Red Sox

Red Sox

Someday, baseball will allow itself to evolve beyond the puritanical Hester Prynne routine that unfolds every time a player exhibits a little personality. Apostates and reprobates are expected to piously denounce their vile sins against The Game, which above all else, must be Respected.

Like Originalists expressing slavish devotion to their interpretations of the Founding Fathers, these self-appointed stewards seem intent on locking the game in the 18th century.

Praise be, then, that baseball's next generation of stars appears determined to shake the shackles of condemnation. One of them just helped the Washington Nationals win the World Series.

If you hadn't heard much about Juan Soto a month ago, the secret's out now. The newly 21-year-old star is a generational talent. Last year, he became the first teenager ever to post a .400 on base percentage. He duplicated the feat at age 20, joining Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Al Kaline, as well as the all-time great Alex Rodriguez.

Soto's contributions this October were massive. He homered twice in the NLDS to eliminate the Dodgers, and then added three more bombs in the World Series vs. the Astros, including go-ahead shots in Games 1 and 6.

But I have a feeling that if we're going to remember Soto for anything, it'll be his joyful, I-don't-give-a-bleep demeanor in the batter's box, where individuality typically dons a straitjacket.

The guardians of the game's sacred unwritten rules can't scribble demerits quickly enough to account for Soto's constant transgressions. The slugger doesn't just take pitches — he dismisses them with a cross between the Electric Slide and a New Zealand rugby Haka, deliberately and demonstratively emerging from his crouch with a twitchy shake of the head and leer. In D.C., they've given the move a name — the Soto Shuffle — and he frequently adjusts his cup in the direction of the mound while the gatekeepers shriek.

 

Against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Soto was particularly expressive, so when St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas retired him to escape a bases-loaded threat in Game 1, he made sure to grab his crotch in Soto's direction. The benches didn't empty, because everyone in the park understood: if Soto could dish it out, he needed to take it. Not surprisingly, he could.

"I've just got to laugh about it," he told reporters, while Mikolas, for his part, described the confrontation as "good-natured."

That was nothing compared to the brouhaha that erupted during the World Series, however. In Game 6, Astros star Alex Bregman — himself an enthusiastic young standout who has been known to rub opponents the wrong way — earned criticism from every musty corner of the game for carrying his bat to first base after homering.

This was apparently disrespectful to the pitcher, and Bregman apologized profusely, because god forbid he let his excitement get the best of him in a potential clincher. Manager A.J. Hinch made sure to let the world know that he spoke to Bregman three times lest baseball perpetuate some myth that it's actually fun.

You know who made no apologies? Soto. Following his go-ahead homer in the fifth, he mimicked Bregman by taking his bat with him. He tossed it in the direction of first base coach Tim Bogar, who fielded it like a radioactive isotope. Nationals manager Dave Martinez admitted he disapproved of the display, but Soto cast the act in terms of joy, not vengeance.

"I just saw Bregman doing it, and I wanted to do the same thing," he told reporters. "I was like, 'Oh, that's really cool.' I wanted to do it, too."

Like Red Sox star Rafael Devers, Toronto slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, and potential NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves, Soto unapologetically plays with a smile instead of a sneer. It's no coincidence that the loosening of baseball's stodgy culture — if it ever happens — will probably fall to the next generation of Latin stars, who play with a festive exuberance that's notable in an oft-dour sport. Acuva Jr., in particular, is a frequent target of the scolds.

Anyway, back to the bat-carrying imbroglio. Lost in the hysteria was a particularly bad-ass moment. Facing former (and maybe future) Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, Soto took a 2-1 fastball just above the letters for ball three. Verlander is as old-school-respect-the-game as a wool uniform, and he did not take kindly when Soto shuffled in his direction, wagged his tongue, and shook his head. "Not here," Verlander mouthed at him. "Not here."

 

Was Soto intimidated? Nope. As he stepped back in for the 3-1 pitch, he shook his head emphatically and reiterated to catcher Robinson Chirinos, "Ball." Verlander followed with another 96-mph fastball that barely clipped the upper inside corner of the zone. Most guys would've swung through it or popped it up. Soto launched it 413 feet into the upper deck.

He then danced around the bases, his bat accompanying him for the first 88 feet. By the time he touched home plate and pointed to the sky, there was nothing anyone could say except maybe, "Whoa."

Juan Soto is writing his own rules. Here's hoping the rest of baseball follows his lead.

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