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Friday, May 16, 2008
Sorting out the acceptable from the bush in baseball

By Jim Caple
Page 2

In case you missed it, Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa was upset by the behavior of the Nationals during New York's loss Monday night. Apparently, the Nationals were showing genuine joy and emotion in beating a division rival. They were -- get this -- cheering on their teammates. What a bunch of bush leaguers! Next thing you know, they'll be signing autographs for free.

"They were cheerleading in the dugout like a bunch of softball girls," Figueroa complained to reporters. "I'm a professional like anyone else. I take huge offense to that."

Hold on, Nelson. Yes, you are a professional but not just "like anyone else." You are a professional baseball player, which means you wear what are essentially pajamas in your workplace, spit tobacco juice on the floor of your office and set your co-workers' shoes on fire. You play baseball, buddy. If you want a professional atmosphere at the stadium then you better wear a suit and tie, drag a desk out to the mound and work on some spreadsheets between pitches.

Of course, Figueroa isn't the only one offended these days. All sorts of people are steamed up over the way Yankees rookie Joba Chamberlain celebrates his strikeouts. It's to the point where you expect Sen. Arlen Specter to demand a congressional investigation. Even this year's Hall of Fame inductee, Goose Gossage took his shot, saying "There's no place for that in the game."

Yes. We must strike all genuine emotion from baseball. Remember, baseball is not a game. It's a serious business.

Baseball players are a curious group. They can be the most insensitive folks you've ever met, finding and then focusing on another's most fragile insecurities. Do you have bad acne? Be prepared for jokes about bobbing for French fries. Happen to have a slightly large nose and somewhat beady eyes? Well, then, it's unavoidable your nickname is going to be Rat (as Gary Gaetti's was). Dave Hollins had a particularly large hat size and called everyone "brother,'' so naturally he was "Brother Head.'' And those are some of the kinder examples.

Break decorum, however, and ballplayers react as if omerta was broken within the Mafia. Failure is such a large and ingrained part of baseball that excessive celebration of success -- which always comes at an opponent's expense -- is considered extremely bad form. Unfortunately, the standard for excessive celebration is constantly evolving. Back in the old days, if you hit a home run, you tucked your head in shame and circled the bases as quickly as possible to avoid drawing attention to yourself. And even then, the next pitch would be stuck right in your ear. These days, nobody even notices if you round the bases so slowly that a boy scout would be tempted to help you to home plate.

Barry Bonds had a hand in that. I remember following Barry as he approached Mark McGwire's single-season home run record in late 2001. Barry, even at his prodigious pace, did not homer every game, which left a lot of downtime with little to do beyond wait and worry about what to write. Bored one day, a colleague put me up to asking closer Billy Wagner this question:

"If Barry hit the record-breaking home run off you, would you be offended if he stopped at second base, bent over and shot a skyrocket out from his rear end?"

As I recall, Wagner replied very seriously, "I don't think Barry would do that."

Well, of course not. That would show a lack of respect. We can all agree that shooting rockets out of your rear end would be showing up an opponent. But what about all the gray area of celebratory gestures in between a grim smile of satisfaction and a double-cheeked pyrotechnic display? Unfortunately, there is a lot of disagreement.

What we need is to have players get together and settle on a Miss Manners list of proper baseball etiquette. Here's a start:

Acceptable behavior is crossing home plate and pointing toward the sky to pay tribute to God or a deceased relative or friend. Showing up your opponent is crossing home plate and pointing to the family-members section to indicate you slept with the pitcher's wife last night.

Wearing a rally cap inside out is acceptable. Wearing a rally cup inside out is bush-league.

A brief fist pump following a game-ending strikeout is acceptable. Showing up your opponent is performing a Leslie Nielsen "Naked Gun" style moondance after a first-inning called strike.

Leading cheers in the dugout during innings is bush-league. Leading cheerleaders into the clubhouse between innings is big league.

Exchanging handshakes and slapping high fives with teammates in the dugout after a home run is acceptable. Exchanging handshakes and slapping high fives with fans down the left-field line, the beer vendor in section 221 and your agent in a luxury suite is showing up your opponent.

Scratching away the outline of the batter's box with your foot is big league. Marking the batter's box as your territory with your urine is bush-league.

Hugging members of the Maris or Sisler family after breaking a record is not only acceptable, it is honorable. Showing up your opponent is hugging members of "The Hills."

And finally … Yelling "I got it" during an infield popup is bush-league. As is yelling, "I got the clap -- from your girlfriend!"

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans," is on sale now.