Commentary

On-field celebrations sadly here to stay

Originally Published: May 14, 2008
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

In the only winner-take-all regular-season game in the history of Yankee Stadium, the Yankees beat the Red Sox on the final day of the 1949 season to win the pennant and advance to the World Series. "We didn't celebrate on the field, we didn't even shake hands," said former Yankees second baseman Jerry Coleman. "We just ran into the clubhouse."

Sixty years later, things have changed dramatically. Now players celebrate all the time. A pitcher will pump his fist, or blow imaginary smoke from his index finger, after striking out a hitter in the sixth inning with a six-run lead. Hitters celebrate irrelevant home runs with complicated handshakes and elaborate dances, all in full view of the opposition.

"Last year, a guy -- I'm not going to tell you who he is -- hit a double against us in the eighth or ninth inning when we were up seven, eight runs," said Nationals infielder Aaron Boone. "When he got to second base, he did the three-clap, then pointed skyward. I was playing first; I was trailing the play. I watched this, then I congratulated him. I said, 'Hey, nice going.'"

Click here to check out what fans said about on-field antics during Tuesday's edition of the Chatter Up! segment on "Baseball Tonight."

These histrionics are not limited to baseball -- they are in all sports and in society. They are, in part, the residue of ESPN, talk radio, the Internet, etc. NFL wide receivers routinely give the first-down signal after a 10-yard catch in the first quarter (wonder how Mel Blount feels about that). College basketball players scream at the roof when they make a 3-pointer in the first half (from the same distance as middle school kids). Baseball was the last sport to resort to such antics, but now it has joined the fun. But for most, it's not fun.

"I don't like it -- it is disrespectful to the players and to the game, to showboat," said Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher. "Today, it's about me. It's not about winning teams or competing teams. There's so much individualism in sports. I was told by veteran players coming up: Don't show up your opponent. And I'm not buying the excuse that 'I'm just being me.' That sums it up. It's about me. With some of the contortions today, they have to be rehearsed. They're not spontaneous. If it's spontaneous, emotional, elation, no one would have a problem with that. But today's players need a choreographer for their stunts."

And what would Sutton do if a player flipped a bat after hitting a meaningless homer off him?

"The next time up," Sutton said, "I'd see how many buttons I could take off of his jersey."

What if a hitter did that to Bob Gibson? "Bob would say, 'Next time up, you better dig a big hole in the batter's box because I'm going to bury you.' I heard him say that," said Sutton.

Some of the things these guys do are ridiculous. There are a bunch of selfish, self-centered players
today.

--Former player and manager Frank Robinson

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson says today's hotdogging "bothers me a lot. Some of the things these guys do are ridiculous. There are a bunch of selfish, self-centered players today."

And what if a pitcher blew imaginary smoke from his finger after striking out Robinson?

"Next time up," Robinson said, "I'd hit a home run. Then I'd tell him, 'Blow on that.'"

It is unclear when excessive celebration began. "It started with TV, with 'SportsCenter,' in the early '80s," Robinson said. "Guys would see someone do it on TV, then they would copy it or try to top it. One guy would do it differently, then the next guy would have to do it differently. It's all about themselves, and that's not how the game is supposed to be played."

Said Sutton: "I blame the video games. My 11-year-old daughter has a video game where a batter is hit by a pitch [and] charges the mound. We're teaching a generation of kids that if you don't like something that happens, charge the mound. Baseball is reflected in a video game."

Some trace the change in decorum to the late '80s when Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame pitcher, pumped his fist after getting the final out of a save. Around that same time, Expos pitcher Pascual Perez would gyrate after a crucial strikeout. Reds closer Jeff Brantley would do an uppercut fist pump after each save. Others have mentioned former Reds reliever Brad "The Animal" Lesley, who basically screamed like a madman after getting one of the 217 outs he recorded in his career. Others mentioned pitchers Joaquin Andujar and Jose Lima. And then there were all the hitters who flipped their bats after homers.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Al Bello/Getty ImagesYankees reliever Joba Chamberlain has become the poster child for players who show excessive emotion on the field.
But certainly in the case of Eckersley and Brantley, those were good pitchers being emotional and spontaneous after recording a save. Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain occasionally gives an emphatic fist pump after a strikeout in the eighth inning, something that Indians outfielder David Dellucci objected to (Dellucci hit a three-run homer off Chamberlain to win a game on May 6). It's not just Chamberlain, but players and pitchers all over the big leagues.

"As a hitter, I'd be a little annoyed," Boone said of Joba. "But I wouldn't give it much thought."

