Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 13, 2016

Old School Goose, Meet New Age Bryce

Call it a generational divide, one about as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. In a profanity-laced interview with ESPN on Friday, Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage first lit into Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista for his world record bat flip following a home run in last year’s playoffs. Gossage said “Bautista is a f—ing disgrace to the game. He’s embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him. Throwing his bat and acting like a fool, like all those guys in Toronto.” Not content to limit his condemnation to member of the Blue Jays, Gossage went on to criticize the post-home run displays by Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets.

After attacking displays of emotion on the field, Gossage then launched into a diatribe against the Great Game’s reliance on advanced metrics to make cold-hearted evaluations of players off it; saying “The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it. I’ll tell you what has happened, these guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the f— they went, and they thought they figured the f—ing game out. They don’t know s—.”

Before he was done Gossage, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008, also had some similarly choice words on issues ranging from steroids users, to rules changes on slides to protect fielders, to the reliance on pitch counts for deciding when to change pitchers.

The 64-year old Gossage offered the sports network all of these thoughts while serving as a guest instructor in Tampa at the Yankees spring training complex. While he pitched for nine different major league franchises and even spent a year in Japan over his twenty-two year career, he is most closely associated with the team from the Bronx.

By chance just one day earlier the March issue of ESPN Magazine featured a lengthy cover story on Bryce Harper, the 23-year old reigning National League MVP and Washington Nationals right fielder, who was born just two years before Gossage’s career ended. In it author Tim Keown writes that Harper wants to change the game, and suggests that he just might have both the all-around skill and the media presence to do so.

For starters Harper would like to change the so-called “unwritten rules” that Gossage was relying on when he castigated Bautista. Fans will recall that late last season Nationals reliever Jonathan Papelbon attacked Harper in the Washington dugout. The back story to that incident started when Papelbon drilled the Orioles Manny Machado one at-bat after the Baltimore third baseman had tagged him for a homer. In doing so the well-traveled closer was relying on an ancient code that batters shouldn’t display excessive emotion, an unwritten rule he felt Machado had broken. At the time Harper told reporters that the old code was “tired.”

While acknowledging, as he did at the time, that he should have spoken directly to his teammate rather than to the media, Harper reiterated his view to Keown. “Baseball’s tired. It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.”

“Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling — hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry. If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun.”

The fact that baseball changes both slowly and reluctantly is at once a fundamental part of the Great Game’s timeless appeal and its greatest challenge in remaining relevant in an age of entertainment overload and attention spans seemingly measured in milliseconds. The tension between constancy and adapting has always been present and will always serve as ready fuel for impassioned debate. There are, after all, fans who still insist that the American League’s designated hitter rule ruined the game forever. But there are also a growing number who wonder why the National League doesn’t join the modern era.

One day after his ESPN interview, Gossage acknowledged “I lost my mind for a minute. You’re talking to an old-school guy. There are things I have a hard time with.” This was after he met with Yankees GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi, who among other subjects probably informed their guest instructor that New York places second to no team in either league when it comes to relying on advanced metrics. To their credit both Bautista and Cespedes responded gently to Gossage’s taunts, even though the Mets slugger appeared uncertain as to who Goose Gossage is.

Meanwhile on Florida’s Atlantic coast Harper and the Nationals continued to prepare for a new campaign. It’s unlikely that in the coming season we’ll see on field displays by sluggers rivaling what happens in end zones after NFL touchdowns, or a pitcher sprinting full speed to the dugout after recording a key strikeout, the way Steph Curry raced straight to the locker room after banking in a 55-footer to beat the first half buzzer the other night. And it is certainly true that in his short career Bryce Harper has earned the wrath of some fans not living inside the Beltway. As Keown elegantly put it, “He’s too young or too arrogant, or too young to be arrogant.”

He is of course all of twenty-three; and fans everywhere would do well to accept that at times he is going to act like, well, like a twenty-three year old. But if Harper is polarizing that is proof he is attention-getting; and for baseball that can’t be a bad thing. Four seasons into his career, with both a Rookie of the Year and an MVP award in his back pocket, he is also reaching various plateaus that are described beginning with the words “youngest player ever to…” Now he wants to change the Great Game by new and different standards. Since he’s already doing it by all the old ones, fans may want to think twice before betting against him.

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