Unwritten rules are made to be broken! How a new generation of players is shifting MLB’s culture

MLB

CARLOS GOMEZ KNEW he needed to get Fernando Tatis Jr. on the phone.

After Tatis hit a controversial grand slam in the eighth inning of an Aug. 17 game against the Texas Rangers last season, Gomez, a former major league outfielder, called the San Diego Padres shortstop. Tatis’ slam represented a violation of the unwritten rules of baseball, interpreted as an attempt to run up the score. It came on a 3-0 pitch, with his team ahead by seven runs.

Tatis faced criticism even from his own manager, Jayce Tingler, who indicated that Tatis should have kept the bat on his shoulder instead of swinging.

“He’s young, a free spirit and focused and all those things,” Tingler said after the game. “That’s the last thing that we’ll ever take away. It’s a learning opportunity, and that’s it. He’ll grow from it.”

Tatis apologized for the violation of etiquette.

“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis said. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”

But Gomez wasn’t having it — and he needed Tatis to hear it.

“I do not agree with you that you said sorry,” Gomez told Tatis. “Sorry for nothing.”

As a player who regularly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable during a 13-year career in the big leagues that ended just two years ago, Gomez thought an apology was the last thing anyone needed to hear.

“I called him and I tell him, ‘Hey kid, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re not doing nothing wrong,'” said Gomez, who had played with Tatis’ father for a short time more than a decade before, and had seen a young Tatis’ exuberance around the clubhouse. “I explained it in a way to not make him feel like a bad guy. I tell, ‘In my career, in 13 years, I swing like four times, 3-0. How many homers? One. How many fly balls? Two. One swing and a miss. So, it don’t matter. We’re not a machine.'”

Gomez was on to something. In the days following, players and fans came to Tatis’ defense.

“You just have to pitch better if you don’t want that to happen,” tweeted Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez.

“Swinging in a 3-0 count should not be against any rules, no matter the score,” tweeted right-hander Collin McHugh.

“Everyone should hit 3-0,” tweeted baseball legend Johnny Bench. “Grand slams are a huge stat.”

Tingler would also walk back some of his criticism. “They’re trying to kick our a–, and we’re trying to kick their a– and win,” Tingler said. “That’s the bottom line. We can’t sit here and worry about people’s feelings.”

By October, Tatis’ style of play would not only be defended, but also celebrated — enough to land him and his now iconic wild-card bat flip on the cover of MLB The Show, the league’s signature video game.

The on-field culture of Major League Baseball has long alienated those who didn’t fit into a certain idea — the white, American way — of playing the sport. Even with more than a quarter of rostered players born outside of the United States, the idea of MLB being a showcase for multiculturalism is often more aspirational than reality.

And the game isn’t played everywhere under the States’ unwritten rules. In the Dominican Republic, where both Tatis and Gomez were born, there’s more expressiveness. There’s palpable joy. In Asia, whether that’s Korea or Japan, massive bat flips are a fixture of the game.

Although Gomez played in the big leagues as recently as 2019, in the short time since he left the stage, he’s seen it start to turn. The culture of baseball is changing, on and off the field, with shifting attitudes not only about emphatic celebrations, but also expressions of personal flair through fashion and social media, much of it with an undeniable racial subtext.

“I’m retired now and I say, ‘Why now they let everybody do whatever they want?’ I think I’m in the wrong era.” Gomez said. “I’m supposed to be [playing] now, like, making a show!”

Although it’s been a long time coming, and still has a long way to go, the game is evolving. Here’s what’s driving that, seemingly overnight, change.

The bat flip that changed baseball

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Jose Bautista tells Joon Lee he “kind of blacked out” before his bat flip following the go-ahead homer in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS.

JOSE BAUTISTA NEVER expected to become known for a bat flip.

Of all the moments in his 15-year career in the majors, the one fans approach him to talk about the most is his home run in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series. The then-Toronto Blue Jays slugger hit a three-run, go-ahead homer in the seventh inning off Rangers reliever Sam Dyson before chucking his bat and circling the bases in what’s become an iconic moment in baseball history.

