean or American major and minor league middle infielders yet, but it wouldn’t shock or enrage me if I see one.
(Just for the record, I’m not exactly a spring chicken myself, but I decided long ago that age didn’t have to mean hardening of the arteries—actual or mental—either. How old am I? I’ll put it this way: On my last birthday, I got serenaded nigh unto death with a certain song aboard the Beatles’ legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band . . . and it wasn’t “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”)
Real baseball fans also don’t like to see lineup spots wasted on the unproductive. The KBO has the designated hitter rule. “[S]kirting the entire farce of forcing the unskilled labor of pitchers hitting upon the public,” Schaerlaeckens writes.
Last year, MLB pitchers hit for a cumulative .128/.159/.163. “Traditionalists” would rather wait for the next Bartolo Colon or Madison Bumgarner than accept that wasting a lineup slot on a pitcher who isn’t being paid to swing the bat or run the bases (and might well injure himself out of his normal season’s work doing so) is plain damn dumb.
Even more dumb than huffing, puffing, and blowing down the house rather than letting the kids play, the way they play in Korea, the way the Koreans who are otherwise among the world’s most mannerly people expect them to play, for fans’ entertainment—even if the fans are limited because of the coronavirus—and their own.
Once upon a time, the late Jim Bouton (in Ball Four) revealed that Seattle Pilots manager Joe (Ol’ Sh@tf@ck—or Ol’ F@cksh@t, depending) Schultz lectured his players about the entertainment dollar. In that day’s game, catcher Jim Pagliaroni scampered to catch a foul pop near the dugout and made a point of running deliberately to the steps, sliding down those steps, and crashing into the bench. When Schultz questioned him, Pagliaroni replied, “I was just going for the entertainment dollar.”
The KBO isn’t about to start staging dugout crashes on foul pops, I think, but there’s plenty to be said about going for the entertainment everything. Even crusty Crash Davis (in Bull Durham) reminded his teammates, “This game’s supposed to be fun.” When American baseball fans have to gaze upon games being played as far away as one American war was once fought, American baseball has a (pardon the expression) serious problem.