The Year in Hug(s)

Javier Baez is no stranger to hugs on the baseball field. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

The 2018 National League Wild Card game between the Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies was a record-breaker, clocking in at a winner-take-all game record 13 innings and lasting a Wrigley-Field-best four hours and 55 minutes. For most, that will be its defining point of remembrance. But in the bottom of the 11th, something even more outlandish occurred.

With the game tied 1-1, and runners on first and second, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras grounded out to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado. Arenado fielded the ball cleanly and, spotting Javier Baez  sprinting from second to third, went to tag the Cubs’ shortstop. Báez, meanwhile, froze within inches of Arenado and stutter-stepped, as if to leap backward. Arenado leapt forward, glove outstretched, as Báez’s arms spread wide. Take away the high-stakes playoffs, the tens of thousands of fans in the stands, and it could have been two boys playing tag. “Come and get me!” Báez seemed to say.

But it was not a game of tag. For one of the men, it would be the last game of the 2018 season, and the contest was already two innings past its usual end point. The fans at Wrigley Field were thunderously impatient, and tensions were high.

Arenado lunged to tag Báez, who proceeded to lean forward and wrap his arms around the third baseman. Arenado was frozen for a moment, then brought his arms around and patted Báez on the back, playing along admirably. With two more pat-pats than seemed necessary, the two finally parted and Báez jogged off the field.

The internet, as it is wont to do, exploded. Within seconds, the moment was a gif, a meme; it was later plastered on a shirt for $19.90 (it’s an extra $2.48 if you want to walk around with Báez’s back on your chest, instead of Arenado’s). Amid all the good-natured fun, though, some Rockies fans were furious, and seemed to feel that this hug had been a blatant violation of the base running rules, that Báez’s actions were an attempt to prevent Arenado from making a throw to first.

Rockies manager Bud Black evidently felt similarly, and could be seen on the field talking with the umpires. Meanwhile, the broadcasters mused about whether this hug could be deemed interference, given that the ball was live and Arenado had been unable to throw to first to turn a double play. Ultimately, no wrongdoing was found, and the game carried on until the Rockies triumphed in the 13th inning; the victory no doubt sated the previously angry Rockies fans.

It would be a stretch to claim that Arenado and Báez’s embrace catalyzed the Rockies’ eventual victory, but there are distinct benefits to physical touch beyond the delight it brings to fans. As baseball’s style of play carries on with its eternal evolution, I anticipate we’ll continue to see more frequent displays of physical affection on the field. And indeed, we saw just that in last year’s Divisional Round.

Never one to be outdone, a few days after the NL Wild Card game Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig embraced the Atlanta Braves’ Charlie Culberson after being thrown out on the basepaths during Game Two of the NLDS. Puig has been one of the more emotive players in the league since making his debut in June of 2013; he has bat flipped everything from postseason game-winning home runs to outfield fly-outs, and there may well be more documentation of Puig’s tongue than there is of any other player in baseball history.

The circumstances surrounding Puig’s hug of Culberson differed from that in the Wild Card game incident in a number of ways. First, there was the familiarity between the players. Culberson and Puig had spent two years together as teammates on the Dodgers; Báez and Arenado likely know each other in some capacity, as both were members of the 2018 NL All-Star team, but don’t seem to have a relationship beyond that. Second, and perhaps most crucial, the game situations were different. Báez hugged Arenado in the extra innings of a play-in game, while Puig and Culberson embraced in the early innings of a five-game series. Yes, it was still the playoffs, but it was nowhere near the same high-leverage situation as the NL Wild Card.

Lastly, the reception of the hugs differed wildly. Arenado went to apply the tag and attempted to brace himself on Báez’s shoulders, rather than accept the contact.

Once he realized he had been hugged, he patted Báez on the arm as he tried to pull away: a classic, uncomfortable uncle hug move.

Culberson’s initial body language shows the same surprise: he went to brace himself against Puig and pull away, but then his arms came around — perhaps in response to the embrace, perhaps simply to instinctively support Puig, who appears off-balance. As Puig passed him on his way off the field, Culberson smacks Puig’s helmet lightly like an older brother might, a bemused smile visible on his face.