“I wasn’t a notorious bat flipper,” Bautista said. “I might have done it two or three times in my whole career that I can remember. I didn’t feel like I was a notorious bat-flipper, but now I’m kind of known for that. That’s kind of weird.”

Especially because he doesn’t even remember doing it.

“I kind of blacked out after the swing, hearing the roar of the crowd and the emotion of the moment,” Bautista said. “I don’t really recall anything in particular until I was kind of catching my breath back at the bench.”

Early in his career, Bautista battled with containing his emotions on the baseball field. After many conversations with coaches — and arguments with umpires — Bautista slowly learned to bottle his feelings, in hopes of presenting an acceptable facade while not violating the cultural norms of the sport where people value stoicism above all.

“Everybody’s imitating it. I’m doing it from the left side. I’m like, boom, and I’m throwing the bat out, and we’re chucking it 20 feet in the air. … [Jose Bautista] was a pioneer of that, breaking the glass and saying, ‘Let the floodgates roll in.'”

Seattle Mariners outfielder Taylor Trammell

“I’ve heard comments from guys that are like, ‘I thought you were an a–hole,’ or, ‘I thought you were a s—head. Once I got to know you, I understand why you get so upset,'” Bautista said. “Man, I struggle with it, I can’t really explain it; it’s just the way I handle things. I got better at it as I was getting older, but that was one of the biggest struggles of my career, controlling my reaction or my temper.”

What once hurt Bautista’s reputation in the eyes of some in the big leagues — his emotion and passion — eventually became a lasting, celebrated legacy. The 2015 bat flip became one of baseball’s biggest moments on social media.

For younger players like 23-year-old Seattle Mariners outfielder Taylor Trammell, who was in high school at the time, Bautista’s bat flip was monumental.

“Everybody’s imitating it,” Trammell said. “I’m doing it from the left side. I’m like, boom, and I’m throwing the bat out, and we’re chucking it 20 feet in the air. We’re humming that thing, and it was like, ‘Wow, we’re having so much fun.’ [Bautista] was a pioneer of that, breaking the glass and saying, ‘Let the floodgates roll in.'”

For baseball lifers like Eduardo Perez, who grew up in major league clubhouses as the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez before embarking on his own 13-year MLB career, bat flipping was viewed as unsportsmanlike. Now as a broadcaster for ESPN, Perez said the context of the moment shapes the acceptability.

“When you’re down a few runs and you bat flip and you’re taking your time around the bases and you’re celebrating like you just won a championship or you took your team to another level, that to me is like, ‘Come on dude, know where you’re at,'” Perez said. “‘Know the moment and know the situation.'”

The enforcement of unwritten rules has always been dictated by the context of the moment in baseball history. Jackie Robinson was forced to obey unwritten rules designed for him after he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. Robinson promised Dodgers owner Branch Rickey he would not fight back with anything other than his performance on the field when others tried to bait him with slurs and taunts. By doing so, Robinson rewrote an actual written rule — the one that barred Black players from the league.

Over the decades, the code endured, although not all players who defied cultural norms were ostracized. Latin players like Luis Tiant, who turned his back toward the hitter mid-windup, Juan Marichal, whose leg soared above his head as he delivered pitches, and Manny Ramirez, who once high-fived a member of the crowd in the middle of a play, all became cult heroes within the sport. Still, it wasn’t until long after Ken Griffey Jr. retired that his oft-criticized, signature backward baseball cap became the central part of an MLB marketing strategy.

Gomez, who was never afraid to show his emotions on the field, said he was used to opponents misinterpreting his joyful exuberance as disrespect. He was often the target of retaliatory hit-by-pitches or harsh criticism from opposing fans.

“I just express myself when I’m playing baseball. I’m never thinking, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to make a bat flip, I’m going to slide and point to the dugout.’ No, no, no,” Gomez said. “I just let the moment flow, and sometimes I get pointed to like I’m the bad guy because I do stuff like that.”

