A few months ago, Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today wrote an article that stirred a bit of controversy in baseball circles. According to Ortiz, 87% of brawls in baseball involved players from different ethnic backgrounds. Nearly half of those “pitted white Americans against foreign-born Latinos”. Much of the brawl-based brouhaha and ballyhoo is due to the perception Latino players celebrate too much and don’t play the game “how the game should be played”, according to American whites.
A few weeks after Ortiz’s piece, Chris Lamb of the Washington Post penned a piece diving deeper into baseball’s “norms” and their underlying racism. Lamb based the article on responses by Texas Rangers reliever Sam Dyson and San Diego Padres pitcher Bud Norris to Latino players celebrating after an achievement on the field.
The quotations from Dyson and Norris perpetuate the notion that foreign and nonwhite players are welcome to play the national game as long as they do so according to the customs and practices of baseball traditionalists.
As of 2011, 23% of Floridians were Hispanic. According to a 2015 Public Policy Polling survey, at least 80% of Hispanics in Florida are baseball fans. As of 2015, only 5% of Florida Hispanics identify as Rays fans. Wining the Hispanic fanbase should be essential to the Rays if they are going to be successful in Florida.
With this fanbase in mind, the Rays should embrace the type of game play baseball traditionalists such as Dyson and Norris are trying to brush out of the game. The Rays should look to acquiring the types of players other teams might dismiss as “excitable”. If the Rays have a fanbase that wants to see that type of baseball, then it is good business to give it to them.
Currently, the Rays have Chris Archer . Archer has been known to jump off the mound and kiss his arm after big strikeout. And Archer’s duels recently with David Ortiz have brought a bit of tension to games between two teams who are not as good as they used to be.
But on days Archer doesn’t pitch, the Rays lack flair. Unless you count Kevin Kiermaier’s defensive prowess, which while great, is more superhuman than flashy.
Enter Javier Baez.
Yesterday, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times broke the news that the Rays were looking at Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez. Topkin speculated the Rays might trade a starting pitcher and a relief pitcher for the highly-regarded youngster.
Of course, Winter Meetings rumors are just that: rumors. But Baez fits exactly what the Rays need. He is an exciting, young, Hispanic player who hits the ball a long way. He can provide power in the lineup and flair on the field.
Before he was drafted, PerfectGame.org wrote
“Baez plays the game with a combination of Latin flair and competitive fire”.
In 2012, Baseball America wrote:
Baez plays the game with flair and enthusiasm, which sometimes rubs opponents the wrong way. He’s working on toning down his flamboyance, especially after hitting one of his trademark tape measure home runs.
“When I hit it hard, sometimes I start watching it,” Baez said, “but I realize I can’t do that in the big leagues . . . You’ve got to respect the game, and respect your teammates and the other team.”
Flair and enthusiasm is exactly what the Rays need to energize a Florida Hispanic demographic that according to Public Policy Polling prefers the Yankees, Braves, Marlins, and Red Sox. If they acquire Baez from the Cubs, the Rays shouldn’t discourage him from playing the game the way he wants to. The only part of his game the Rays should attempt to reign in are his strikeouts, which need to be reduced if he is going to be successful at the Major League level.
And the Rays should not be afraid to surround Baez with other players who play the game the same way. Make it the team trademark. Make the Rays a franchise Hispanic players want to play for. A team they feel comfortable on. A team that has an area fanbase of baseball-loving fans ready to support them. And if fans fill the ballpark to see the team that other teams think celebrates too much, MLB would have quite the dilemma on its hands.
Granted, the Rays might not acquire Javier Baez. And they might never be able to pry Yasiel Puig from the Dodgers or Jose Fernandez from the Marlins. But they should still look to add players with flair to their roster. Challenging baseball’s orthodoxy has been the Rays’ Way for years. If enthusiastic Hispanic players might provide that 2% advantage in the win column and a boost in public polling, then why not?