No major sport in America embraces 21st century ethos quite like the NBA, and there is no better example than Steph Curry. He scores, he grins, he wins, he shimmies. The vast number of children wearing his jersey in road arenas imply that his vibe, rich with pizazz, fits the times.
The NFL, meanwhile, typically shuns displays of personality. It is, in that way, rather 1950. Conservative. Celebrate that first down, son, but not too much.
Within MLB, however, there is a battle raging.
On the right, we have the rotary-phone traditionalists, believing in “unwritten rules” and golf-gallery silence from first pitch until last out. Flip a bat, get a heater under the chin -- and maybe, should ball meet flesh, a threatened career.
On the left, we have upstarts daring to pull the old game into the millennium. In times of success, they exhibit joy and embrace the possibility of style points. They might even commit the evil of smack talk.
Many of those painted with this brush happen to be Latino.
“It’s a game,” says Giants broadcaster Erwin Higueros, our guest on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” premiering on NBC Sports Bay Area Wednesday night, following Giants Postgame Live.
“They’re making millions of dollars; their job is to work,” he adds. “But it’s a game. You’ve got to have fun. Just like I have fun in the broadcast booth, whether we’re losing or winning, you still have to enjoy what are doing. And that’s what a lot of the Latin players are doing.”
As well they should. The Sports Business Journal conducted a survey in 2017 that revealed -- to no surprise -- that MLB’s fan demographic, with an average age of 57, is the oldest in American sports. The average NFL fan was 50, the average NHL fan 49.
The NBA was by far the youngest at 42.
MLB’s response to this well-documented challenge is to speed up the game. To institute umpire checks on pitchers, a subtle way to boost offense. To experiment with seven-inning games during double-headers. Nice try, guys, but the solution to lure younger crowds is not to change the game but to more vividly showcase the stars within it, particularly those whose personalities shine.
Kind of like the NBA.
“When you look around, the new generation of baseball players are coming,” Higueros says. “We see American players now accepting the fact that you’re going to celebrate a home run. The pitcher is going to have an opportunity to celebrate a strikeout. They’re going to have an opportunity to celebrate a great save, whether it’s the first game of the season or Game No. 162.”
Consider the joy expressed by the likes of Atlanta Braves Venezuelan outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. Or San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr., from the Dominican Republic, where he shares a homeland with Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
They are not alone. Japanese sensation Shohei Otani of the Los Angeles Angels is as polite as they come, but his delight is evident, his joy contagious. Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson is by turns convivial and boisterous.
It’s young players such as these seemingly on a mission to prove baseball need not be a temple of tedium but a game to be savored.
Higueros, who was born in Guatemala and moved to the Bay as a 12-year-old in the 1970s, has provided Spanish-language broadcasts of A’s baseball, Sharks hockey, Raiders football and 49ers football. If there is a culture that exists, he has been exposed to it.
“I have always thought,” he says, “what about the American ballplayer, or the American culture, the American fans, making an effort to understand us? To learn our culture and realize that baseball is played in Latin America, that soccer is like a religion to everybody over there. But they’re having fun.
“If we all would make a conscious effort to learn the different cultures, we would understand why the Latin players are having fun. They’re not being disrespectful to anybody. If they would just understand our upbringing, they would understand why we’re having so much fun.”
The history of baseball in America would be greatly diminished without the impact of Latinos. From Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal, to Acuna and Tatis and Guerrero, they generally bring flair with their skill. Why discourage expressions of joy?
The annual Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. Celebrate the culture. Become more familiar with it. Better yet, maybe sports are not the only places that could be better for embracing both.