John McGrath

John McGrath: Pleasing baseball’s fans worth the risk of riling up the opposition

On July 3, 1977, during the second game of a doubleheader, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jim Spencer did something that angered the Minnesota Twins and created some angst among his own teammates.

After hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the first, Spencer acknowledged the Comiskey Park crowd’s prolonged standing ovation by appearing on the top step of the dugout and waving. Spencer’s impetuous response to the ovation was, by all accounts, Major League Baseball’s first home-run curtain call, and it soon was followed with similar gestures performed by Jim Essian and Alan Bannister.

Going into 1977, the White Sox had been seen as Chicago’s second-most interesting baseball team for the better part of a decade. The curtain calls at home games gave them an identity, and despite the grumblings of visiting players — waving to the crowd during the course of a game, many insisted, was bush-league, unprofessional, and the ultimate example of showing up the other team — the Sox decided that pleasing their fans was worth the risk of riling up the opposition.

That a short, simple wave to the crowd became a source of controversy seems silly today. But it was lightning-rod stuff in 1977, when playing the game “the right way” demanded that a home-run hitter bolt from the batter’s box and circle the bases at a brisk pace, with his head down, returning to the dugout while maintaining a modesty associated with 16th-century monks.

I was reminded of Jim Spencer’s culture shock-breaking curtain call after Mariners closer Fernando Rodney became the latest baseball player to be accused of violating baseball’s sacred tenets. Seems Rodney had the gall — and no other word applies; it was pure, unmitigated gall — to fire his imaginary arrow toward the Los Angeles Angels’ dugout after escaping an eighth-inning jam on Sunday.

Rodney, of course, still had work to do in the ninth inning: protecting a 5-4 lead with MVP candidate Mike Trout leading off, future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols behind Trout, and a former MVP with Hall-of-Fame talent, Josh Hamilton, behind Pujols.

It didn’t go well. Trout coaxed a walk, and 10 minutes later – or 10 hours, when adjusted to “Ninth-Inning Tension Time” — Rodney was seen as the goat whose bow-and-arrow routine “angered up the blood,” as Satchel Paige would’ve put it, in the Angels’ dugout.

The Angels returned from the All-Star break as the hottest team in baseball, so hot they were neck-and-neck with Oakland in the AL West. Motivation for them to mount a bottom-of-the-ninth comeback Sunday was not an especially daunting challenge.

Rodney knew all of that, and yet he still fired his invisible, cringe-worthy, all-but-guaranteed-to-reduce-him-to-a-national-laughing-stock arrow in the eighth inning.

I loved it.

I loved it as a baseball fan who suspects the sport’s vigilant adherence to unwritten rules has stunted the marketing potential of its very marketable stars.

It’s 2014, and everybody in a baseball uniform still is required to behave with a casual indifference to any situation. Fire, passion and bravado are embraced in the NFL and NBA, but considered detrimental – “unprofessional” – by the oldest sports league in the world.

Why? What’s wrong with having some fun, whether it’s good-spirited, or mean-spirited, or somewhere in between?

“This is a business of entertainment,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said Monday, dismissing suggestions Rodney’s eighth-inning arrow sling fired up the Angels in the ninth inning.

McClendon is as old-school as an Ivy League college, but he gets it. Here’s something else he also gets: Players with identifiable personalities are good for baseball and, specifically, good for the Mariners, among baseball’s most innocuous teams since their last playoff appearance in 2001.

America wants to typecast Fernando Rodney as a bully prone to gloat about an eighth-inning escape before a ninth-inning meltdown? Cool. America wants to typecast Robinson Cano as a mercenary who renounced the Yankees because the Mariners made him an offer he couldn’t refuse? Cooler still.

Seattle has returned to the baseball map this summer. If the Mariners are able to earn a wild-card spot; if they sneak into a playoff series by winning an elimination game against a team with a far better record, they’ll be painted as villains whose disregard for protocol is obnoxious.

If the Mariners need advice on how to deal with those perceptions, they can consult the guys on the football team that plays its home games in a stadium down the street.

Last time they took a curtain call, it was at the White House.