Matt Christman is a freelance writer, film critic, and exiled Brewers fan living in Brooklyn.
Due to its draconian penalties against excessive celebration and general horsing off, some wags say that “NFL” stands for “No Fun League,” but that’s actually a much better label for Major League Baseball. At least in football, joyless uniformity of behavior is enforced by the Commissioner’s office. In baseball, the players do it themselves.
Over the past few seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers have gained a league-wide reputation as a gaggle of cocky jackasses. It all started during the 2008 season, with the infamous celebratory untucking of jerseys on the field that caused Tony LaRussa to drop his monocle. Since then, Prince Fielder earned a lifetime of beanings from the San Francisco Giants for a choreographed home run celebration. Now the antics of Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan, who has turned his season into a piece of fan-interactive performance art, have defined the Brewers and riled up opposing teams.
Over the course of the season, Morgan raised the ire of Giants fans with intemperate hand gestures in center field, and he won the hearts of Brewers fan with stunts like going to Twitter to ask Milwaukeans what he should do with an off day, getting a response of “go fly a kite,” and then going to the Milwaukee waterfront to ACTUALLY FLY A KITE (and posting the photo evidence on Twitter, of course). He’s introduced “Beast Mode” to the vocabulary of Brewer players and fans. “Beast Mode” involves Brewers players signaling the dugout with monster claws and screeching and general boisterousness. This has led to Brewers players celebrating extra base hits with a theatricality usually not found on a baseball field. The Cardinals have, of course, been the most vocal detractors of the Brew Crew, with manager Tony LaRussa tut-tutting about decorum and even complaining about the brightness of the scoreboard lights at Miller Park.
Yet nothing the Brewers have done on the field would raise an eyebrow in any other team sport. That’s because baseball isn’t really a team sport, it just pretends to be one. When a wide receiver dances a jig in the end zone after a touchdown it’s a way for an individual player to break out of the faceless eleven man herd and assert his personal achievement. In baseball, even standing in the batter’s box for a second too long after hitting a home run is like spitting in the pitcher’s face. Giving up a touchdown is a failure of the entire defensive unit. Even if a cornerback gets completely torched, it’s unlikely he’s the only defender on the field who screwed up. In baseball, the failure is all on one man, standing all by himself on a big pile of dirt in the middle of the field. Any kind of exuberance on the part of a hitter reads as a personal insult. So baseball players maintain the illusion of teamwork in a covertly individual game by protecting their teammate’s egos, marking showboaters for future retaliation.
What folks like Tony LaRussa and other defenders of baseball’s unwritten rules don’t realize is that the high stepping of the Brew Crew has nothing to do with the chump on the mound who just got lit up. Untucked shirts and Beast Mode serve the same purpose for the Brewers that ordering Jason Motte to plunk Ryan Braun does for LaRussa. These rituals are a creative alchemy meant to turn nine individual players with nine individual stat lines and responsibilities into an actual team, just like retaliation, but more fun for the players and the fans. Do any of these team-building shenanigans actually make a difference on the field? Probably not. But it’s a blast to watch, and more importantly for fans, it takes the often remote and characterless assemblage of millionaires that make up a baseball team and gives them a collective personality that’s captivating to watch because it supplies the game with narrative and personal context. In a time when massive player salaries and social networking sites like Twitter have simultaneously make baseball players more remote and more accessible to the average fan, the Brewers approach to the game is the only viable one. If fans can’t relate to baseball players as people, if teams can’t “brand” themselves based on the personalities of said players, then there simply is no future for major league baseball.
This week’s National League Championship series is ground zero for baseball’s kulturkampf. The flamboyant Brewers are facing off against what Nyjer Morgan has called the “Plain-Jane Wonderbreads” of Saint Louis and their skipper, Captain of the S.S. NoFun, Tony LaRussa. It’s hard to imagine that any fan without a rooting interest in either team could look at the matchup and actually prefer the Cardinal’s joyless Mechan-o-Men to T. Plush’s irrepressible cohorts. What’s more likely to capture the imagination of the general viewer: Beast Mode or Albert Pujols’ dead-eyed stare? The key to winning the undying devotion of the sporting public is giving them something to root for other than a uniform color. So my advice for the next pitcher who gets red-assed over some Tony Plush hijinx is this: instead of just grimly plunking the next batter for the effrontery of his teammate, strike him out and make up your own damn celebration.