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Emma: Like It Or Not, Baseball Is Evolving Into Its Fun New Age

By Chris Emma--

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Past the strobe lights and disco ball of the Cubs' party room, down a narrow hall of flashy blue lights, the 66-year-old Dusty Baker emerged outside a state-of-the-art home clubhouse at Wrigley Field that just housed a mariachi band for Cinco de Mayo.

That kind of glitz and glamour wasn't found around Wrigley Field when the pressure to win mounted down on Bakers' Cubs and he was fired a a decade ago.

"Saturday night fever," joked Baker, the Nationals' new manager, about the Cubs' impressive facilities.

Some things have changed for Baker, now with his fourth team as a big league manager and 40th year in MLB. Baker runs a clubhouse the same way he always has -- no reinventing at age 66 and certainly no mariachi bands.

Baker's a throwback in this evolving game, which made his hiring to the Nationals a bit surprising. Washington's brass believed the game hadn't passed Baker by and that he was the right man to lead its core. Nationals star Bryce Harper is the face of baseball's new age, which directly contrasts with his manager's style.

Baseball remains a kids game, but it's most certainly evolving.

"You'll never going to bring the game back to where it was," Baker conceded. "But the country, and young people as a whole, are different. They're more flamboyant, more demonstrative in their highs and their lows. If (players) don't mind, I don't mind. I'd try to keep it in check somewhere, because I'm still old school, but with modern ideas and thoughts that they help get me."

Maddon's Cubs clubhouse is run a bit differently. Mariachi bands aside, Maddon encourages his players to show up on their own schedule and live to their own comforts. His wanted his team to celebrate each victory, with the Cubs' leader, Anthony Rizzo, following suit by converting the clubhouse into a party room during the 97-win 2015 season.

Rather suddenly, baseball's century-old cathedral at Clark and Addison became the epicenter to the game's new age. Wrigley Field is where fun occurs each day.

"They appeal to a younger generation or younger market to become attached to baseball again," Maddon said of his Cubs. "I'm with that. Our guys are very authentic, and they're very charismatic. If you're a young man or young woman and want to follow a major league baseball team, it's easy to like our guys -- the way they project, the way they're good on the field and beyond that.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to participate or help out regaining younger fans in the game today, just based off those two components -- the authenticity and charisma that our boys have."

The Cubs have built an identity of winning -- with a record of 20-6 entering Thursday's tilt with the Nationals -- and are enjoying themselves along the way. They don't take anything for granted.

Baker's team arrived in Chicago with the second-best record in baseball, a 19-8 mark, largely led by the reigning NL MVP, Harper. The Nationals have consumed the structure of their manager while embracing what Harper personifies.

Baseball needs more like the Cubs and like Harper. The game as a whole is attempting to reach a younger generation, its future. The new age has arrived, and baseball must catch up.

Speaking in a March article in ESPN the Magazine, Harper ranted on the state of his game. Harper borrowed a line from Donald Trump: Make Baseball Fun Again.

"Baseball's tired," Harper said. "It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself. You can't do what people in other sports do.

"If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I'm going to go, 'Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.' That's what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players -- Steph Curry, LeBron James. It's exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton -- I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It's that flair. The dramatic."

What's largely driven baseball's evolution is how the game has reached international markets and, in turn, brought in new baseball backgrounds and personalities. Players were raised differently in the game.

When Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista dramatically flipped his bat during Game 5 of the ALDS last season, the unwritten rules were constantly mentioned. During the Cubs' and Cardinals' bean ball war during a series last September, Maddon was outspoken about "The Cardinal Way" and how the game should be played. Throwing at players is never smart nor warranted, no matter what the baseball police say.

The ways in which baseball's representatives interpret how the game should be played are constantly changing, for their own good. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred heard Harper's words loud and clear.

"The unwritten rules are theirs, just like they were the property of the prior generation," Manfred said on the Boers & Bernstein Show on Thursday. "I do believe that the young players we have playing the game today will establish those unwritten rules in a way that's appealing to people of their generation, and -- equally important -- that continues to respect the game."

Even in this day in age, the old-school players are still finding things to get upset about -- don't flip your bat, tilt your hat, pump your fist. Fun is a foreign concept to many.

Baseball's young players are often bewildered by how to act, feeling they can't be themselves while between the lines.

"I just think (it's important) knowing where you're crossing the line -- but nobody really knows where that line is," 22-year-old Cubs shortstop Addison Russell said, admittedly uncomfortable about the premise.

"It's kind of an iffy topic."

Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist, 34, spoke of greater conviction. Zobrist is entirely in favor of bringing baseball to this new age but doing so while maintaining its respect.

"It is a kids game," Zobrist said. "But the way the kids game has evolved over the years, kids are watching big leaguers and watching the Latin flair a lot of guys have in the big leagues, and they're emulating that at a young age. They're enjoying that part of the game -- the idea that it's not just what you do inside the lines. Sometimes, it's the personality that you have. It's the fun in and around the game that we're missing at this level. They've been bringing it back."

Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage in March embarked on an embarrassing rant to that attacked the modern game. Among the many topics he railed against -- including sabermetrics and the game's Ivy League executives, such as Cubs architect Theo Epstein, a Yale graduate -- he stormed on about Bautista and his bat flip.

"Bautista is a f---ing disgrace to the game," Gossage told ESPN. "He's embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him. Throwing his bat and acting like a fool, like all those guys in Toronto. (Yoenis) Cespedes, same thing."

Whether Gossage likes it or not, baseball's new age is here, and the game is evolving away from the old-school existence and into this new age.

Baseball will never truly stabilize into its modernization until that archaic state of mind of Gossage and many more no longer has a platform to stand upon. Such sentiments surely don't hold water in most modern clubhouses.

At long last, baseball is a game in which personality and respect can coexist.

"It's absolutely possible to do that," Zobrist said. "Some of the things that we've always done traditionally in baseball, they're a little bit archaic -- that there has to be this hierarchy, this 'keep your mouth quiet all the time.' People are who they are. It's OK to have a personality.

"I do think the fun side of the game that's come out over the last couple years has been good for the game."

There are still light years to go for baseball's gradual evolution, but what's occurred before our eyes is undeniable. The game's next generation of participants are flipping bats across T-ball fields like Bautista and rubbing eye black across their eyes like Harper. They fist pump and celebrate every moment, just like their major league heroes.

Slowly but surely, baseball is becoming fun again.

Chris Emma covers the Chicago sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.


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