A common criticism of Team USA during the World Baseball Classic was their lack of outward emotion on the field. This critique is also often aimed at St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. It makes no sense.
St. Louis Cardinals fans use Mike Matheny as a lightning rod for almost anything that is remotely related to the manager. One of those is his business-like approach to the game that leaves little room for fun and personality on the field.
This topic caught national attention during the World Baseball Classic this month, as many were critical of the United States’ lack of emotion on the field compared to other countries, particularly Latin ball clubs.
Ian Kinsler, Team USA’s second baseman, waded into those treacherous waters with a controversial statement about Team Puerto Rico prior to the championship game:
"“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays… That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”"
I can understand why many were rubbed the wrong way by Kinsler’s comments. It’s self-evident that Kinsler thinks that Team USA goes about it the right way when it comes to restraining emotion and passion on the field.
But I also want to focus on this part of the above quote: “We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”
Just because the American team didn’t bleach their hair blonde or pompously celebrate with the dugout every time they got a base knock doesn’t mean they weren’t having fun. Many seem to think that you only have passion for the game if you’re letting everyone see that passion during the game.
Team USA’s left fielder Christian Yelich had this to say at the end of the tournament:
You didn’t see Yelich letting the emotions fly on the field during the Classic. But you did see him celebrating with his American teammates around the first-place trophy at the end of the tournament. So maybe, winning is what’s most fun about the game.
It’s not that emotions and passion aren’t important and don’t contribute to winning. I’m just a bit surprised by how many people are ready to portray the American team as bad for the future of baseball because they aren’t showing it as much as other teams.
The point is, it doesn’t matter how much passion and emotion a team is outwardly displaying. At this level of competition, the passion is there. Some players simply choose to subdue it while others let it shine.
Take head coach of the Super Bowl 51 Champion New England Patriots Bill Belichick as an example. He recently won his fifth Super Bowl as a head coach in the National Football League. If you watch him on the sidelines during the game, you’d think he was attending a funeral. During press conferences, he’s witty, opaque, and couldn’t care any less about reporters’ feelings.
His job isn’t to delight the media or make sure every corner of the earth knows he’s having fun. His job is to win. And win he does.
That is not to say it’s impossible to win with a loose and vivacious bunch either. Case in point: the 2016 World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. This was a team bubbling with personality and passion, which was encouraged by manager Joe Maddon.
All to say, what does it matter how much fun it looks like a team is having? Do you really think young kids are going to watch a team win a World Baseball Classic championship and dislike the sport because of the professionalism with which Team USA plays?
Kids aren’t going to love baseball because it looks like their favorite players are having fun, they’re going to love baseball when they see their favorite players and favorite teams winning. And just because a team performs in a stoic and restrained manner doesn’t mean they’re not having any fun.
It’s just more fun to win.
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So while an outward display of emotion is unlikely to alter the result on the field, there’s also nothing wrong with it, just as there’s nothing wrong with impassivity on the field. Some guys would rather stay in the moment and focus on the task ahead before celebrating.
Teams can win regardless of how much passion they’re showcasing. Some players feed off of it, while others consider it a distraction. The bottom line is talent. Everyone wants to win. Ultimately, talent wins. Passion is important, but passion isn’t just what the observer can see. Passion on the inside is just as important as passion on the outside.
There’s really no right or wrong way to go about it. But as we saw in the tournament, every once in a while, mid-game celebration can end up hurting your team on the field (see video below):
Baseball is a game of tradition and professionalism. It’s a game that still has room for “old-school” players and a game that follows the “unwritten rules”. It’s a better game because of that. Winning is the ultimate measure of enjoyment and success. That’s what will drive more people to the game: the desire to win.