I have been a baseball fan since I was nine years old. Because my father was, and now my son is, a fan of most every sport, I have been exposed to sports my entire life. In high school, I would faithfully watch SportsCenter every morning between completing my paper route and going to school. And I am not naïve enough to think that poor behavior by athletes and fans alike is a new thing. But really, it is time for athletes and fans alike to grow up and demonstrate some maturity.
Athletes—you are playing a game. Sure, you should play to win. And yes, professional athletes, and now even some college athletes, are profiting mightily for playing. But if anything, that should increase the respect you have for the game. Let’s take baseball. Excitement is fine, but if you’re in the Major Leagues, act like you belong there. As a lifelong fan of another club in the AL East, I had hoped that the Guardians would beat the Yankees, but the Guardians certainly have a couple of players who did not impress me with their antics at the end of the Wild Card series. Oscar Gonzalez hit a walk off solo shot in the 15th inning on October 8. He then thought it would be a good idea to slowly take a few steps while watching it sail over the wall before flipping his bat. That’s really never a good idea, but Gonzalez, a rookie, hit it off of Corey Kluber, who has more career wins than Gonzalez has hits. Kluber has two Cy Young awards and was in the top ten for Cy Young voting five years in a row. Show some respect. (To make matters worse, Kluber did that while pitching for the Cleveland ballclub, then called the Indians).
After the game, Austin Hedges, a catcher who has managed a .189 batting average and a negative WAR in eight years in the Big Leagues, thought it would be a good idea to strip off his uniform and shirt on field to celebrate the win. Real mature. I don’t care what the sport is, or how excited you may be, there is neither reason nor valid excuse to remove your clothes in celebration.
Sadly, mlb.com has a list ranking the greatest bat flips of all time, a list that begins by calling the bat flip “an art form.” With one exception, every one of the top ten came in 2007 or later. All ten of the “best of the rest” came in 2001 or later. What was the exception? In Game 4 of the 1987 World Series, Tom Lawless of the Cardinals hit a three-run homer off of Frank Viola of the Twins at the Metrodome, giving the Cardinals a 4-1 lead in the game. It was in the 4th inning, by no means a guaranteed game winner (though it did prove to be, as the Cardinals won the game 7-2). Lawless behaved almost identically to the way Gonzalez did earlier this month. And it was just as pitiful. That homer was the first Lawless had hit in more than three years. He would only hit two regular season home runs in his entire Major League career—which spanned eight seasons, but had Lawless playing in just over the equivalent of two seasons’ worth of games. The three RBIs that home run produced exceeded his season RBI totals for six of the eight seasons Lawless played. Reflecting on the homer thirty years later, Lawless said, “I don’t have any idea why I did it.” Not saying it’s okay that he did it, but I am inclined to agree with him; he was probably as surprised as anyone that he had hit a homerun.
In the same interview in which he said he did not know why he did it, which was a discussion with the Cardinals broadcasters during a game, he was asked, “Are you the original bat flip guy?” Lawless responded, “No. Reggie Jackson had to do it before I did, didn’t he?” But he and the Cardinals broadcasters then agreed then Jackson had never done it in that way or in such a big moment.
So why was the “original bat flip” in 1987…and why were they uncommon until more than twenty years later? I will suggest two reasons. One, a higher respect for the game in the previous century. Two, an exponentially higher likelihood in the last century that someone flipping their bat would have gotten a fastball in their ear or, at the very least, their ribcage the next time they came up to bat. No one who has paid attention to baseball over the years has to wonder what would have happened had someone flipped their bat after hitting a home run off of Bob Gibson, Sal Maglie or Don Drysdale, for example?
I have to agree with James Simmons, who wrote the following in 2020:
Essentially a batter who hits a home run and flips his bat is doing to the pitcher what Roberto Alomar used to do to umpires. This is the definition of showing a pitcher up, is it not? And as a society we have glamorized it to the point it is done way too often. Not only is it disrespectful to the pitcher, but the act is also desecrating to the game itself.
Later, in the same column, Simmons said, “I’ve never seen a list of baseball’s unwritten rules, though surely this is within the first few pages. You do not show up another player.” Exactly.