“This is the first time that I’m talking about this, but it’s the truth, because when people are saying you’re a criminal when you’re not, how are you going to feel? … You start getting angry. They made me feel like I’m a bad guy because of how I played the game.”

Former major leaguer Carlos Gomez on how being labeled a “thug” led him to bouts with insomnia and depression.

But a series of events in 2013 tested those limits. In June of that year, Gomez, then with the Milwaukee Brewers, came up to the plate against Atlanta Braves lefty Paul Maholm — a pitcher against whom he’d always found success, hitting .450/.500/.850 with two homers in 20 at-bats in his career. Maholm plunked him in the knee. When the two faced off again that September, Gomez drilled a homer. Because he felt the hit-by-pitch earlier in the season was disrespectful, Gomez took extra time admiring his blast.

“I disrespected the team, I agree, but the pitcher didn’t respect me,” Gomez said. “So the team needs to tell him, ‘Hey, you did that, You hit him without reason, so he hit a homer and he disrespected everybody.’ It’s not a good thing to do, but as a man, I feel like if he didn’t respect me; this is the only way to take care of business on the field.”

It wasn’t the first time his playing style was questioned, but when fans on social media labeled Gomez a “thug” in the aftermath in 2013, the racist connotations of the word weighed on him heavily. That label, and similar ones he heard during his career, he said, lead to bouts with depression and insomnia.

“This is the first time that I’m talking about this, but it’s the truth, because when people are saying you’re a criminal when you’re not, how are you going to feel?” Gomez said. “Everybody is like, ‘You’re a criminal. You’re a criminal.’ … And you’re not, then you’ll start thinking, ‘No they’re wrong.’ You start getting angry.

“They made me feel like I’m a bad guy because of how I played the game.”

Gomez points out that much of the attitude around his style of play changed not necessarily because of racial tolerance, but because of capitalism. Other leagues and athletes are forcing MLB to recognize how this new generation of players can be marketed.

“That’s why kids are watching more of those other sports, because it’s more fun,” Gomez said. “It’s more entertaining to watch. It’s different, more commercial, more flow. Baseball, we haven’t had that. They need that because of the new generation. My kid goes to the batting cage and he bat flips.”

According to many young players, it was Bautista’s home run that made bat flips more acceptable — even to opposing pitchers.

“By the time I was making my way through the minor leagues and I got to the big leagues, nobody really cared, man. I don’t really care, man,” said Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, who’s 26. “I think that it makes for a good clip on Twitter. It might generate some interest if a guy does a massive bat flip or something like that.”

The leniency of celebrations and bat flips can vary from team to team. While the players in the White Sox clubhouse encourage personality and individuality, others like the St. Louis Cardinals emphasize “The Cardinal Way,” something outfielder Harrison Bader heard about from veterans like Adam Wainwright and Dexter Fowler as he began his career.

“Everybody would talk about ‘The Cardinal Way’ of playing baseball. A lot of that outlines not violating unwritten rules, playing the game hard the right way, stuff like that,” Bader said. “It really just is a level of experience, you have to be in situations, and I’ve messed up plenty of times. I’ve taken the extra base; I’ve buried your opponent.”

“Guy hits a home run off me, showboat, cool. Guess what? I’m going to face you again. I’m going to strike you out. I’m going to showboat.”

Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett

While in generations past, players themselves regulated violations of their code, often with pitchers throwing at batters, many young stars on the mound view this type of retaliation as antiquated.

Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett, for one, believes pitchers who throw at hitters are being overly sensitive. Garrett, who played college basketball for St. John’s before switching paths to pursue a career in baseball, looks at the NBA as a model for how baseball can continue to evolve its etiquette.

“You see the way somebody gets dunked and how they get in their face, or you see Russell Westbrook play and how he’s talking mess to the other team, that’s a lot of players in the NBA. They don’t get upset because they’re like, ‘Well, I’ve got to get you back,'” Garrett says. “Guy hits a home run off me, showboat, cool. Guess what? I’m going to face you again. I’m going to strike you out. I’m going to showboat.”

MLB The (Fashion) Show

“I DON’T LIKE your cleats. Take them off.”

