Bryce Harper's hat seemed to say it all: "MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN."
It was a bold mission statement for baseball, from one of its brightest young stars, challenging a sport that some call too long, too slow -- and too boring.
We say: Bah, humbug, haters. Baseball didn't need to be made fun again -- it's been fun, and 2016 showed what fun in baseball is all about.
In case you don't want to take our word for it, here are just a few examples of the many things that have made baseball fun this year.
Portly Pablo Sandoval has frustrated Red Sox fans in recent years. And though he vows to be in better shape next season, the sight of Panda swinging his belt off in April made just about everyone outside of the greater Boston area -- and probably some in Beantown -- chuckle. Perhaps a little less funny, at least to the White Sox, ace Chris Sale (who, incidentally, will be Sandoval's teammate in Boston in 2017) objected so much to Chicago's 1976 throwback uniforms that he took a pair of scissors to all of them. Sale, who we'd guess isn't alone in disliking the collared jerseys (which, in his case, he argued were a distraction), was suspended by the team for the incident. That was in July. Now we wait to see Sale's reaction to those green St. Patrick's Day jerseys the Red Sox wear in spring training. Perhaps he'll just throw a bullpen session that day.
Even Harper himself got in on the act here. While Harper's hat made headlines, so did his bat. Major League Baseball ultimately lifted its short-lived ban on bat decals, but not before Harper added a "100" emoji to the bottom of his bat's barrel as he neared the century mark for homers. Later, he was spotted with a patriotic sticker that read "MBFA 2016" on it.
Speaking of bats, Matt Szczur's got credit for helping Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo break out of a postseason slump. Better yet, the outfielder's underwear even managed to give Chicago a lift; teammate Addison Russell rocked his leggings while rocking the Dodgers in the NLCS.
One of the most fun things about the game right now is the proliferation of young stars blossoming into household names. National League Rookie of the Year, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, was a finalist for NL MVP. Pretty cool. Colorado's Trevor Story had a thumb injury cut into his, um, storybook season, but, boy, did he make an amazing first impression. Story homered in five of his first six MLB games and finished the stretch with seven home runs in total, with 12 RBIs and a 1.468 OPS.
Perhaps the center of the rookie universe currently is, believe it or not, the Bronx. Rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin made history by homering back-to-back in their first MLB at-bats in August, and catcher Gary Sanchez nearly stole the AL Rookie of the Year Award from Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer -- who tossed 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings at one point -- despite playing only 53 games. Why? He homered 20 times -- 20! -- in that span, taking the Yankees from the epitome of boring baseball to just about as much fun as you can have in the Big Apple without making the playoffs.
Amazing feats at the plate!
It's not just rookies getting things done. Our list is littered with old(er) guys, starting with Ichiro Suzuki, who turned 43 in October but spent much of the year hitting the ball like someone half his age. For Ichiro, though, it was about the kind of milestones few rookies would even dare to dream of, as he collected his 4,257th career hit -- passing Pete Rose as the "International Hit King," counting MLB and his stats from Japan -- and joining the majors' exclusive 3,000-hit club less than two months later.
Among the 4,257-or-so other fun hits around the majors, in August the Giants' Brandon Crawford had seven in one game. Baseball saw a ton of home runs this season (5,610, the most since 2000 and the second-most ever), including Cleveland rookie Tyler Naquin's walk-off, inside-the-park homer against Toronto and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner's longshot longball off Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Then, in October, Edwin Encarnacion's wild-card walk-off sent the Blue Jays to the American League Division Series -- and earned him his own stained-glass window.
Amazing feats on the mound!
Max Scherzer did not throw two no-hitters again like he did in 2015. He didn't even throw one! But Scherzer was no slacker. The Washington Nationals ace tied the major league mark in May with a 20-strikeout game, en route to joining an exclusive list of pitchers to win Cy Young Awards in both leagues. There was one no-hitter thrown: the Cubs' Jake Arrieta tossed it in April (but more on the Cubs later). As for Kershaw, sure, he gave up a home run to MadBum, and lost a good chunk of the season to a back injury, but there are few things as fun as watching a guy strike out 172 batters and only walk 11, then work his way back to the field to toss 24 1/3 postseason innings and even notch a save in the National League Division Series.
The most mound fun in recent memory happened even deeper into October, as Andrew Miller became a postseason superman out of the Indians' bullpen. Miller won the American League Championship Series MVP award, routinely coming in for whatever skipper Terry Francona deemed the most high-leverage situation, regardless of the inning. Will that -- and the way other playoff teams deployed their relief corps -- change the way bullpens are used forever?
Amazing feats in the field!