This moment was but a blip on the radar for the gregarious Puig. Baseball scouts will often describe a prospect as being a “physical” player, meaning he is physically imposing and strong-looking. But Puig is a physical player in the truest sense of the phrase; his style of play and and his public persona are  exceptionally tactile. With that more demonstrative style of play has also come more easy, and ready, displays of affection.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this is his proclivity for kissing- – an act more steadfastly avoided in baseball than many violations of the unwritten rules. When Puig hugged Culberson, he can also be seen kissing his cheek and neck. And, of course, there’s his relationship with former Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward.

Ward came to Los Angeles in 2016, but his public relationship with Puig didn’t feature these displays of affection until the 2017 season, when the outfielder’s performance rebounded in dramatic fashion after seasons of struggle. During that year, the cameras caught Puig giving Ward a jubilant kiss on the cheek. At first people thought it was a one-time incident — Puig being Puig –but then it happened again, and again. These acts produced dozens of articles and, yes, t-shirts, and the hubbub finally prompted Ken Rosenthal, then with Fox Sports, to ask Puig about the kisses.

“I work with him early every day,” explained Puig, in August of 2017. “When I hit good, and because I know it was [due to] the good preparation with him, I go and kiss him.” In 2018, Ward even began to return the favor, occasionally kissing the Dodgers outfielder on the cheek following a home run. Puig has gone so far as to credit the kisses themselves with his success at the plate, telling Jorge Castillo of The Los Angeles Times, “I think when I start kissing him I play better.”

It may seem silly, an idea brought about more by a baseball player’s insistent superstition than anything else, but Puig actually has a point: many studies have demonstrated the benefits of physical touch and affection, particularly between men.

Research on the power of physical contact is extensive, perhaps because, as Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, notes “it is the first language we learn.” In an article in The New York Times, Andrew Reiner writes “The benefits of nonsexual touch read like a 19th-century tonic advertisement, except that the outcomes have been scientifically vetted.” Affectionate physical touch has been scientifically linked to everything from lower heart rates and blood pressure to increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone which plays a key role in bonding and social interaction.

The other side of that coin is that oxytocin, among many other things, reduces levels of cortisol. Cortisol is, of course, the hormone most associated with stress. Some studies also show that oxytocin “diminishes the influence of stress and anxiety in the nociceptive signaling, that is the main pain pathway.” All of which is to say that there’s a chance that, beyond building relationships and fueling team camaraderie, displays of physical affection might help athletes’ performance by lowering their stress levels and lessening their perception of physical pain.

In more sports-specific research, Hertenstein and a team of other psychologists, including Dr. Keltner, turned to the NBA, where they “coded every bump, hug and high five in a single game played by each team” back in 2010. Though there were some exceptions, the group reported that good teams tended to be “touchier” than bad teams, pointing to the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, two touch-focused teams who were (at the time) two of the top teams in the league, and the more touch-phobic, low-ranking Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats (now the Charlotte Hornets). The report noted that the same trends were true on an individual basis as well, with stars such as Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer most frequently reaching out to their teammates.

These trends could, of course, have been perpetuated by successful teams subsequently being more willing to touch and celebrate, but to avoid that association, the researchers “rated performance based not on points or victories but on a sophisticated measure of how efficiently players and teams managed the ball.” By measuring separate skills, particularly skills used in the midst of play, researchers were able to mitigate some of the natural physical affection that occurs after moments of triumph. A correlation persisted in their research, though without enough evidence to unequivocally claim that physical touch led to greater success on the courts.

This, of course, opens up a conversation about the elusive concept of team chemistry, something that psychologists and baseball personnel alike have sought to quantify for years. In an article for The Atlantic, Ben Rowen unsuccessfully attempts to find a formula for team chemistry, and zeroes in on the high five as a means of building camaraderie between teammates. Rowen quoted former major league pitcher Barry Zito, who explained the impact of a high five as a means of representing respect, noting that “guys that don’t respect each other won’t go out of their way to congratulate each other after a big moment.”

