MLB still a ways off from fully embracing personality on field

Tim and Sid discuss Marcus Stroman's pitching performance against the Boston Red Sox.

TORONTO – Last October, just ahead of the post-season, Major League Baseball dropped an ad featuring highlights of several playoff-bound stars committing a series of sins such as staring at a home run, flipping a bat, and, oh horror, showing emotion on the field. The critiques of repulsed broadcasters are overlayed toward the end before Ken Griffey Jr. is revealed to be the narrator and, wearing his trademark backwards hat, says, “no more talk, let the kids play.”

This spring, a sequel, kicking off with clichés at a news conference before Alex Bregman grabs the mic and boasts about how his Houston Astros “are going to win this World Series and the next one.” A round of good-natured trash talk between several superstars follows before reporters ask Mike Trout whether he has anything to say. “Just let the kids play,” the Los Angeles Angels centre-fielder replies.

The message the sport’s best player wants people to take from the ad?

“Being able to go out there and show your personality – it’s good for baseball,” Trout says during a recent interview. “We want to bring more people into playing baseball as a young kid.

“People want to see your personality. They see how you are on the field. But they want to see who you are.”

Keep all that in mind as you consider the latest case of opponents with hurt feelings getting mad at Marcus Stroman, one of the dumbest ongoing sagas in baseball.

For those of you that missed it, the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander rankled the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night when he struck out Xander Bogaerts to escape a bases-loaded jam in the third inning of a 10-3 win, and yelled in the direction of the visiting dugout right afterwards.

The next inning Michael Chavis, who had just stepped out and called time to disrupt Stroman’s rhythm, got angry when he was quick-pitched, muttering something to the right-hander as he reached base on a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., error. Stroman said something back, prompting Chris Sale to begin yelling at him from the dugout.

On the NESN broadcast, home plate umpire Alan Porter could be heard yelling, “Hey, hey, hey, Chris. Chris! Stop. Stop!” And Stroman was picked up shouting, “That wasn’t me first Chris, that wasn’t me first.”

Porter and Alex Cora then had an exchange, which the Red Sox manager explained Wednesday as being “about the umpire and staying away from our guys, just making sure the other guy didn’t scream onto our guys.”

Still, more noteworthy were Cora’s comments after Tuesday’s game, when he said of Stroman, “it’s the same thing with him every day. He competes a certain way and people don’t like it. … It seems like whenever a team comes in, somebody screams at him. I don’t know, that’s the way he acts.”

Even if the post-game comment wasn’t meant to be pejorative, as Cora suggested Wednesday, his observations about the place for emotion in the game stand at the crux of the issue.

“We have guys that hit homers and they stand there. It’s a game of emotion. We get it. We understand that,” said Cora. “Now, there’s stuff that people don’t like and they will express their feelings from the dugout.”

In other words, kind of let the kids play, but be ready for people to get mad about it?

Stroman replied to Cora’s comments on Twitter by saying, “I compete. That’s it. Didn’t know I had to cater to opposing teams to like me. Everyone messes with timing, deliveries and pitching mechanics these days. Everyone. Get over it. I’m going to keep that dawg mentality always. Pops raised me right and approves of it all!”

He declined during a brief interview to elaborate further, but when asked whether the let the kids play message was making any headway, he shook his head and said, “I don’t know, man.”

“I’ve always been the same, I’ve always been extremely passionate, that’s how I’ve needed to play to put myself at a level and I’ve always been a proponent of let the kids the play,” Stroman continued. “I don’t look at it as something that’s new all of a sudden. I love it. It’s hard. It’s basically based on the individual. Some guys are OK with it, some guys are not. That’s all I’m going to say.”

For whatever reason, few players not named Yasiel Puig seem to run afoul of baseball’s “Guardians Of The Right Way To Play” more often than Stroman. The entire topic of governing on-field behaviour is deftly handled in veteran writer Danny Knobbler’s new book “Unwritten – Bat Flips, the Fun Police and Baseball’s New Future” which outlines the game’s internal conflict with how much flash a long hidebound culture will tolerate.

One memorable passage describes how Martin Prado learned the game’s unwritten rules as a minor-leaguer in the Atlanta Braves system after leaving Venezuela, helping him as he eventually grows into a widely respected veteran. “Just because you walk around your own house in your underwear, that doesn’t mean you can walk into your neighbour’s house and do the same thing,” he told Knobbler.

There’s a lot of truth to that, and, to be fair, there are times when Stroman barges through the door and parades around in nothing but boxers.

On the flip side, Stroman understands that if he’s going to dish it, he needs to take it, too, which is why he doesn’t get his back up if hitters want to admire their work when they get him.

Yet even as the game slowly changes, a live-and-let-live environment is still a ways off, which means players like Stroman who run counter to the player population’s largely banal base will remain lightning rods for the foreseeable future.

“The game’s definitely getting flashier,” says Trout. “For me, personally, big moments in a game, if it’s a walk-off as a hitter, you can do your thing, or as a pitcher, big situation. That’s just me personally. If you have 650 homers like Albert (Pujols), you can do whatever you want. That’s where I’m at. Big situations in a game, as a competitor, people will see that.”

Yes they will, but only if players let one another show that emotion.

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