By Mike Schmidt
For The Associated Press
The subject of major league players having the freedom to let it go and express themselves emotionally on the field came up in our coaches’ locker room this spring. Understand, nearly all of us are old school, having played in a time when even the slightest out of character display was construed as showing up the opponent.
We all came through an era where respect for the opposition and a high level of decorum was normal. None of us ever knew any different. We emulated those who preceded us, guys like Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle. From my era, it’s easy: Johnny Bench, Steve Garvey, Dale Murphy, George Brett, Robin Yount and Cal Ripken.
It’s easier to name a few exceptions — Ty Cobb from way back comes to mind. My era had a few. Pascual Perez, who pitched for the Braves, was hated because of his antics on the mound. Al Hrabosky, aka “The Mad Hungarian,” had his post-warmup ritual that drew attention. And remember Willie Montanez, he made every play with an added showboat touch.
If you watched the great Roberto Clemente, you’d see a flair for stylish play. The most intimidating and emotionally gifted player ever probably was Pete Rose. No player ever incited the opponent and ignited his team more.
Why do so many players today feel the need to embellish their success with some sort of hand signal to the dugout? What got more attention in last year’s postseason than a bat toss by Jose Bautista? Pointing to the sky is child’s play compared to that moment in the postseason on national TV. A flagrant disrespect of the opponent like that would have gotten somebody hurt back in the day.
The Expos had a player named Ellis Valentine in the ’80s. Great talent, power, speed, maybe the best throwing arm I’ve ever seen. We were acquaintances from competing over the years, so I considered him someone with whom I could speak. One day early in his career, at Olympic Stadium, he hit a home run and proceeded to trot around the bases as slowly as humanly possible. The trot included a little Reggie Jackson touch, he held nothing back.
Later in the game, he was on third base and I couldn’t resist saying, “I guess you’re not planning on hitting many home runs, trots like that are for guys who don’t.”
As for me, the most emotion I ever displayed on the field was a little running in place out of the box on my 500th home run. My home run trots were over quickly and without fanfare. I hit a lot of them and couldn’t afford to draw extra attention. I wasn’t stupid, last thing I wanted was to disrespect any pitcher.
That’s the problem with these on-field displays, it shows a lack of respect for your opponent and the history of the game. But today there is a faction of players that say damn respect — that guy on the mound gestures to the dugout when he strikes me out, so why can’t I flip my bat on a home run? That’s a good point, I guess it does go both ways. But who wouldn’t agree Bautista crossed the line?
Today more pitchers, like hitters, are letting emotion loose. But where is the line and what or who determines crossing it and the penalty? The players used to settle issues themselves. Cross the line and someone had to pay. Nearly always the players got it right and settled it themselves. Umpires are now the baseball police, which has made the game safer but also softer.
Baseball isn’t football or hockey, where every play is about physical contact, basically a fight. You fight the opponent the entire game, so what’s the big deal about disrespecting him, he’ll do the same to you. Baseball is not a physical sport, especially now with new rules prohibiting contact at home and second base.
Baseball demands a certain level of dignity toward the opponent. It’s part of its charm. Sure, you have to be tough and stand up for yourself, but only when the line is crossed. I’ve been there, I’ve charged the mound, I’ve been in several brawls, they aren’t fun.
So what are today’s players asking? They say why can’t baseball be like football, basketball, and hockey, where emotion on the field brings the fans more into it. Why can’t they spice up their uniforms with Day-Glo accessories, or wear company logos, or use crazy-colored gloves and bats? Actually, last I looked, they do all of these.
It sells licensed products, but it also is the sign of the times. They are free to display their passion and emotion with certain boundaries, and many do. But let it be noted, there are still those who subscribe to the notion of respect, so be mindful. The game is hard, very hard, and being disliked by the opponent makes it even harder.
Which reminds me of my teammate, Pete Rose. He was the toughest dude I ever played with or against. As a teammate you loved him, as an opponent you hated him. He loved to be hated. He ran all out to first on a walk, which got him the nickname “Charlie Hustle.” He dove headfirst into bases, even when there was no play. He went into bases hard — ask Bud Harrelson, Ray Fosse and Bruce Bochy, all guys who were his victims. He yelled at opposing players from the bench. He spiked the ball on third outs at first base.
He also played in more winning games than any player ever. To say Pete Rose was a winner is an understatement. All of this was emotion and passion that teammates and fans loved. Pete had no fear of the repercussions, either. He wanted the game to be hard, he thrived on pressure and wanted you to go at him with the best you had, and everyone did.
The greatest confrontation I ever saw on a baseball field involved Pete and another warrior, Nolan Ryan. In 1981, the final game before the midseason strike, Pete needed one hit to tie Musial for the all-time National League hit record, two to break it.
Pete got that hit in his first at-bat, but Ryan struck him out his last three plate appearances. I’ve never seen a hitter and pitcher more consumed in a confrontation. After the final strikeout, Pete tipped his hat to Nolan as a gesture of respect. Passion, emotion, the crowd into every pitch, two of the game’s greatest ever leaving it all out there.
No pointing, gesturing, or bat flipping was needed, just competition at the highest level. That’s how you get the crowd involved, that’s how baseball creates its legends.
Guys, what say we try to preserve one of the standards the game was built upon. You can have your colored bats, fancy shoes, bright batting gloves and display all the emotion and passion you desire without crossing that line.
Be the kind of player you want kids to emulate by playing with dignity and class. Baseball demands it.