Bat Flips and Touchdown Celebrations: Should Major League Baseball follow the NFL in Policing Celebrations?

The Major League Baseball season is under way which means there will be bat flips and home run celebrations.  Inevitably, this means there will be benches-clearing brawls after a pitcher has made a “retaliation” pitch in on a batter that celebrates a home run.  This exact sequence of events happened recently when Derek Dietrich hit a 436-foot home run off Chris Archer.  Dietrich knew it was a home run right off the bat and decided to stand in the box and admire his long home run.  The Pirates did not take kindly to Dietrich admiring his home run and catcher Francisco Cervelli had some choice words for Dietrich as he crossed home plate.

Not surprisingly, in Dietrich’s next at bat, Archer threw behind Dietrich to show his displeasure.  This led to a benches-clearing brawl between the two teams that lasted almost 10 minutes.  The culmination of the brawl happened when Red’s Outfielder Yasiel Puig tried to fight the entire Pittsburgh Pirates organization.  Following this brawl, Major League Baseball suspended Chris Archer for 5 games, Yasiel Puig for 2 games, and Cincinnati Red’s manager David Bell for 1 game.

Bench-clearing brawls stemming from bat flips are nothing new to Major League Baseball.  Former Toronto Blue Jay Jose Bautista was often in the middle of these bat flipping brawls.  Bautista was involved in, arguably, the most infamous bat flip of all time during game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series (ALDS) against the Texas Rangers.  In the top of the seventh inning, prior to Bautista’s home run, the Rangers scored a run after Blue Jay’s catcher Russel Martin through back to the pitcher and errantly hit the batter’s bat.  After hitting the batter’s bat, the ball rolled past the catcher thereby allowing the runner from third to score.  The umpire at first called the play dead, but after review, the umpires determined that it was a live ball and that the Ranger’s run scored giving Texas a 3-2 lead.  Rogers Centre and the entire Blue Jays organization was livid.  Fueled by emotion in the bottom of the seventh inning, Jose Bautista hit a 3-run go-ahead home run and flipped his bat in the air in celebration.

The Rangers did not take kindly to Bautista’s bat flip.  Following Bautista’s home run, the Rangers were eliminated in game 5 of the ALDS and did not see the Blue Jays until the following 2016 season.  The Rangers never forgot about Bautista’s bat flip and went for revenge in their first meeting of the 2016 season.  Rangers’ pitcher Matt Bush hit Bautista in the eighth inning of their first game since the 2015 ALDS.  On the next play, Bautista slid hard into second and a huge brawl ensued which included punches landed.

Major League Baseball clearly does not want these brawls to continue.  It makes the league look bad and the players look childish.  The problem is, there is an unwritten rule in baseball, but not everyone has the rulebook.  The unwritten rule is that a batter is not allowed to stare at his home run from the batter’s box or flip his bat into the air in celebration after a home run.  The unwritten rule follows that if a batter celebrates in this way, a pitcher will throw at him in retaliation.  However, not every pitcher follows this rule.  Some pitchers don’t care what a batter does in celebration of a home run.  This ultimately leads to some pitchers enforcing this unwritten rule by hitting batters and causing bench-clearing brawls, whereas others simply let batters bat flip and celebrate all they want.

This unwritten code in baseball has simply led to many batters not knowing if they are allowed to celebrate or if they will be retaliated against by the pitcher if they do celebrate.  Major League Baseball could address this situation by codifying these unwritten rules, thereby setting standards and penalties for in-game celebrations.

The NFL has done this by setting rules for celebrations, however, the NFL continues to adjust its rules to protect the league while not squashing player creativity, which fans love.  The NFL began its crusade against excessive celebrations in 1984 when it included in its rulebook an excessive celebration rule that stated “There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principals of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others: (c) Any prolonged, excessive, or premeditated celebration by individual players or groups of players will be construed as unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Fast forward to 2000, where then San Francisco 49er receiver Terrell Owens brought celebrations to the spotlight when he celebrated a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys by standing over the Dallas star at midfield.  The Dallas Cowboys players saw this as disrespect and when Owens went to the star at midfield after his second touchdown, Dallas Cowboys Safety George Teague tackled Owens.

Terrell Owens, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn, and other NFL players became famous for their creative touchdown celebrations.  Touchdown celebrations were growing in popularity until the National Football League decided to make an effort to cut down on celebrations in 2006.  The rule changes gave officials the power to penalize a team 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff for any excessive celebrations anywhere on the field.

As time went on the rules against certain celebrations grew more specific.  Going to the ground in celebration soon became a penalty.  This rule ended in controversy when Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah was given a 15-yard penalty for going to the ground after scoring on an interception.  It was later determined that Abdullah was simply kneeling in prayer as a player of Muslim faith.

Following more specific touchdown celebration rules, the league began to garner more criticism from its fans.  Most fans loved the celebrations and thought they made the game more fun.  With the league cracking down on more and more celebrations, fans soon nicknamed the NFL the “no fun league.”  This criticism led the league to relax its touchdown celebration rules in 2017.  The NFL now allows the football to be used as a prop in a celebration, celebrating on the ground, and group celebrations.  This change was welcomed by fans as they saw this as the league allowing players to be creative in their celebrations and bring more fun to the game.

Major League Baseball can look to the NFL as an example of how to address celebrations.  The NFL has written rules about celebrations, but the league has also learned not to go too far in its rules. These rules allow the NFL to control its product by making sure no rude gestures are made and fights between teams do not break out over celebrations; while also allowing players and fans to have fun.

Major League Baseball can do the same by allowing celebrations that make the game fun, like bat flips and pitcher celebrations on the mound.  However, the MLB can also prohibit any inappropriate celebrations and enforce penalties against players that start fights over celebrations.  By codifying these rules in the game, Major League Baseball players will know for certain which conduct is appropriate and which conduct is inappropriate.  In doing this, Major League Baseball can properly police its game while also keeping the game fun and entertaining for its fans.

Update:

Just today (April 17, 2019) Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson hit a 418-foot home run against the Kansas City Royals and celebrated with a bat flip.  In his next at bat, he was hit by a pitch for breaking baseball’s “unwritten rule” and a brawl ensued.  This news underscores the need for a baseball to address this “unwritten rule.”

Photo Courtesy:

Golf Digest – https://www.golfdigest.com/story/yasiel-puig-tries-to-singe-handedly-fight-entire-pittsburgh-pirates-organization

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