Garrett sat at his locker, confused by the comment from a veteran player.

“They’re too flashy,” the veteran continued. “We don’t do that here.”

When the Reds southpaw was a rookie in 2017, MLB kept a policy that required cleats on the field to match 51% of the team’s primary color, with no alterations or illustrations. Garrett didn’t feel he had leeway to express his fashion sense on the baseball field until he established himself as a consistent major leaguer.

Perez recalls during his playing days a much stricter, unspoken dress code. When Perez came up with the Angels in 1993, he enjoyed wearing his cap backward on the field, a habit he developed alongside Ken Griffey Jr. as sons of big leaguers in the Reds’ clubhouse.

“I remember Rene Gonzalez, No. 88, I just remember him coming up to me, a veteran utility infielder, and saying, ‘Hey, turn that hat around. Let’s go. This is the big leagues. This isn’t the minor leagues. And you’re not Junior,'” Perez said. “The Seattle Mariners allowed Ken Griffey Jr. to be himself. When I got to the Angels’ system, it was more of a tight-knit situation where the players were policing themselves.”

Prompted by the success of Players Weekend, an annual event which debuted in 2017, the league removed restrictions on cleat colors and is allowing footwear with illustrations and messages promoting social justice. Now players show personal style through the leaguewide trends of chains, high socks and those colorful cleats. And MLB’s partnership with Nike is bringing new twists to some of baseball’s oldest uniforms.

“We got Marcus Stroman out there, swag. Tim Anderson, swag,” Garrett said. “Fernando Tatis, swag. Juan Soto, swag. Javier Baez, swag.”

Anderson recently wore a chain sporting his personal logo, while his White Sox teammates like Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada regularly sport eye-catching jewelry on the field. Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper often incorporates the Phillie Phanatic into his fashion accessories and has used painted bats during the Home Run Derby to demonstrate the potential of using the game’s wood as a canvas for self expression. Shortstop Francisco Lindor, who showed up to spring training wearing a classic “Coming to America” Mets jacket, recently launched his own shoe line with New Balance.

“Obviously I don’t want to bring in the race thing, but I mean, we’re not blind to it,” Garrett, who’s Black, says. “You see it, people of color, we have a different swagger about us. Latin people have a different swagger about them. We enjoy the game, we like to wear big chains, we like to look good, we like to be flashy, right? It just is what it is. You see it, and what’s understood don’t have to be explained. It’s the difference of culture, and nobody should be punished for that.”

Social media doesn’t scare MLB … as much

LESS THAN A decade ago, social media training for baseball players amounted to a list of things not to do. For a time, many in baseball considered posting on social media a complete nonstarter — a form of self-promotion that didn’t align with the values of a clubhouse. Many players operated out of a fear that posting the wrong thing would put them or their team into hot water.

“They’d bring in PR people to give us a little PowerPoint presentation and be like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. This will get you in trouble,'” Giolito said. “Kind of promoting that where it’s like, ‘Wow look at this basketball player, they tweeted this. Then they had to apologize for it later and this and that.’ It kind of will scare you away a little bit.”

The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal early last year marked one major turning point in the game’s relationship with social media. Players took to Twitter and other platforms to condemn the behavior of their opponents. Later, the contentious negotiations between the league and the players’ association over how and when to restart the sport during the coronavirus pandemic saw more and more players sharing their thoughts publicly.

“You understand that bit of hesitancy and where that fear comes from,” said Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty, who tweeted about his arbitration hearing with his team this past offseason. “Originally, the only things posted about you on social media were bad things, people catching you doing something, or when having a camera around was not a good thing.”

Now cameras are everywhere around the ballpark. In 2019, Major League Baseball staffed photographers at every game-day ballpark to document pregame festivities, document moments for social media and promote the sport to casual fans. For years, the entrance shot slowly entrenched itself as part of sports culture, with leagues like the NBA and NFL embracing fashion, allowing stars to show their sense of style. That fashion social media culture is now spreading to baseball.

