It took far too long for the celebration to catch on in the United States. But finally, it’s acceptable for players to show some emotion on the diamond.
Baseball’s history is a little murky. While the sport has been branded “America’s Pastime,” the best guesses maintain that the precursors of modern baseball can be traced to England as far back as the 1700s. But as the game made its way across the sea, its evolution was slow, and the virtues and tenets of the earliest days of baseball in the years following the Civil War held strong as the sport rose to prominence in the 20th century.
One enduring mainstay?That a player’s celebrations were to be muted and modest. Emotions were meant to be checked.
Otherwise, a pitcher might throw a fastball into your back to calm you down. And you didn’t have much of a right to complain.
But throughout the world, those age-old American values do not rule the sport. In South Korea, as the country sought to define its own traditions apart from the Japan-centric baseball culture in East Asia, the game became a vessel of quiet rebellion. There, a young slugger named Yang Joon-hyuk took the KBO by storm in his rookie year; every time he belted a home run, he would toss his bat aside and throw his hands in the air with glee, a sharp turn from the modesty that had been instilled into the game by the Japanese progenitors who first brought it to the region generations earlier.
Yang became a folk hero.
A number of experts believe Yang birthed the modern “bat flip” altogether, but even if there is a bit of contention there, nobody’s loudly denying that the gesture was popularized in Korea before gradually spreading around the world. By the 2010s, bat flips were commonplace in most baseball leagues outside of the MLB; Korea’s influence on the field had even worked its way into the Little League World Series.
But the biggest impact may have been on Twitter, where the most audacious flips — be it on a home run, a deep but harmless pop fly, a walk, or pretty much any other type of play — began going viral on social media without fail. When some of the wildest flips made their way onto SportsCenter, the appeal became undeniable.
Even if ornery, old-fashioned American baseball players scoffed.
In time, fans began to come around. Many rolled their eyes when San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner constantly took offense to Yasiel Puig’s boisterous style of play, especially during his formative years with the Dodgers, but it was a legendary Jose Bautista bat flip in 2015 that truly turned the tide.
The slugger had just undoubtedly hit the biggest homer of his life in one of the tensest games in modern MLB history — Game 5 of the ALDS against Texas. Almost as if a reflex, Bautista tossed his bat 10 feet into the air and stared down his handiwork, drawing the ire of every last Rangers fan on earth.
Almost immediately, a more modern, celebratory MLB was born.
Naturally, Joey Bats had to pay for his flip the next season — first with a fastball in his ribs, then a Rougned Odor fist in his face — but the league was better for it. Younger players like Tim Anderson, Fernando Tatis Jr., Shohei Ohtani have ushered in a new league where bat flips were a regular occurrence. Increasingly, more exuberant celebrations are not only accepted, but encouraged.
Finally, MLB has caught up with the rest of the world.
Even if begrudgingly.