Jose Bautista punctuated a probability-bending Blue Jays rally that featured three Rangers defensive misplays in succession by obliterating a three-run homer, the decisive moment in his team’s 6-3 winner-take-all Game 5 victory over the Rangers in the American League Division Series. Yet in some ways, the consequence of the blast – entry into the American League Championship Series against the Royals – has become secondary to its immediate aftermath.
Bautista, after watching his satellite crash off the facing of the second deck in left-center, delivered the Joey Bats flip heard ‘round the world, a violent lefthanded fling that arced towards the Rangers dugout with nearly the same force as the homer itself. Barry Svurgla of the Washington Post proclaimed Bautista’s bat flip the one to which all future bat flips will bow.
The slugger told reporters (including Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com) that he got lost in the moment.
Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, who gave up the blast, said Bautista’s conduct was “unacceptable,” with the Blue Jays masher assuming (as described by Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News) status as Rangers Public Enemy No. 1.
There was a time when such a display would have been unfathomable.
“Can you imagine somebody doing this to Bob Gibson?” Kevin Boles, the manager of the Red Sox’ Triple A affiliate in Pawtucket, wondered aloud. “It wouldn’t happen.”
That said, Bautista was far from the first bat-flipper in postseason lore. Thirty years ago, Jack Clark’s NLCS Game 6 ninth-inning homer against the Dodgers introduced the bat drop as a prelude to the tour around the bases that seemed to take about five minutes.
More memorably, however, was a blast by Cardinals utility man Tom Lawless in Game 4 of the 1987 World Series against the Twins. Lawless greeted his second career homer by walking halfway down the first base line to admire it and then unloading his bat in a way that had virtually never been seen prior to that.
Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez remembers the blast well. He’d been in big league camp with Lawless and the Cardinals that spring before spending the 1987 season with St. Louis’ Triple A affiliate in Louisville, an invested observer in the outcome of that postseason. His thoughts when Lawless unloaded on Frank Viola’s offering?
“Oh my God,” recalled Rodriguez. “I was like, ‘What is this guy doing? What’s going on with this guy?’ He was a guy who hit only one homer in his career. But the value of the home run at the time, for him, it was probably the best thing he’d ever done. In the moment, that was a big homer. But he took it a little bit too far. Even guys who hit homers, power hitters, they’d just hit it and run. At some points, they’d probably stay at home a little longer, but throwing the bat like that, it was a strange thing to see.”
Slowly but steadily, the post-homer bat flip has infiltrated the game. Part of it relates to the internationalization of the game, given that bat flips are standard fare in numerous foreign leagues.
“The way the Australian player handles hitting the home run as opposed to someone in Venezuela or the Dominican or the United States, there are different ways that guys react to success culturally. That’s how it is,” said Boles, who has managed winter ball in both Venezuela and Australia. “There were some things I saw in Venezuela that were more animated. The same with Australia. And some of the American players have brought that into their game here.”
“In Japan,” noted Darren Fenster, the manager of the Sox’ Single A Greenville affiliate, “sometimes on routine flyouts guys are flipping bats back to the mound on a routine flyout. It is definitely a cultural thing. But for what we’re trying to do here, there’s a way to do things right and respect the game. Bat flipping, home run pimping, pitchers staring down batters, that’s not in line with what we’re trying to instill in players.”
(The New York Daily News’ examination of memorable bat flips includes some noteworthy global instances.)
At the minor league level, bat flips are rarely seen. Fenster said that he hasn’t seen a single instance of a bat flip from one of his Greenville players. If there is a demonstrative response in the minors – whether to a homer by a hitter or a strikeout by a pitcher – intervention comes swiftly, whether from a player’s own dugout or from the other team.
“Has anyone ever taught the bat flip to a minor league ballplayer from a coaching standpoint as an instructor? I would hope not,” said Boles. “No matter what action you’re performing, whether you’re a pitcher or hitter, act like you’ve done it before. It’s what you’re supposed to do. There’s a way to play the game with class and dignity.
In the big leagues, however, there’s an unspoken sliding scale of permissibility – one that takes into account game situations as well as career status. Rodriguez, for instance, chided Xander Bogaerts after the shortstop hit his first career grand slam on Sept. 21, one that not only cleared the fence but that gave the Sox a dramatic come-from-behind win. Bogaerts walked out of the box while following the ball’s flight and then tossed the bat towards his dugout.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? Run!’” Rodriguez said, laughing at the recollection. “He stood at home plate and I was like, ‘What are you doing? You power hitter, you?’ I said, ‘How many homers have you hit this year?’ But sometimes you do those things and you don’t even realize you did it. You’re just excited in the moment. You don’t really mean to do something like that, but it just feels good because of what you just did.”
Rodriguez’s critique was borne in part of the fact that Bogaerts had just seven homers in 2015 and 20 in his career. At 22, he did not have the resume to claim the right for such a reaction – even if it was a reflection of the game situation. Over time, however, there’s a sense on the field that certain players earn the right to treat a majestic homer with the same sort of animation that has become standard fare following dunks, and that if opponents and pitchers do not appreciate the grandstanding, it’s their responsibility to keep the ball in the park in the first place.
That, certainly, has become the case for players like Bautista and David Ortiz. Ortiz at times has become a lightning rod on the subject, with Rays pitchers such as David Price and Chris Archer having criticized him for disrespecting the game. Yet Ortiz shows little willingness to yield what is seen as an earned right.
“David Ortiz with Tampa, a lot of time if he hits one I bet he wants to flip the bat [more] because of whatever happened between them,” noted Rodriguez. “I see a kid hitting homers and flipping bats and you think, ‘Who is this guy?’ But you see David Ortiz hitting a bomb for his 500th homer, and I think he’s earned that.”
“Veterans get more rope. The superstars and the guys who have been around for years, the game understands who those guys are,” agreed Boles. “You need to know who you are in the game – what you’ve done, how much rope you have, how much credibility you have. Guys who are borderline Triple A to big league players? You haven’t earned that right.”
Bautista’s demonstration? Outside of the Rangers dugout, many in the baseball community viewed that as unobjectionable, a demonstration of the electricity coursing through a moment when a game and season were on the line, the pendulum swinging from elimination to triumph in a seventh inning where the Rogers Centre crowd showered the field repeatedly with debris.
“That game in Toronto, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen emotions so high in a single game in my life,” said Fenster. “You still don’t encourage [bat-flipping], but you understand it a little bit.”
Yet situational understanding may give way over time to something more. Perhaps a generation of baseball fans in Canada growing up mimicking Bautista’s furious celebration, the equivalent of a new generation’s Fisk-like dance down the first-base line in homage to the Red Sox catcher’s legendary Game 6 homer in the 1975 World Series.
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