John McGrath

John McGrath: Jose Bautista bat flip was simply a player enjoying the moment

Toronto’s Jose Bautista flips his bat after hitting a three-run home run Wednesday during the seventh inning to put the Blue Jays up 6-3 in Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
Toronto’s Jose Bautista flips his bat after hitting a three-run home run Wednesday during the seventh inning to put the Blue Jays up 6-3 in Game 5 of the American League Division Series. The Canadian Press via AP

Once the smoke cleared from what might have been the longest, wildest, most contentious inning of baseball ever played, the focus remained on Jose Bautista and his reaction to hitting a moonshot home run.

It’s hard to believe a bat flip would overshadow everything else that happened Wednesday at Toronto, where the Blue Jays advanced to the American League Championship Series with a 6-3 victory over Texas. With one swing, Bautista decided a seesaw series destined to be recalled for the seesaw events of the 53-minute seventh inning.

And what America — oops, sorry Canada, I mean North America — wanted to talk about most was the emphatic way Bautista dislodged his bat before trotting around the bases. Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, who threw the ball that landed in the second deck, wasted no time informing the Jays that Bautista had broached baseball etiquette.

Dyson told Edwin Encarnacion, the next batter, that “Jose needs to calm that down.” Or something to that effect. The exchange emptied both dugouts, and though no punches were thrown, Dyson didn’t back down afterward on the words that nearly started a brawl.

“He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up and playing the game,” Dyson said of Bautista. “He’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball.

“It shouldn’t be done.”

Sam Dyson was born in 1988, and while I don’t know much about him, I’m comforted to realize a 27-year old relief pitcher has taken it upon himself to ensure that baseball always be played “the right way.” Without Dyson on hand to help shape the future, the sport might be turned over to athletes who celebrate the moment.

That’s the crux of the controversy: It occurred in a moment, the second or two between Bautista’s launching of the ball and his flipping of the bat.

Imagine yourself in a similar situation. Two men on in the seventh inning of a tie game, playoff advancement at stake, 49,742 fans on their feet, and you swing at a pitch that connects with the sweet spot on your bat.

During this moment, upon hitting a homer that will be remembered decades after your death, you probably aren’t asking yourself: “What would be the proper way to put down the bat in order to serve as a role model for the younger generation just coming up?”

No, you celebrate the moment, and if by celebrating the moment you resemble a kid who’s just smashed a backyard Wiffle ball over the neighbor’s garage, isn’t that a good thing?

Few baseball cliches bother me more than the vague directive to “play the game the right way.” Before he took the field in St. Louis, Hall-of-Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith entertained fans with another kind of flip, the acrobatic kind preceded by a cartwheel.

Cartwheels are not routinely taught at youth baseball clinics. Did “The Wizard” fail to play the game the right way?

Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych entertained fans by getting down in a crouch and manicuring the mound, then talking to the ball. Did “The Bird” fail to play the game the right way?

For a few months during the 1969 season, Hall-of-Fame third baseman Ron Santo entertained fans after home victories by clicking his heels three times. The ritual delighted fans and disgusted those opponents who convinced he was “showing them up,” another cringe-worthy baseball cliche.

Because the Rangers believed Bautista showed them up, he’ll be plunked by a Texas pitcher next season, and probably more than once. That’s how this playing-the-game-the-right-way nonsense works: Those who don’t play the game right way are targets for retribution, as if intentionally hitting a batter fulfills any definition of “playing the right way.”

Sam Dyson’s feelings were hurt Wednesday, and let’s face it, surrendering a three-run homer, in relief of a starter who had thrown 111 pitches, didn’t exactly enhance his self-esteem. He, too, was living in the moment.

But not every bat flip is meant to disrespect a fellow professional. Bautista’s bat flip, it seems to me, merely transmitted the sheer joy of hitting a baseball a very long way in an intensely competitive playoff game.

I hope millions of kids were watching, and that their neighbors soon tire of retrieving Wiffle balls hit over the garage.