Last weekend, Buster Olney reported in his Sunday column (sub. req’d) that new MLB Vice President Joe Torre was working hard on a plan to clamp down on player fraternization before and during games. It’s the ever-elusive “some folks in the game” who apparently think it’s a no-no for fans to see players chatting it up during batting practice or while sharing a base during the game. The comments left on Olney’s column suggest that at least those fans don’t care a whit about whether players act friendly to each other on the baseball field.
On Monday’s Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra provided his usually witty and sane take on Torre’s “Don’t Love They Neighbor” vision for major league players:
I can’t think of a single reason why this would be a priority for anyone in Major League Baseball. What, you don’t want to show fans that it’s OK to like and respect their competitors? That it’s more than a game and extends into personal rivalry? Isn’t that the exact opposite that the Dodgers and Giants players tried to demonstrate back when they had their first series following the beating of Bryan Stow?
Much like Olney’s readers, most (if not all) of HBT’s commenters agreed with Calcaterra’s view, expressing disbelief that Torre and MLB would spend energy on this “issue” much less make it a high priority. Calcaterra visited the issue again the next day, in a video chat with SI’s Joe Sheehan, who roundly criticized Torre’s plan. A quick spin through the inter-webs didn’t reveal much concern at all by anyone that pre-game high-fives and in-game chit-chats by major league ballplayers on opposing teams were undermining the integrity or competitiveness of the game or upsetting even the most passionate and loyal fans.
As I reflected on the issue, I found myself in agreement with this prevailing view (a not too common thing in my life). But something was gnawing at me. I seemed to remember bloggers and columnists and fans recently expressing the contrary view, taking players to task for pre-game hugs and post-game laughs with guys on the other team. But it wasn’t baseball players on the hot seat.
No, the criticism was directed at the NBA. “Are some NBA players too friendly,” asked a fan on a Toronto Raptors blog? “Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal Should not hug after games,” quipped an Orlando Sentinel sports columnist. Cleveland fans went berserk when Cavaliers players hugged LeBron on the court before his first game against his old team.
And that got me thinking. Why do baseball fans and the baseball commentariat think it’s just fine and dandy for opposing players to show their friendship on the field–even while the game is on-going–while their basketball comrades take the completely opposite view? Is it simply the closeness, the physicality of basketball that drives fans to demand a more warrior-like mentality from NBA players? Or is something else going?
As much as it may make us uncomfortable, I think race has something to do with it. And I don’t mean racism, but race. In large measure, the NBA is a league of African-American stars and non-African-American (i.e. white) fans. It’s not a secret. It may not be discussed widely because we’re not good at talking about race in this country, but we see it, we know it. Maybe basketball fans don’t like to be reminded how far outside the NBA players’ fraternity they really are. How unattainable their skills and stardom are. How “other” these NBA stars are.
We don’t have these feelings about baseball players. Maybe because the “we” is not just white, but all sorts of colors, creeds and ethnicities, just like the players themselves. The ballplayers seem approachable. They remind us of people we’ve met or known or heard about. When we see players from opposing teams talking on the field during BP or during the game, we get it. We understand it. And we’re not threatened by it.
I love this about baseball. I love the “everyman” feeling about the game and the fans. And I don’t want Joe Torre to take it away.