That sounds like a nice idea, doesn’t it? It was my hopeful, feel-good thesis when I initially began exploring these micro-moments of the 2018 postseason. I thought that perhaps it would result in detente between Jose Bautista and Rougned Odor, until I made one surprising discovery.

Per the Official Baseball Rules: 2018 Edition, these split-seconds of good-natured playfulness were actually against protocol. Rule 4.06 is titled “No Fraternization,” and states:

“Players in uniform shall not address or mingle with spectators, nor sit in the stands before, during, or after a game. No manager, coach or player shall address any spectator before or during a game. Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform.”

Now, we could spend a fair bit of time deciding precisely what constitutes “fraternization,” but I feel confident in saying that a hug on the field — particularly while a play is still live, as it was in the NL Wild Card — counts as fraternization. There’s no need to go through the Merriam Webster rigamarole.

Báez and Puig don’t appear to have faced repercussions, however, because this may be the least-enforced rule in a rulebook. This rule, in particular, seems to stem from the problems and worries of years gone by. In a conversation with my colleagues at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, one historian posited that this rule may have come about in the years following the Black Sox scandal in 1919. The governing body of baseball naturally wanted to avoid any sort of opportunities for players to interact before a game and potentially discuss wagers that could affect their play. Another possibility is that the governing body of baseball feared player unionization, a decidedly moot point nowadays with the Players’ Association.

Fraternization may technically be against the rules, but it’s rarely, if ever, enforced, so what has kept these gestures of camaraderie or good sportsmanship off the field? Why is it that last year’s postseason embraces caused such a stir?

Sports are in fact, as sociologist Michael Kimmel points out, one of the few times when physical contact between two straight men can “magically lose its association with homosexuality.” When a pitcher throws a no-hitter, for instance, the first moment of celebration is usually an embrace with the catcher, with the catcher often even leaping into the pitcher’s arms. Following walk-off wins, or postseason series victories, teammates flood the field en masse, leaping and hugging and ricocheting off one another.

As you may note, however, those are all moments of triumph and success. The same acceptance of touch rarely translates to moments of failure or frustration. You can see that play out in dugout shots during games, when a struggling player often isolates himself at the end of the bench, or is perhaps even absent from the dugout altogether, instead retreating into the clubhouse. That’s part of what differentiates Puig and Báez’s postseason hugs from other moments we have seen: they occurred between opposing players, rather than with their teammates, and were in moments of failure, directly following being thrown out on the basepaths.

Often in the baseball world, there has to be a reason for a display of physical affection to be deemed “appropriate.” One startling example of this came in August of the 2018 season, in a regular season matchup between the Dodgers and Braves. In the bottom of the sixth inning, with Atlanta leading 4-0, dugout cameras captured Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. cuddled together on the bench, with Acuña resting against Albies’ chest as Albies stroked his teammate’s head.

The two are remarkably young, just 21 and 20, respectively, but they look to be future franchise icons for the Braves organization. They’re also both Afro-Latino, with Albies hailing from Curaçao, a small island north of the coast of Venezuela, and Acuña from La Guiara, Venezuela, a northern port city. Both worked their way up through the minor leagues together, and this shared experience and background led to a close friendship. Albies has even noted that, despite the mere nine month difference in age, Acuña is “like my little brother.” Acuña echoed that sentiment, explaining that “[Albies] is my brother, much more than a friend. He is an incredible person. We are similar in many ways and he is someone I can turn to when I need advice. He is part of my family.”

As Adrian Burgos Jr., a professor at the University of Illinois and editor-in-chief of La Vida Baseball, pointed out, the embrace “became fodder for social commentary about masculinity, their shared blackness, and willingness to openly express their affection for each other.” Unfortunately, it also inspired a tragic rumor that Acuña’s mother had died, and that the cameras had witnessed a moment of comfort in the midst of new grief. A spokesperson for the Braves later confirmed that Acuña’s mother was alive and well, but the rumor itself served to further reinforce the toxic masculinity that continues to permeate baseball, and a culture that must find some sort of excuse for why two men were physically affectionate towards each other.

