For the first time this season, I saw the Royals in all three dimensions. (Four, if you count the smell of the slowly rotting Dollar Dogs.) The Royals played the White Sox. The famous Kansas City comedians were in town. There were fireworks. The Royals won. And it was somewhat to moderately fun!
Fun is an operative word in baseball these days. There is an entire movement devoted to the subject: baseball wants to #bringbackthefun. And nowhere has this movement been more up for debate than between the two teams I saw play, thanks to White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and historical bat flips and retributive bean balls. Within this saga, Tim Anderson is seen, by non-Kansas Citians, as the hero; he’s standing up to the fuddy-duddies with the joy—the fun—he’s re-injecting into the game.
Except a couple of things.
First of all, fuddy-duddies are Major League Baseball’s primary audience, whether in a literal sense (as of 2017, half its audience was 55 or older) or in a conceptual sense, because of baseball’s pace and because it seems like Walter Johnson maybe almost kinda could’ve played today.
And second, f*ck Tim Anderson.
Here’s a thing I learned firsthand about being a professional athlete: to say that it challenges your psychological well-being would be like saying that dropping an Abrams tank on your leg would challenge your physical well-being. As in, it’s a massive understatement.
In most walks of life, if you have a bad day, only a few people know about it. And generally speaking, you can shake off that bad day more easily because only a few people knew about it.
This is not the case in sports. Everyone—or what feels like everyone because there are thousands and thousands of people watching you—knows about it. This awareness of their awareness exerts a significant amount of pressure on your brain—on your psychological well-being. This doesn’t stop with failure; it’s also true of success. The only thing worse than deciding you’ll never figure it out again is deciding you’ve got it all figured out.
Athletes will always need to maintain this balance, between doubt and overconfidence. And what this means is that they don’t like to have the balance messed with. That’s why athletes are superstitious and ritualistic. It’s almost a requirement. And because it’s a requirement, they’ll do anything to protect it.
So, imagine you’re a Royals pitcher. Imagine you throw a mediocre pitch. And imagine some shortstop whacks it out of the park.
Fine, whatever, it happens. (This is what you’re telling yourself, to maintain your sanity and your capacity to hurl a ball at 90+ miles per hour into a rectangle the size of a clothes hamper in front of tens of thousands of people).
But then, this guy does a thing you know is meant to add insult to your psychological injury - he tosses his bat end over end knowing that you know what he’s doing.
And also knowing he’s protected by:
So next time he’s up to bat, you’ve got a dilemma on your hands, assuming you’re still along for this role play where “you” are “Brad Keller.”
You know there’s going to be trouble if you hit Tim Anderson. But all the same, Tim Anderson gets a baseball in the thigh. Why? Because this wasn’t about Tim Anderson at all. It was about you, and staying in that psychological sweet spot, because what hangs in the balance is your profession and your livelihood and your future and your gol-darn ability to keep it between the ditches.
A baseball player who shows up another baseball player knows exactly what he’s doing when he does it. And baseball players (collectively) are actually quite good at policing themselves. Most of them are not insane; most of them understand the psychological balance inherent to professional athletics.
And perhaps most important: there are plenty of ways to PLAY THE GAME YOUR WAY without being a dick about it. As an example, when I watched the Royals play the White Sox, I was sitting with my family just above the visitors’ bullpen, which means I got a primo view of Alex Gordon’s backside. And of White Sox left-fielder Eloy Jimenez who, between innings, was waving at child-sized Royals fans, smiling wide, having a heckuva time.
Which, if you ask me, is just about the right level of fun that can be expected from a grown man whose job is on the line.
Paul Shirley is a former NBA player who played collegiately at Iowa State. He was a contributor to ESPN.com and is the author of Can I Keep My Jersey?, about his stop-and-start basketball career, and Stories I Tell On Dates, about his stop-and-start dating career. A Kansas native, he now lives in Los Angeles where he runs a co-writing space called Writers Blok.