It was more than a little annoying to the Marlins on the final Saturday of last season when Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Lastings Milledge did a contrived dance in front of the Marlins' dugout -- in full view of Florida's players -- after Milledge hit a home run. Later in that game, Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo fought with Reyes at third base.

The perceived disrespect shown to the Marlins fired them up so much, they scored seven runs in the first inning the next day, knocked out Tom Glavine and knocked the Mets out of the playoffs.

Recently, Glavine (now with the Braves) said his former team gave the Marlins more incentive to win that final game.

"I'm not a big fan of what's going on today," said Marlins outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who is 40 years old. "After a win, everyone has a different handshake, and everyone is jumping up and down. I just have a normal handshake or maybe a high-five. When [Marlins shortstop] Hanley [Ramirez] sees me in line after a game, he looks me in the eye and gives me a normal handshake."

Gonzalez educates young players on how and when to celebrate. "Earlier in the year, [Braves shortstop Yunel] Escobar flipped his bat and pointed in the stands after hitting a homer," Gonzalez said. "We were ahead, 7-1. After the game, I went to him and spoke to him in Spanish so he could understand me. I told him, 'Hey, we don't play the game like that.'"

When he was with the Diamondbacks, Gonzalez approached his teammate, closer Jose Valverde, who always has been demonstrative about the outs he gets in the ninth inning, especially the third out.

"I had to talk to Valverde more than once," Gonzalez said. "I told him, 'You're not helping us.' I heard what the guys in the 'pen on the other team were yelling at me when I'd go out in the field. They'd yell, 'He's going to get one of your guys killed.'"

There was some showboating 30 years ago, but players then understood the ramifications.

I don't like it -- it is disrespectful to the players and to the game, to showboat. Today, it's about me. It's not about winning teams or competing teams.

--Former pitcher Don Sutton

"I remember when Willie Montanez played for us [the Phillies in the early '70s]," said former major leaguer and current Marlins broadcaster Tommy Hutton. "When he hit a home run, he took a big turn around first base. He hit a home run one night off Fergie Jenkins. Willie had this lisp, and he had this Spanish accent, and he would come in the dugout and say "I know that [expletive] is going to knock me down next time. And the next time up, boom, Jenkins hit him. But Willie knew. Today, after someone gets hit, and the next guy throws in, the hitter goes nuts. To me, it worked better when the players policed themselves. You hit my guy, we hit your guy. We're even. Let's go."

Aaron Boone's father, Bob, played in the 1970s. "I remember when my dad played, the high five was just coming in," Aaron Boone said. "Back then, it was like, 'a high five, ooooh.' My dad didn't even do that. I guess he didn't think he was cool enough to pull it off."

Thirty years ago, there were no parties staged at home plate after a game-winning home run. Now, teams celebrate a walk-off home run in June more than some teams have celebrated the final out of a World Series. "I think you can trace back the bouncing [by team members] at home plate to the 1999 Reds," Boone said. "I remember it being a Jeffrey Hammonds thing. He said, 'When we get to home plate, let's bounce.' And it took off."

Aaron Boone and Gonzalez had two of the biggest walk-off hits in this century. Boone's home run off Boston's Tim Wakefield sent the Yankees to the World Series in 2003. He gave a memorable bat toss on that one. "Well, anything goes in that situation," Boone said, smiling. "Derek Jeter told me he would have walked around the bases backwards." Gonzalez's walk-off single against Mariano Rivera won the 2001 World Series.

[+] EnlargeAngels celebrate
John Cordes/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesSign of the times: This is a scene that's common in today's game.
Gonzalez leaped in the air with joy. "That was a whole different ball of wax," he said, smiling.

No one is trying to take the emotion out of the game. No one is saying that teams shouldn't celebrate a walk-off home run with a bouncing circle of teammates at home plate. It's great for the game. But, Gonzalez says, "There is a time and place for everything. You have to pick your spots." And the sixth inning of an 8-1 game in June is not the time or place.

"I don't see Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine or Mike Mussina doing that," Sutton says. "I don't see Chipper Jones doing that. I don't see classy record holders doing that. I remember when [former Dallas Cowboys running back] Emmitt Smith danced in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. After the game, Emmitt's mom called him and said, 'Act like you've done that before, and act like you're going to do it again.' If Emmitt's mama said it, it works for me."

Robinson agreed, but said the days of Maddux, Glavine, Jones and Mussina are over.

"We're going to keep seeing this stuff," he said. "You can't undo it. There is no rule in place to stop it. There's no going back."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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