It’s a cultural problem that certainly isn’t unique to baseball, but is often magnified between the foul poles. Perhaps this is due in part to the nature of baseball itself. It’s often cited as the most individual team sport, and unlike soccer, basketball, or football, there’s little — if any — necessity for close contact during a game. If a baseball player finds himself in direct contact with another player, it’s often due to entropy, rather than choice: a sliding play into second, a miscommunication in the outfield, etc. As Rowan wrote in The Atlantic, “Despite all the intimacy of the sport’s language—crowding the plate, touching base—its play is quite lonely.”

It could very well stem from the game’s early history. Organized baseball began as a gentleman’s sport. Instead of cobbled-together teams, there were social clubs that you could join — for a fee — and those clubs fielded various baseball teams, dependent on skill. It’s why teams are often referred to as clubs, and why we call them “clubhouses” rather than “locker rooms.”

So-called “gentlemanliness” was of paramount importance during that era, which is reflected in the rulebooks from the time. We see vestiges of this mentality play out even today. Often, as people discuss the importance of playing the game the “right way,” they mean the more “proper” way; obscured emotions, muted reactions, and a generally modest style of play.

These discussions are often sparked by some sort of on-the-field action: a bat flip, a celebration of a great play in the field. And, more often than not, the players who play with more obvious displays of passion and emotion are Latin-born players. In keeping with this trend, both instigators of the hugs were Latino: Puig from Cienfuegos, Cuba, and Báez from Bayamón, Puerto Rico. As such, both men have, at some time or another, been at the center of these now-decades old debate about the virtues of “playing the game the right way,” a phrase that has come to be synonymous with grumpy old men and white-washed unwritten rules.

Fortunately, the discourse around these displays of emotion on the field has begun to shift in recent years. There are certainly still plenty of grumps, but the percentage of Latino players in major league baseball reached an all-time high in 2018 and, as such, there’s been a growing acceptance of a more demonstrative style of play. A prime example of that, in fact, could be these postseason hugs. Puig and Báez both featured prominently in a postseason ad released by MLB, the tag line for which was “Let the kids play.” (The commercial was narrated by the Kid himself). By and large, the reception to both players’ hugs was benign amusement, temporarily furious Rockies fans notwithstanding; these hugs may mark a shift to a more inclusive style of play. What’s more, there is evidence it could improve on-field performance.

Two hugs scarcely constitute a trend, but these hugs — done on baseball’s biggest stage, in the midst of the postseason — could perpetuate the momentum building to loosen up some of the rigidity that has permeated much of baseball’s history. As major league baseball continues to become a global game, with an ever-growing percentage of players born outside the United States, the culture of the game has shifted too, albeit at a slower pace.

It’s worth noting that, despite the proliferation of physical affection on the major league stage this season, toxic masculinity in baseball is still alive and unwell. There were, as there have always been, dozens of fights on the field, which ranged from pompous posturing to full-blown rumbles. These moments may not yet be outnumbered by displays of physical affection and friendship on the diamond, but they are slowly becoming overshadowed by the more playful acts of players like Báez or Puig.

As baseball continues to diversify, so too has the style of play. This benefits us, the fans, for certain, but it may also prove to benefit the players and their performance as well.

References and Resources


Isabelle Minasian is the Digital Content Specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Before she spent her days creating and sharing baseball nonsense in Cooperstown she did so in Seattle, where she wrote for Lookout Landing, La Vida Baseball and, clearly, The Hardball Times. Follow her on Twitter @95coffeespoons.
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Jim
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Jim

Excellent piece.

ZMP
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ZMP

I caution The Hardball Times & Fangraphs in their presenting a liberal bias that appears to be gradually moving ever farther to the left, approaching territory so far removed from the center that ideological possession (and, in turn, alienation of many readers) is nearly inevitable.

lilpudge
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lilpudge

I think it’s reasonable to assume a statistics oriented site will keep an eye on how page views are affected by “liberal bias” and make rational editorial decisions about the value of conservative clicks lost and progressive clicks gained, as well as the values of presenting a product that reflects the attitudes of the site’s contributors.

