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On the Right Way to Play Baseball

What is with baseball's obsession with "playing the game the right way"? And why are Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa so focused on this?

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

JKlugh's preview of the coaching staff from Friday is must-read stuff.  Who knew reading about the coaching staff could be so entertaining?

Within that piece, is a quote from Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg that I'm going to repeat here:

"I didn't play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that's what you're supposed to do -- play it right and with respect. If this validates anything, it's that learning how to bunt and hit and run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light at the dug out camera."

With this and Larry Bowa's recent public back-handed slap at Jimmy Rollins ("When you're 18 games out or 20 games out, you've still got to go out there and perform. That's your job. And as great a career as he's had, that still disappoints a lot of people when they see him out there, maybe giving 70 percent."), it's gotten me thinking again about one of my favorite topics: how much I hate hearing old people tell young people how to go about their business.

It's one thing to teach young people (or any people).  That's what I do for a living, and I'd be crazy to say there's something wrong with it.

But, it's a completely different thing to lecture young people, especially young people who are performing at the highest level in the world, about how your way is the "right way" and their way is wrong or disrespectful.  It smacks as false nostalgia that usually has some sense of hidden racial critique embedded within.

For instance, who exactly was Ryne Sandberg referring to so defensively in saying he played the game the right way?  Was there someone on his team who ran to third base after hitting the baseball?  Did a pitcher think he struck a guy out after two pitches over the plate?

Obviously not, so he's talking about something more.  He's talking about playing the game with the demeanor and effort he put into it.  But why does everyone have to play that way?  Why can't someone have fun on the field, like Ozzie Smith so visibly did?  Or be one of the best at the game while also being a media personality, like Reggie Jackson was?  Why does everyone have to play the game the same way as Ryne Sandberg and his perceived notion of what's "right"?

After all, isn't there a different batting stance, swing, throwing style, and pitching delivery for almost every single player who has played the game?  Chase Utley and Ken Griffey Jr. are both lefties whose swings produce(d) great things, but the swings were as different as night and day.  Utley's is compact and choppy; Griffey's was long and fluid.  Was one right?

Griffey is used intentionally here, because when he was with the Mariners, he was the target of this same nonsense from Buck Showalter.  Showalter told the New York Times, "I shouldn't say this publicly, but a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game's boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat's on backward, and his shirttail's hanging out."  Showalter also commented about Barry Bonds not tucking his shirt in and concluded about both Bonds and Griffey, "To me, that's a lack of respect for the game."

This is just silly talk that unfortunately the Phillies current coaching staff seems to buy into.  Baseball first and foremost is a game.  And it's a game played by young people who continually change it with their own style, their own skills, and their own sense of how to best display their talents.  New talent, new personality, and new skills constantly breathe exciting new life into the sport.

If Chase Utley succeeds with a compact choppy swing while looking like he's repeatedly hearing news about his best childhood friend's death, so be it.  If Ken Griffey succeeds with his gorgeous loping swing while acting like he's playing pranks in junior high, so be it.  And if Jimmy Rollins doesn't run as fast as he can every single time he hits a ball right at an infielder (like every single baseball player who has ever played or will play the game did or does from time to time, including Larry Bowa), so be it.

They are "playing the game the right way" by following the rules and doing what they need to do, as individuals, to succeed and put their teams in the best place to win.  Whether they "respect the game" or not (whatever that means), why do we care?  We care about watching great performances by exceptionally talented athletes.

What we certainly don't care about is listening to old men well past their prime lecturing the young guys who play the game about some crotchedy old notion of the right way to do things.