When the Wrong Way Is the Right Way

October 28, 2013

This year marks the 50th anniversary of hotdog as a verb, a milestone that really ought to call more attention to itself, the way a hot-dogging baseball player invites notice by admiring the arc of a ball he's just hit, or by wearing the hem of his pants too low (or too high), or by being—as Vic Power was 50 years ago—conspicuously conspicuous.

As a star from Puerto Rico when few existed, the Gold Glove--winning first baseman attracted scrutiny for playing ... the Wrong Way. "In some cases Power is just classified as 'a bad guy,'" wrote one reporter in 1960, struggling to put a finger on it. "In others the players malign him about his one-handed style of fielding and the singular way he wags his bat at the plate. He is called a 'hot dog,' which is baseball slang for showing off, or a 'show boat.'"

Showboat, as a verb, dates to 1951, the year before Jimmy Piersall got demoted by the Red Sox and said, "I think they farmed out the greatest outfielder in baseball." Piersall, who would later be diagnosed as bipolar, was just 22, and the rookie's self-praise was met with ridicule. One wire service reported his name as "Showboat Jim Piersall."

When the Cardinals complained last week that the demonstrative Dodgers weren't playing the game the Right Way, the only long-standing tradition the Redbirds were really upholding was the one in which anybody who does anything indefinably different in baseball is thought to be hotdogging, showboating or acting—in St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright's description—"Mickey Mouse."

Never mind that 50 years ago Missouri native Walt Disney and Cardinals owner Gussie Busch nearly put a theme park in St. Louis, a deal that reportedly broke down over Walt's unwillingness to sell beer. (He settled for Orlando.) Never mind that the Cardinals have a history every bit as showy as the Dodgers'—that pitcher Joaquin Andujar was called a "hot dog" by the Brewers' Jim Gantner for pointing at opposing batters during the 1982 World Series, or that shortstop Garry Templeton called himself a hot dog and was shipped to San Diego for Ozzie Smith, who in turn used to cartwheel onto the diamond.

In the more inane depictions of this year's NLCS, the Cards and the Dodgers were a red-state blue-state clash of ideologies: Midwestern values vs. Left Coast narcissism. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are every bit the baseball blue bloods as their World Series opponents. Yet Boston's fans were called "classless" in the ALCS by Tigers prospect Ben Verlander, Justin's brother, tweeting from the family section at Fenway Park.

"Classless" is another word for "bush league," an adjective that baseball gave to the world in 1906. By then, so many players were competing the Wrong Way that the game had long ago coined a different word for their boorish behavior: grandstanding.

"It's little things ... which make the 'grand stand player,'" wrote Hall of Fame outfielder King Kelly in his 1888 book Play Ball. "They make impossible catches, and when they get the ball they roll over the field ... just to win the applause of the grand stand."

From the beginning of baseball, grandstanding was seen as both bush league and Mickey Mouse. By contrast, bench jockeying was anything but Mickey Mouse. Not even when it meant referring to Cliff Melton, a giant-eared Giants pitcher of the 1930s and '40s, as "Mickey Mouse."

Why is hotdogging still considered bush league? Kelly, 125 years ago, offered an honest answer: "Possibly because I cannot perform the feat myself," he wrote. "It's a pretty difficult matter for me to catch a high fly, anyway. I never practiced the rolling on the ground part of it. If I did, I have an idea that I would drop the ball, and then the 'grand stand' would make it very warm for me."

Next time Yasiel Puig hits a stand-up triple after walking most of the way to first base, think of the possibility that what most irritates a grandstander's critic is this: I cannot perform the feat myself. Extraordinary skill is the quality most so-called showboats have in common. The rest depends on your point of view. In baseball, as in baseball concessions, no one can say what a hot dog is made of.

With their "Mickey Mouse" cracks during the NLCS, the only tradition the Cardinals upheld was that of calling anyone who is indefinably different a hot dog.

Who's the biggest showboat in the World Series?

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PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)