“I’m all for it. Cameras before the game catch our outfits and whatnot, our style,” Bader said. “Baseball’s tough. The camera’s focused on catchers and starting pitchers all the time. Fans don’t really get enough of our personality.”

The shift among player attitudes toward social media began as stars and agents recognized that a player’s influence online was of high value when seeking endorsement opportunities. And as the social media culture around the sport loosened, so did the reigns on what topics players could voice their opinions about. For years, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said he felt a pressure to stay silent on many issues until the rise of the social justice movement following the killing of George Floyd. For most of the time in his major league career, Heyward weighed the pros and cons of speaking out about his experience as a Black American.

“When it comes to being African American and playing baseball,” Heyward said, “you just always felt that sense of, ‘There’s not a lot of people around that look like me. I don’t want to mess up this opportunity for the next guy.'”

Heyward joined the More Than a Vote campaign started by LeBron James, where athletes helped register voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Heyward believes that the sport’s cultural litigation of norms, celebration, emotion and style drove away fans, including potential young Black men who could pursue careers in the sport.

“A lot of guys will tell you, speaking of Black baseball players, that it feels as if we’re not Hank Aaron and if we’re not Ken Griffey Jr. then we don’t have a fighting chance to be a starting player on certain teams,” Heyward said. “There aren’t as many Black bench players as there are white bench players or maybe Hispanic bench players. That’s not a knock. It’s just facts. Just like you don’t see a lot of Black head coaches or managers in baseball or in other sports.”

Heyward says the diversity of America as a country is starting to reflect within the culture of the country’s pastime.

“A lot of it has grown at a similar pace to the country when it comes to people being comfortable with things being a certain way,” Heyward says. “To me, it’s just awesome to see people gradually starting to come together with it, to put differences aside and say, ‘Look, most importantly, we want to win. Then secondly, we want to have fun in our jobs every day.’ I think that’s where this is going.”

“They’d bring in PR people to give us a little PowerPoint presentation and be like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. This will get you in trouble.’ Kind of promoting that where it’s like, ‘Wow look at this basketball player, they tweeted this. Then they had to apologize for it later and this and that.’ It kind of will scare you away a little bit.”

Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito

Players now can use their platforms as major leaguers to more freely express their true selves, meeting younger fans where they already are.

“You’re inviting more cultures in, you’re inviting more kids to get involved at a younger age and have fun playing this game and to continue growing with the rest of the sports world,” Heyward said. “People see the highlights, people see the things on YouTube and social media, the Instagrams, the TikToks or whatnot. That’s fun. That’s swag, that’s a vibe.”

And with more players pushing to reevaluate the sport’s culture, they’re ready to fully embrace themselves on the baseball field.

“I just want to tell anybody if they have a problem with me not following unwritten rules, I’m always 60 feet, six inches away,” Garrett said. “So if they want to come talk to me, come holler at me.”

A whole new ballgame

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Players and managers have changed their tunes on bat flips in recent years, and Fernando Tatis Jr. is a face of MLB’s subsequent marketing push.

NOT EVEN TWO months after Tatis’ violation of the unwritten rules, as the Padres faced off against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of their wild-card series, the San Diego shortstop bat flipped on a two-run homer in the seventh inning, an exclamation point on a comeback victory.

When asked about why he bat flipped, Tatis kept his explanation simple.

“Since I was a kid,” Tatis said, “that’s what we play for.”

This time, Tingler was quick to praise Tatis’ display of emotion.

“It’s weird that it’s still a conversation, honestly,” Tingler said. “Nobody’s showing anybody up. It’s energy, it’s raw, it’s real. They’re playing the game, and they’re firing up their teammates.”

The comments marked a vast departure from the game’s sentiments around bat flips and celebrations from an era not so long removed. Padres first baseman Mitch Moreland was among those angry at the time of the Bautista bat flip, while a member of the Rangers. Now a teammate of Tatis, Moreland feels differently.

“It’s just a different game. It’s a new time. I don’t know if you’ll ever see me flip one like that,” Moreland said in October. “It’s just different. It’s a different type of entertainment. It seems like it’s happening more and more all around the league.

“It’s the new baseball.”

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