Of course, sports fans sometimes act like fools, as well. I have never understood the rioting and mayhem that results seemingly anytime a team wins a championship. And this isn’t exactly new; many consider the worst such riot to have occurred in 1984 when the Detroit Tigers defeated the San Diego Padres to win the World Series. Police had to escort the Padres because of the chaos.
But sometimes fans don’t even leave the stadium before the idiocy begins. Last Saturday, for example, the fans at the University of Tennessee swarmed the filed after the Volunteers beat Alabama. A story on knoxnews.com reported,
The north end zone goalpost at Neyland Stadium cracked near the base and toppled down Saturday as Tennessee football fans swung from it.
The crossbar and uprights were carried across the field and into the stands by a giddy gaggle of Vols fans…. They reached the concourse level before police stopped the procession and guarded the remnant of the goalpost in the southeast stands.
A story in The Tennessean reported that those goalposts had stood since 1998, when fans destroyed them after the Volunteers went 13-0 and won the national title. Said the report: “Those goalposts ended up in the Tennessee River. So did the uprights from the south goalpost Saturday, one remaining in it and the other fished out and taken to a fraternity house to be sawed into pieces.”
The same story reported that the estimated cost of new goalposts would be between $10,000 and $20,000 before installation. In Tennessee, destruction of property falls under vandalism but, for the record, that makes the destruction of the uprights a Class C felony in Tennessee, punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to 15 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Further, those who took the uprights out of the stadium would be guilty of Class C felony theft, also punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to 15 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Of course, this does not take into consideration damage to the field itself.
Perhaps even more egregious than the childish and destructive behavior of the fans is the cavalier attitude toward it. UT’s coach, Josh Heupel, responded to the fans’ behavior by saying, “If need be, I will pay for them to make sure that they’re up on Saturday. But I think they’ve got a plan to have a couple of them ready to roll when we get to Saturday.” Really? Pay for it yourself? How about something like, “I hope the fans’ actions do not prohibit us from being able to play our next home game. As much as I appreciate their enthusiasm, tearing down the uprights is unnecessary—and dangerous. I appeal to all UT fans in saying, ‘please don’t do that again.’”
Heupel was not alone in minimizing the destruction, though. The president of the University of Tennessee, Randy Boyd, said, when asked about the cost of the damage done by the fans, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll do this every year.” But then money means little to Boyd, since he is a millionaire several times over. He returned his salary to the state when he was commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and he takes no salary as the president of UT.
Of course, the expense goes well beyond repairing the field and replacing the uprights. UT was fined $100,000 for violating the SEC’s policy about access to competition areas. Should it happen again, the fine goes up to $250,000.
I commend the University of Tennessee putting out an appeal to ask fans to pay for the destroyed and stolen uprights, but even that appeal was lighthearted and failed to condemn the fans’ actions. Specifically, Tennessee Football tweeted, “Y’all remember how we tore the goalposts down, hauled em out of Neyland and dumped em in the Tennessee River? Yeah that was awesome. Anywho, turns out that in order to play next week’s game, we need goalposts on our field. Could y’all help us out?” Not only that, but the response has been overwhelming; as of yesterday, more than $150,000 had been donated. The response of the school’s Associate Athletics Director of Communications gives an idea of how expensive installation and other repairs will be, though—despite raising about eight times the projected cost of the goalposts, he said that excess funds will be given to other UT varsity athletic programs if there is any left over.
Not that UT really needs help paying the bill; one report indicates their operating revenue for 2021-22was $2.7 billion. Yes, billion. But that’s a completely different subject for a different time.
Players, grow up. Show respect for the games you play and for the players you play against.
Fans, grow up. Celebrate your team’s victory in a mature and responsible manner.
Coaches, owners and league officials, step up. Enforce meaningful consequences for stupid behavior by players and fans alike. In the case of antics like those at UT last Saturday, prosecute them. A fan who runs onto the field during a game would be arrested. Don’t let a victory make that behavior suddenly okay.
It’s time to grow up.
Photo credit: Jason Swaby/Flickr