BOSTON — Earlier in the postseason, Alex Cora told a story about a spring training meeting he held with Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts. His message: “You guys are good. You should play the part.”
In other words, it’s OK to show a little emotion out there.
“They’re great kids. They’re awesome. Very humble,” Cora explained. “But I think people should know who they really are with the way they act on the field. Like Mookie and I talk about him smiling, and Jackie, who is very quiet, the other day he hit that double and he celebrated, finally. And that’s what it’s all about. This is October.”
This World Series is a matchup of two historic franchises from opposite coasts with big payrolls and rosters full of stars. It’s also, in part, a showdown of swagger. The Dodgers have the ultimate showman in Yasiel Puig and an even more controversial sidekick in Manny Machado. The Red Sox … well, maybe it’s not exactly fair to call them old school, but you’re not going to see many bat flips from them or see them posting Instagram videos taunting the opposition. The celebration revolution is changing the culture of baseball, but don’t tell the Red Sox.
I asked David Price if that spring training meeting changed the way Betts, Bradley and Bogaerts played this season. He paused and then laughed a bit. “No, not really,” he said. “Those three guys stay about as even-keeled as I’ve seen in the big leagues. They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low.”
Bogaerts remembered the meeting, if not the message.
“It was me, Jackie and Mookie,” he said. “I don’t recall if there was one more guy. I might be missing someone. But I remember it was us three for sure with [Cora]. He does it the whole season — every day giving us daily reminders no matter if we’re going up or down, if we’re struggling or playing good, just try to remind us how good we are and stay even-keeled, don’t get too high, too low.”
Bursts of emotion from Betts are so rare that Price could even pinpoint a couple of them.
“I haven’t seen Mookie show a whole lot of emotion in the three years that I’ve been his teammate,” he said. “Two times that I really remember was he hit a home run in Milwaukee that was very special, that was last year, pretty sure that was in the top of the eighth inning, huge home run for us, put us in the lead. Then this year the grand slam he hit — I forget how many pitches it was, but it was against J.A. Happ and that was such a big at-bat.”
That celebration from Betts is one captured in MLB’s postseason commercial, titled “Rewrite the rules,” which features Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., his hat backward, declaring, “No more talk. Let the kids play.” MLB is giving its blessing to those spontaneous moments of joy:
“I think the culture of the game obviously has changed,” said Dodgers infielder David Freese, who first reached the majors in 2009. “Whether people agree with it or not, it is about the kids. It really is. You just have to work with that. Whether players get mad and think it’s about us at times, the bottom line is it’s about the next generation. … With so much bad going on in this world, I think it’s important for sports to push having fun.”
Puig had one of his patented displays in Game 2. With the Boston crowd chanting “Beat L.A! Beat L.A.!” in homage to the old Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Puig singled in a run in the fourth inning and when he reached first base he mimicked a basketball player taking a shot. That’s breaking an untold number of unwritten rules and, like everything Puig does, it was a “love it or hate it” kind of moment.
You’re not going to see that from the Red Sox. That doesn’t mean they’re a bunch of robots. Even Betts showed some significant emotion when he scored on J.D. Martinez’s go-ahead single in the fifth inning. He gave a couple of hardy high-fives to teammates, including a two-handed, arms-above-the-head one with Bogaerts, and then pointed to Martinez at first base.
That’s the kind of reaction Cora doesn’t mind seeing from his players. When he talked about that spring training meeting, he invoked the World Baseball Classic from 2017, when he was the general manager of the Puerto Rico team.
“I think we won the hearts of the baseball fans, what we did with the blond hair and all the celebrations and Javy Baez pointing at people,” Cora said. “That was fun. That was awesome, and not because I was the GM. … They [still] played the game right and it was fun. I’m not saying bleach your hair and go to the extreme like that, but I have no problem with them showing emotion on the field.”
A team like the Astros certainly plays with a certain swagger, with Alex Bregman staring into cameras on top of some of their unique home run celebrations in the dugout. Many will argue, however, that Puig in particular takes it too far.
“We got these questions after Puig’s homer in Milwaukee, but we have a blast,” Freese said. “It makes this game fun. Fans want to see it. Players have a good time. Don’t tell me players on Boston don’t have a good time and don’t have a personality. I know guys over there and they have a blast playing this game and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to consistently, genuinely have fun playing this game in the public eye.”
Still, you’re not going to see anybody on the Red Sox leap at home plate after a hit or gesture wildly as he rounds the bases. They have more subtle ways of reacting, like playing “New York, New York” in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium after eliminating their archrivals in the division series or Price mouthing “Post that” in the dugout in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in reference to Bregman’s Instagram posts.
Plus, the idea of the Dodgers possessing more swagger than the Red Sox may not exactly be correct anyway.
“There’s only one guy that shows a lot of emotion on our team,” Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp said. “Come on, you already know who it is. It’s not that bad. We love to have fun. You know, baseball is changing. Guys are celebrating. It’s fun. Fans love to see Puig doing all the different things.”
That gets to the point of the commercial: Baseball is concerned about the future of its fan base, one that skews older than other sports (four-hour postseason games aren’t helping to win over the kids). The game is changing, whether you like it or not.
“We have all these unwritten rules,” Kemp said. “You can’t celebrate. Come on, this is a sport. You see basketball guys celebrating all the time. You see football players doing dances. It’s the same thing.” Or almost the same. “Baseball’s a little bit different though,” Kemp said, “because there are a lot more downs than ups, so sometimes you have to be careful with your celebrations and you can’t talk as much.”
Kemp then referenced the commercial: “Players are starting to accept it more, especially when you have one of the greatest hitters of all time doing a commercial with his hat backward.”
That’s a reminder that older generations weren’t as old school as you may believe. Reggie Jackson admired his home runs. Dennis Eckersley wagged his finger at batters after strikeouts. Griffey wore his hat backward. In Boston, think of the 2004 Red Sox, a team that oozed swagger with guys such as Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar. That team wasn’t shy about showing excitement on the field and letting opponents know how good they were.
So Puig makes like Magic Johnson? That’s not going to ruin the game. Just don’t make like Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis.
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