On the Line Between Emotion and Sportsmanship

You probably don’t need an introductory paragraph to this post. You read the title, so you already know what this one is about. Last night, with one swing, Jose Bautista untied the deciding game of the Blue Jays/Rangers series, and then Jose Bautista did this.

If you’re a Blue Jays fan, odds are you loved it.

The team hasn’t been to the postseason in 22 years, and have been lousy for most of that stretch. A few days ago, the team dropped the first two games of this series and looked like they were going to have a disappointing end to a promising season, only to go on the road and win a couple of games to force this decisive game five. Cole Hamels had mostly stifled the team’s offense, giving a crowd who came to be as loud as possible few reasons to make noise. And then, in the top half of the inning, the Rangers had taken the lead on a fluke play that hardly anyone even knew could happen. The crowd was tense and angry, and they were looking for a moment to release their frustration. And Joey Bats gave them exactly what they wanted.

Not everyone enjoyed the spectacle, however. Sam Dyson, the Rangers pitcher who gave up Bautista’s home run, said this when talking to the media after the game.

“I told him Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more,” Dyson said. “He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”

Dyson certainly isn’t alone in feeling this way.

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For a significant portion of people watching, Bautista’s act violated the principles of sportsmanship that were instilled in us in Little League when we were kids. We all heard the same messages, and they’re important life lessons to teach kids, who aren’t born with the awareness of other people’s feelings. Sportsmanship, at its core, is acknowledging the validity of the opponents humanity, realizing that your exhilaration comes at the cost of someone else’s despair. Teaching people to respect the feelings of those around you, or even in competition against you, and to not make their suffering worse, is probably one of the most important qualities we can pass down.

So while I’m not always a fan of baseball’s unwritten rules, or the fact that so many confrontations end up involving a white player lecturing a minority who was raised in a different culture about how they should behave, I appreciate the origins of these ideas. Dyson, and those who think Bautista should have just put his head down and casually jogged around the bases, aren’t attempting to deprive individuals of joy; they’re trying to enforce a code that elevates someone else’s feelings above your own. There’s honor in that principle.

Sportsmanship has value, and I appreciate where these sentiments come from. But those values flow both directions, and respecting the game shouldn’t be a hammer that is used to pound emotion out of those competing at the highest level. “There’s a time and a place for celebration,” I was regularly told by coaches preaching the same virtues that Dyson grew up with. They were right. And last night, in Toronto, it was the time and place for one hell of a celebration.

One of the battlecries of the anti-bat-flip crowd is “act like you’ve been there before.” Which is perfectly reasonable, assuming you’ve actually been there before. This wasn’t a third inning home run in May; this was a series-winning home run to cap off an improbable comeback for a team whose closer wasn’t born the last time Blue Jays were in the playoffs. Jose Bautista had never been here before. This was the defining at-bat of his career, what he’d spent 30 years working towards, the biggest moment of his professional life.

This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill home run. This is one of the great moments in Toronto sports history, and will be etched into the collective memory of every Blue Jays fan fortunate enough to see Bautista take that swing. As soon as Bautista connected, everyone else in the Rogers Centre lost their minds.

That moment, when years of pent-up frustration was exorcised with a single swing, didn’t call for stoicism. Jose Bautista didn’t throw his bat like a javelin because he was attempting to bring attention to himself, or show up the Rangers; he was participating in a wide-scale celebration that his swing set off. Fans jumped and screamed and embraced and spilled their beers and cried; Bautista, alone at the plate, joined the bedlam in the most natural way possible.

Bautista showed emotion in an emotional moment, because that’s what human beings do. We feel, and we react, and we have to be trained to contain those emotions, because it isn’t what comes naturally. We contain them because emotional outbursts are not always appropriate, and we don’t want to make others around us uncomfortable. But last night was an appropriate time to celebrate. It was a moment of release for a crowd ready to explode, the natural outflow of passion from a player who badly wants to win.

So often during the season, these very same players are criticized for making too much money, for turning a children’s game into big business. But then, when the games matter most and they remind us that they care deeply about the game itself and the competition it breeds, they get criticized for caring too much, and for not downplaying their greatest accomplishments.

I’m all for sportsmanship, for considering the feelings of others, and for not taunting your opponents after their best is not quite good enough. If Jose Bautista had this same reaction to hitting a third inning home run in May, when 25,000 people stood and gave smattered applause, then I’d have a different reaction. But the postseason is great in large part because the stakes are so high, because the tension is palpable, and because we live and die on the results of every swing. The players should have the right to feel the same way.

Jose Bautista wasn’t showboating last night; he was celebrating. It was a moment that will live on in baseball history, and the inappropriate response would have been to pretend that it didn’t matter. It did matter to everyone in attendance, to everyone in the organization, to his teammates, and to Bautista himself. And when he did something truly great, pushing his team to victory in the biggest game of his life, we’re all better off celebrating with him.

If you can’t celebrate in that moment, then none of this is worth anything.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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internet cmomenter
7 years ago


Carlos Guillen
7 years ago

You call that a stare down?

7 years ago
Reply to  Carlos Guillen

Pitchers scream and pump their fists when the get a big out or throw a no hitter. Why the double standards?

Old School
7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

Joey NoClass.

7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

One of the most memorable innings in MLB history.

7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

Pitchers that do that while looking at their teammates or bench or away from the hitter are right. Pitchers that do that while staring down the batter or the other team are wrong. It’s not brain surgery.

7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

When they take it too far, people *do* call them on being douches (c.f. John Rocker), so there’s not a really hard line about it.

7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

Typically, it doesn’t delay the game if a pitcher celebrates, but a player pausing at home is reveling (when he has another 15 seconds he can spend reveling as he rounds the bases)

. But plenty of people have criticized, for instance, K-Rod for celebrating excessively when saving a 3-run lead in a June game. It’s just rare to see it with pitchers.

Painfully Real
7 years ago

You, my friend, are a rancid piece of shit.