ZMP
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ZMP

Astute point. I think and hope you are correct.

ZMP
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ZMP

I should be more precise in my reply.

Admittedly, I “hope” you’re correct moreso than I “think” you’re correct, as I’ve noticed the liberal-rich content appear frequently on Fangraphs for a long enough period of time to be concerned.

Nonetheless, I think the presuppositions you outlined are reasonable and well articulated. I’m just not as optimistic at present.

evo34
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evo34

I wouldn’t even say it’s a liberal bias as much as it is focusing on irrelevant minutiae. This entire article is about a couple players deciding to hug each other. How could that possibly be an important topic to cover?

Dave T
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Dave T

On that topic, I will note that I find Ms. Minasian’s summary of the Albies and Acuña dugout “cuddle” to omit details to the point of giving a misleading view of the situation, presumably because the actual story doesn’t fit very well to advance her thesis about “toxic masculinity” in baseball. I was curious if I could find anything more on how this rumor came about. First, I did find a link to a blog that includes a 30 second clip of game coverage -https://www.sportsgossip.com/mlb/ronald-acuna-jrs-mother-did-not-pass-away-shes-alive-and-well The announcers – both play-by-play and color commentator – react to the clip in what… Read more »

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

No mention of Tony Kemp and his “Hugs for Homers” campaign? They had T-shirts made with part of the proceeds going to Astros Youth Academy. More importantly, Kemp hugging Altuve has a prototype bobble-head that will likely be a stadium giveaway this year.

JohnThacker
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JohnThacker

Of course, some people don’t like hugs. It’s easy to imagine a workplace culture of hugs, whether in baseball or elsewhere, turning into something where everyone is expected to join in, whether the hugs make them comfortable or not. That can pose a problem as well.
Phrases, such as in this article, characterizing people who don’t like hugging as “grumpy” and so forth provide suggestions that, rather than an acceptance of greater diversity in on-field reactions, one may simply move to a different uniformly imposed culture.

bluerum29
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bluerum29

I prefer competitors who want to beat the living crap out of their competitors when on the field of play. And your rivals, you dislike them even after the game is over.

evo34
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evo34

Negative emotion is part of what makes competition great. The idea that players need to hug each other after every play is absurd.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Mlp_Gcc_5Q

evo34
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evo34
Dave T
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Dave T

“Sports are in fact, as sociologist Michael Kimmel points out, one of the few times when physical contact between two straight men can ‘magically lose its association with homosexuality.’ ” I don’t agree. Handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps between men are all common in non-sports contexts. Maybe the intent is to specify a certain limited type of physical contact such as “hugs”, but those are all “physical contact”. “The same acceptance of touch rarely translates to moments of failure or frustration. You can see that play out in dugout shots during games, when a struggling player often isolates himself… Read more »

Dave T
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Dave T

I do agree that fraternization on the field is not in fact enforced. The literal reading of the rule would prohibit the common friendly conversations that we see between baserunners and first basemen, and that’s just the example *during* games. As Ms. Minasian indicates in quoting the rule, it also applies *before* the game. It is also routinely violated before the game these days as well. There is also an interesting history to that rule. It was historically intended to prevent the potential for gambling-related collusion and corruption between players. That’s also the basis for including not mingling with and… Read more »

Dave T
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Dave T

“These trends could, of course, have been perpetuated by successful teams subsequently being more willing to touch and celebrate, but to avoid that association, the researchers ‘rated performance based not on points or victories but on a sophisticated measure of how efficiently players and teams managed the ball.’ By measuring separate skills, particularly skills used in the midst of play, researchers were able to mitigate some of the natural physical affection that occurs after moments of triumph.” As described, this research methodology sounds extraordinarily flawed to me. Here’s the problem: “sophisticated measures of how efficiently players and teams managed the… Read more »