Skip to main content

Please stop asking old baseball players what they think about the game

Bert Blyleven's comments on Puerto Rico at the WBC are as old and tired as the last time a former player complained about the game.

The World Baseball Classic was fun. I know that, you know that, the fans know that. And part of what made this year's WBC so fun was how much excitement and emotion you could see on the field from players of all countries. Even the members of Team USA—a normally staid bunch that has never quite seemed fully in the flow of previous WBCs—were jazzed as hell to bring home the country's first title.

But amid the exuberance and celebration of this year's WBC, old men stirred, angry and cranky about guys having fun. Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, who happened to be pitching coach for the Netherlands, didn't like what he saw during his team's loss to Puerto Rico. That game happened to feature a metric ton of style and flair, which didn't sit well with ol' Bert.

"I like emotion, guys getting revved up, but you can take it maybe a little bit too far," Blyleven told MLB Network Radio. "Maybe [the Puerto Rican players] were very sure of themselves, but in the game of baseball, I know when I played, if you showed that hot-dog-ism, you may get a baseball in your ribs."

It's important to note that Blyleven wasn't advocating for hitting a guy for the cardinal sin of flipping a bat, and that, as a whole, he liked the WBC and the emotion and passion it brought out. But the idea of policing just how much fun a player can have— trying to draw a line between good old-fashioned excitement and showing someone up—is pointless and silly (especially when you consider that the biggest show of emotion in the Puerto Rico-Netherlands game came from one of his own players, Dutch slugger Wladimir Balentien). It reeks of the same "unwritten rules" mess that engulfs the game every time a player (usually a pitcher) gets mad about a hitter admiring his handiwork.

The debate over those unwritten rules is, at this point, almost as tiresome as the rules themselves, Every time a former player complains about a bat flip or a fist pump, it starts the cycle all over again. I have a solution: Let's stop asking these players what they think about how the game is played. And let's ignore them when they fall back on the old excuse that back in their day, the game was played The Right Way.

The chief culprit in this is Hall of Famer Goose Gossage, who practically wets himself every time someone dares to have fun. Gossage's bleating about how soft today's players are and how much he hates the current game adds nothing to the discourse around idiotic comments are still given space and air.

Enough already. No one needs to know what Gossage thinks about baseball as it currently exists, or what Blyleven thinks is the proper amount of emotion to display in a win-or-go-home game, or what any graying legend from the game's past feels about the young folks. All it does is make the sport feel retrograde at a time when it's growing internationally and full of exciting young superstars. Men like Gossage and Blyleven get their license to carp because of the baked-in reverence that baseball holds for its seniors—particularly Hall of Famers—and it benefits no one but themselves. All Gossage cares about is puffing up his own image and making his era of the game look like the toughest and best. These men don't care about presenting baseball as an appealing and fun sport; they simply want current and future generations to remember how gritty and macho they were. They come across like old drunks at a bar challenging you to a fight over nothing.

The truth is that, no matter how far you go back, older players have always done this. Back in 1954, Sports Illustratedasked a number of Hall of Famers their thoughts on whether players were as tough then as they were back in the day (the headline was quite literally "Are today's baseball players sissies compared to the old-timers?"). The responses shouldn't surprise you. Here's one from Jimmie Foxx, who retired in 1945:

"Today they don't have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines. There'll never be an 'Old Hoss' Radbourne [sic] again. In one season he pitched the last 27 games and won 26."

Here's Cy Young, who was born two years after the Civil War ended and was 87 years old when SI talked to him:

"Yes. They can't take it. I've seen some of them threaten the pitcher when a ball brushed them back. Most rugged old-timers took this as a part of the game. It's the rule today to use several pitchers in one game. Iron Man McGinnity pitched 55 games for the Giants in 1903. He won three double-headers in one month."

Here's Lefty Grove:

"Yes. The old-timers did a lot more with much less. On the field the other guys were our enemies. No fraternizing. Today a guy will get a single and start gabbing with the first baseman. He can't pitch and play every position on the team. Pitcher Radbourne did. He played in 85 games one year and won 60."

Old baseball players have always been disdainful (if not downright hateful) of the game that exists after they leave it. And why wouldn't they? The eras they played in were wildly different, not just on the field (note the reverence for Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, who pitched in the 1880s and once threw 678 2/3 innings across 75 games in a single season) but also in general. Young's playing career began before the car was invented; he died in a time when you could fly across the country in less than a day.

So why do we keep asking these old men, decades removed from the game and far out of the cultural and social mainstream, what they think about things now? Why don't we instead actually talk to the guys who are actively playing what they think about the sport and how they feel about being emotional and having fun?

Actually, let's do that. Here's the usually reserved Buster Posey on Team USA's win:

Here's Pat Neshek, who pitched in relief for Team USA:

Here's Christian Yelich, also of Team USA:

Here's Puerto Rico's Kiké Hernandez:

That's what matters: the fun these guys had and how important these games and this tournament was to them, not whether Bert Blyleven thinks that Carlos Correa pumped his fist a little too hard after hitting a massive home run.

Even among current players, there will always be guys who are sticks in the mud about bat flips and emotions. But more and more, it seems like the tide is turning—like current players are embracing more and more the idea of having some fun while you play instead of keeping everything tamped down in order to appease the old guard. After all, the WBC was fun precisely because these guys let go and showed their emotions. So let's do ourselves a favor: When it comes time to talk about the sport and the direction it's going, let's leave the likes of Gossage and Blyleven to yell at clouds.