MLB culture clash over the "right way" to play

Papelbon was out of place with Harper (3:00)

The Baseball Tonight crew reacts to the scuffle between Washington Nationals P Jonathan Papelbon and RF Bryce Harper in the dugout during the eighth inning of their 12-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. (3:00)

When Jonathan Papelbon of the Washington Nationals choked the youngster having an MVP-caliber season, it represented a swelling culture clash over how to play baseball "the right way."

After Bryce Harper jogged to first base on an eighth-inning flyout Sunday, the closer met him at the top step of the dugout and admonished the likely MVP to "run the [bleeping] ball out." Harper bleeped right back, and they went at it. The fight probably originated a few days earlier, after Papelbon drilled the Orioles' Manny Machado for admiring a home run for a second too long -- maybe two seconds -- and Harper called Papelbon's retaliation "tired."

The dugout choke-out, plus his previous plunking of Machado, earned Papelbon a seven-game suspension that ended his season. The 11-year veteran later admitted he was wrong, but still fell back on a cobwebbed, 100-plus-year-old idea: that Harper should "play the game the right way."

The Right Way polices and punishes at least a dozen taboos:

Don't ask for time too often, and don't stare at the ball after you hit a homer, and don't flip your bat when you crush one, and don't trot around the bases too slowly, and don't say anything to the opposing players as you pass them, and don't look like you're enjoying your accomplishment too much, act like you've been there before, and don't step on the baselines as you jog back out onto the field, and make sure you don't try anything disrespectful like bunting or stealing with a big lead and ...

It doesn't stop there. Baseball's list of unwritten rules is as long as Harper's list of haters.

Plenty of players still believe in these traditions. But many players don't -- including many Latinos who grew up in cultures where pitchers and batters celebrated alike and retaliatory fastballs to the face didn't exist. Some white players, meanwhile, like Harper and Josh Donaldson, ignore the rules out of sheer excellence and rebellion. Check their on-base percentages, bro.

They all have the same unspoken question: What does it mean to play the game The Right Way? In a sport with shifting demographics, that's a complicated issue.

The answers differ even within the same clubhouse.

The Dodgers are the most diverse club in the game with players from the United States, Curaçao, Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, South Korea and the Dominican Republic. Their All-Star catcher, 26-year-old Yasmani Grandal, grew up in Cuba before playing college ball at Miami.

"In the United States it's a little more strict," he says. "You know, there is a way of playing baseball here that has been taught for generations; [in] the Hispanic countries, it's like a celebration. You embrace it a little bit more. It's not really to show up a guy, it's just the fact that, hey, I got a base hit, thank God. This game is so hard."

"You go outside of the States and getting a base hit or a home run, you know, that celebration is of happiness. It's hey, you know, I got a base hit!

That's not what it means for Howie Kendrick, the 32-year-old Dodgers second baseman.

"If you know you're going to celebrate, you know, you might get hit," the veteran says. "That's the way I look at it, and no guy should be mad about that. That's just the way the game is. In baseball, guys kind of regulate the games themselves. You know, you play the game how it's supposed to be played."

On Wednesday, Cleveland's Jose Ramirez celebrated a home run off Minnesota's Ricky Nolasco by delightfully flinging his bat.

"He'll get his," Nolasco said later. "Don't worry."

Yankees catcher Brian McCann, no stranger to regulating The Right Way, now claims to avoid judgment: "Everyone has their own opinion on how the game should be played. If they ask 50 guys the same question, you're probably going to get a lot of different answers. I grew up playing the game a certain way."

And former pitcher Dirk Hayhurst still doesn't fully get The Right Way. He called it "a holy baseball term for which there is no known definition besides the objective whimsy of your veteran teammates, the opposition, and the media. It is an amorphous standard that will nonetheless govern your existence as long as you have a jersey on your back."

If these rules are ambiguous for guys who grew up in this country, imagine what it's like for Yasiel Puig.

When the Dodgers outfielder arrived here from Cuba, he was stunned to learn Gatorade came in multiple colors, then broke a rookie record held by Joe DiMaggio -- whom he had never heard of. He had to learn English, plus the foreign language of the Way. After Puig cranked a homer off Madison Bumgarner last season, he threw his palms up in confusion as Bumgarner chewed Puig out for his bat flip.

"I always try to put on a show for the fans," Puig said during his rookie year, after opponents called his playing style "arrogant" and "stupid." "They come to spend their time and lose sleep watching us play. To me, it is one of the more emotional things in baseball."

Latinos make up about 30 percent of the sport. Some follow the old Way, like Dominican pitchers Yordano Ventura and Ubaldo Jimenez, who have pummeled batters because, in baseball, the majority still rules.

"Play the game the right way, and if you don't play it the right way, be ready for the consequences, that's it," says 24-year-old Dodgers utilityman Kiké Hernandez, who was born in Puerto Rico. "I believe everybody knows. There are just some guys that don't really care."

Maybe a breaking point will come soon, like Jose Bautista getting injured by accident in the coming playoffs. Maybe players will take stock of the unwritten code's potential impact and decide to create change.

But legendary San Francisco Giants broadcaster Jon Miller, who started calling games in the 1970s, can't envision a future in which pitchers don't feel so disrespected that they try to damage hitters.

"A guy throwing 90-something miles per hour can badly injure a guy with that baseball," he concludes. "It's a lethal weapon. What has to change is the pitchers. If the pitcher feels like he's being humiliated, then he may do something about it, you know? And that's it."

Or not, if you're Bautista. At least five times, Bautista has homered after being thrown at for not playing The Right Way. He has celebrated even more afterward, unapologetically.

Bautista was asked recently on "The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz" which of his homers-after-being-thrown-at he has enjoyed the most.

He laughed.

"I don't know if there's one time that's better than others," he said. "I just know that I enjoyed every single one of them."

He might get hit for that.

ESPN's Andrew Marchand and Mark Saxon contributed to this story.