Travis Wood is a pitcher, which is why watching the Cub crash into the Wrigley Field ivy to make a catch in left field was, to choose a random word, fun. So was Yankees left fielder Aaron Hicks' 105 mph throw to nail a runner at the plate. And Yasiel Puig's epic April toss wasn't too shabby, either.
Perhaps the most enjoyable field feats, however, happened on the South Side, where the White Sox turned not one, not two, but three triple plays. The first one was the doozy -- a highly unusual 9-3-2-6-2-5 play against the Rangers in April. The Sox are the first team to turn three triple plays in a season this century (and the first since 1979) -- and they actually completed a fourth, if you count spring training.
Amazing Amazin' moments!
Speaking of old dudes coming through -- and pitchers going yard, to boot -- 43-year-old Bartolo Colon's first big-league home run ranks among the most memorable moments in a year that brought a lot of girth, er, mirth not only to the Mets and their fans, but to their detractors, too. There was Yoenis Cespedes' spring training car show -- in which he arrived at the park in Port St. Lucie, Florida, with a new tricked-out vehicle five straight days. There was the Mets signing Tim Tebow (yes, the Tim Tebow!). There was an epic NL wild-card pitching duel between Noah Syndergaard and MadBum -- though that one didn't turn out the Amazin's way.
The Mets didn't beat the Cubs again in October this year, but if not for all those frustrating injuries, they nearly could have matched them in the fun department.
Wow...— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) December 7, 2016
The Indians trolled Toronto's Jose Bautista over complaints about the umpiring in the ALCS.
We've had sign stealing and circumstances.— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) October 17, 2016
POLL: What will our opponents' next excuse be? #RallyTogether
Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard -- also known as Thor -- even got trolled by the Empire State Building:
Dear Empire State Building: Wasn't me (For liability purposes only) pic.twitter.com/OJvxm5s32B— Noah Syndergaard (@Noahsyndergaard) July 26, 2016
We don't believe you, Thor. https://t.co/ezlx5IgCbA— Empire State Bldg (@EmpireStateBldg) July 26, 2016
And then there was, arguably, the best of the best -- Kate Upton's sore-loser tweets, after her fiance, Justin Verlander, failed to win the AL Cy Young Award. Here's one we could reprint on this Disney-owned family website:
He had the majority of 1st place votes and 2 writers didn't have him on their ballots?!! can you pick more out of touch people to vote?@MLB— Kate Upton (@KateUpton) November 16, 2016
After Yankees COO Lonn Trost said ticket holders in the team's ultraexpensive Legends Suite do not like to sit next to people "who have never sat in a premium location," HBO talk show host John Oliver saw an opportunity. He offered prime seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium to "riffraff" fans willing to dress like they, well, had never sat in a premium location. What we ended up with: fans dressed like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and sharks, among other fun costumes -- plus scores of fans who deserve honorable mentions for their submissions on Twitter.
Perhaps in a ballpark nearer to you, the budding tradition of catching foul balls while holding a baby in one arm continued, notably in Philadelphia, where not only a child, but a plate of french fries was involved. Fun? Yes. Recommended or endorsed? No. One thing worth endorsing, though: the first MLB game on an active military base, Fort Bragg, where those who protect our country got to take in some major league baseball.
Among the other notable fun fan moments: Max Scherzer made a young Mets fan's day with a catch in the stands at Citi Field. Cleveland fans came together as one on the same night, as Game 1 of the World Series was played at Progressive Field while the Cavaliers got their NBA championship rings across the street at Quicken Loans Arena. And Cubs fans? Well, they had the most fun of anyone.
Depending on how you look at it, Alex Rodriguez's unceremonious exit from baseball wasn't much fun, although Fenway Park chanting "We want A-Rod!" was fairly amazing. Few players have had as much fun in their careers as David Ortiz, who put together a historic farewell season, perhaps the best ever. The Red Sox slugger even did his best Babe Ruth impression, making the wish of a young fan battling a heart defect come true by promising and delivering a game-winning home run -- against the hated Yankees, no less.
After 67 years, Vin Scully's last season in the booth ended with an emotional goodbye at Dodger Stadium -- after his final call in L.A., which was a 10th-inning walk-off home run by Charlie Culberson to clinch the NL West.
Then there was Grandpa Rossy -- aka retiring Cubs catcher David Ross -- who made his final at-bat count, homering off Andrew Miller(!) in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, perhaps the greatest game baseball has ever seen. And, on the subject of the World Series ...
There was so much fun on the North Side of Chicago in 2016 that we've already devoted a plethora of pixels to it over the past several months. So let's just leave it at this: After 108 years of being the Lovable Losers, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions.
Fun is not nearly a strong enough word for that.