Football has showman. From Joe Namath to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson; from Deion “Prime Time” Sanders to Terrell Owens and Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson.
Basketball has larger than life figures who operate in a different stratosphere. From Clyde Frazier to Wilt Chamberlain; from Dr. J. to M.J.; from Magic and Larry to LeBron, and many more in-between.
But baseball, baseball has characters. From Babe Ruth to Eddie Gaedel; from to Al Hraboski to Syd Finch; from Turk Wendell to Pedro Martinez; from Nick Swisher to Andrew McCutchen (look it up). The number and variety of characters that populate baseball are ingrained into the fabric of the game.
And while quarterbacks can wear fur coats and defensive backs can high-step into the end zone; and while basketball players can literally leap over other humans and do things that make us shake our heads in disbelief; baseball players can make a whole lot of hay with their mouths.
Trash-talking is such a part of baseball that if you are not well-versed in it, you might find yourself out of it – the game, that is. Baseball clubhouses are notorious for being a place where only the thick-skinned survive. And when the verbal warfare moves to the dugout and onto the field, look the hell out – or, more specifically, listen the hell up.
Ragging, smacking, trashing, talking shit, they all fall under the umbrella of acceptable baseball behavior. But when? At what level is that type of gamesmanship permissible? When does it go from bad sportsmanship to “just the way the game is played”? At what age do we think it is appropriate to get in a player’s head? I think we can work backwards for some easy answers:
Big Leagues: Of course. Although, with so much room between the dugout and the field, one wonders how much actually gets heard.
Minor Leagues: Without question. You don’t think that hit path and arm angles are the only things they teach in the Minors, do you? This is where the craft of talking smack gets perfected. A lot of mediocre players with a lot of failed dreams take out their aggression on (1) those in even worse straights than them and (2) those with whom they are green with envy. (If you want to see/hear this writ large, watch the HBO movie “Long Gone”, in which a batter tells a pitcher to ask his sister to stop changing the color of her lipstick as she is leaving rainbows . . . Suffice it to say, he gets hit in the head by the next pitch.)
College: This is where the skill gets learned and honed. Go watch a college baseball game and tell me if you ever see a player (save a pitcher currently in the game) sitting on the bench. The term “bench jockey” is a misnomer – these guys are “railing jockeys” and they hang there the entire game getting hoarse talking bull to the donkeys on the other side of the field. And don’t ever let them know you hear them. If they sense you have rabbit ears, you are a sitting duck, and they will dog you until you break.
High School: This is the training wheels for trash talk. Guys are trying it out, seeing if they like it, and/or if they are any good at it. Coaches tend to be somewhat lenient as the language is pretty innocuous, with just an occasional zinger. And high school coaches, by in large, are trying to relive their glory days, so they actually enjoy the barbs. Add to this that some high school players are on the verge of professional baseball – and in some cases, Major League baseball. So, they better get ready to get ridden, and hard. Right, rook?! Come on now, bonus baby! You throw pus, meat . . .
Below High School: This is where the ground gets shaky. First off, the trash talk is relatively pedestrian; it simply isn’t that much fun. Next, it’s too easy. What’s the point of trying to get into a kid’s head if the door is wide open and you can walk right in? Where is the challenge in that?
But, joking aside, should we be allowing 11, 12, 13 year old kids to rag other 11, 12, 13 year old kids? Should we allow fans to do the same? Have we lost all sense of righteousness and/or morality? Or, have we simply sped up this process by having our boys play such competitive baseball, and so often, at such an early age? Have we, in our zeal to win, fomented this type of behavior? If our kids have Mike Trout’s Nike Lunar Vapor cleats, and Brandon Phillips’ Wilson A2K glove, and Big Papi’s fluorescent Franklin batting gloves, and Adam Jones’ Kaenon sunglasses, and Miguel Cabrera’s Evoshield shinguard, shouldn’t they be treated like Big Leaguers – warts and all?
While I am not certain, I think the short answer is: “No.” Try as they might, they are not Big Leaguers; they are not even high schoolers. Our kids need time to develop – physically, mentally, and emotionally before the added stress of negative outside influences are brought into their athletic sphere. To put a different spin on it, could you imagine some stranger reading, commenting, and ultimately panning your seventh grader’s science project or book report? “Nice word choice; mix in some grammar; come on now, he’s got no sentence structure.” Would that ever be acceptable?
There are further, better reasons, other than the simple shock to the conscience, not to allow this behavior.
According to Deborah Yurgelun-Todd (Professor of Psychiatry; Director, Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, at The Brain Institute; Associate Director, Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Centers, Salt Lake City VA Health Care System) (Ed. Note: I just love that title), the brains of teenagers and adults respond differently to the outside world. With respect to emotional information (cheering or jeering, for instance), “teenager’s brain may be responding with more of a gut reaction than an executive or more thinking kind of response.” When that happens, you are more likely to get “an impulsive behavioral response, instead of a necessarily thoughtful or measured kind of response.”
But these are great players, you say. We put them into amazingly stressful situations – at younger and younger ages – and they still respond, you think. So what can a little jawing do to them, our super-kids?
Well, according to Frances E. Jensen, MD (Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, Univ of PA), the teenage brain is in “a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.” The teenage brain is only about 80% developed, so if we think our kids have some special mental acuity at a younger age, we may just be fooling ourselves. All of the experts maintain that development of a mature thought process takes time.
Sara Johnson (an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) tells us that “adolescents start to have the computational and skills of an adult –if given time and access to information.” And Sheryl Feinstein (author of Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress) tells us that “in the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex”.
So, putting aside my sister’s psychological mumbo-jumbo, we now know that early teens are simply too young to handle being ragged. And if you think it is just middle schoolers, think back to the last time someone made fun of you in front of a bunch of people. Did you use your prefrontal cortex (i.e., were you rational) or your limbic system (i.e., were you emotional) in your response. My guess is the vast majority of us are limbic all the way. So you can only imagine (truly, it is impossible to think like a teenager) what it must be like for that 12-year old pitcher to hear: “This guy can’t throw strikes; he’s got nothing; he’s in trouble”.
There has been a ton of research on cheering and the effect it has on athletes in the heat of battle. However, there is very little research on this topic as it relates to youth sports.
With respect to adults, Robert Nideffer (a psychologist for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in 1984 and 1988, who has worked with Navy SEALS) states that “crowds can provide a lift when athletes are nearing exhaustion.” He says an “emotional boost is more likely to help in the Olympics in situations where an extra boost of energy is required because reserves are depleted and you need the extra adrenaline”. But that, too, comes with a caveat.
Researchers says that, in general, crowds can improve performance in sports that involve strength, endurance, or teams. But, for athletes competing in technique and finesse sports like gymnastics, archery, golf, riflery, or tennis, that rush of adrenaline from a roaring crowd can throw off timing, waste valuable energy, and even impair cognitive function. And that is the effect on adults.
Think about that next time someone catcalls a Little League batter right before the pitch is thrown.
So, sit in the stands, cheer on your team, stay positive, refrain from getting into Little Leaguers’ heads, and . . .