Luke Gregerson learned a life lesson in Little League that's still etched in his memory.
Growing up outside of Chicago, the Houston Astros reliever recalls playing in an All-Star game his team lost. Crushed, he went through the handshake line afterward with his head -- and his hands -- down.
"I walked off the field and my dad was so mad at me," Gregerson says. "He grabbed me and said, 'You will never act like that ever again.' He told me I'd never play baseball again if I did something like that."
Twenty years later, Gregerson has made something of a liar out of his father: Every single day, he plays baseball, and every single day, he doesn't shake hands with his opponents.
Gregerson's story is hardly unique. Talk to any MLB player, and they'll tell you that they remember doing the postgame handshake back in Little League. They remember doing it in high school. Those who played in college remember doing it on Sunday at the end of a series. But once they got to the pros, it all went away. Whether you're drafted at age 18 or 22 or somewhere in between, once you start getting paid to play a kid's game, it suddenly stops looking like a kid's game. Even at the very lowest levels of the minor leagues, the postgame handshake goes poof.
But when the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals face off Sunday in the first ever MLB Little League Classic, they might make history. Not because they're playing a regular-season game at a tiny stadium in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in front of a bunch of kids (although that is pretty unprecedented), but because it might be the first time two major league teams actually line up and shake hands after a game.
ANYONE WHO HAS EVER played in a Little League baseball game, or coached or attended one, knows that shaking hands with the other team immediately afterward is standard operating procedure.
The ice cream truck can wait. Ditto for the postgame pep talk. And the running around the bases. All of it takes a back seat to sportsmanship.
According to Little League International, there is no hard-and-fast rule mandating that opposing teams shake hands following each contest. But there is photographic evidence of the postgame shake at the Little League World Series dating back to the late 1940s.
"Little League is about fun, and teaching respect," says Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who shook it out at the 2004 LLWS as part of Curacao's championship squad.
To be sure, there's no shortage of plausible explanations as to why the shake gets shunned in pro baseball. Unlike in the amateur ranks, professional contests are played in cavernous stadiums where guys can be scattered anywhere from the bullpen to the clubhouse when the final out is recorded, making the postgame lineup a logistical nightmare.
Unlike in the NFL, in which athletes tend to meet in the middle of the field following their one game a week, baseball players do battle every day and simply can't be bothered. Unlike in the NBA, in which it's not abnormal to shake hands after the final buzzer, MLB teams are forced to face the same team three or four times in a row.
Of all the excuses, it's that last one -- something about familiarity breeding contempt -- that seems to hold the most water.
"When you're doing this professionally, there's so much on the line," Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright says. "Sometimes there's bad blood. Sometimes the last thing you want to do right after the game is see the person you had an encounter with."
A father of four girls who all play softball, Wainwright says he doesn't worry about the mixed message big leaguers might send by shelving the shake in The Show. In fact, given the flammability of the situation, he thinks fans might be better off for it.
"If there was postgame handshakes, you'd see some fights out there."
If the amateur ranks are any indication, Wainwright has a point. In 2013, the state of Kentucky banned postgame shakes at all high school sporting events, citing a three-year period in which more than two-dozen fights broke out immediately following competition. Handshakes between NCAA athletes, though still permitted, have a tendency to go awry too.
"It happened multiple times," says Cardinals outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who played at Stanford. "It's chippy during the game, then you go through the line and you've got raw emotion. You're pissed. They're pissed."
Extrapolate that anger and imagine what might happen if, say, the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants had to shake hands just minutes after Bryce Harper charged the mound and traded blows with Hunter Strickland back in May. Things could get ugly.
Perhaps that helps explain rule 4.06, which has been on the MLB books since at least 1950 and dictates that "players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform." Despite that edict, a big-league baseball game can sometimes come off looking like one humongous hobnob-a-thon.
During batting practice, when the home team is finishing up and the visitors are just coming out to stretch, it's not uncommon to see opposing players sharing bro hugs around the cage. When a hitter steps into the box for his first at-bat of the game, he often chats it up with the catcher. If he's lucky enough to reach, it's the same thing all over again with the first baseman. But when it comes to the postgame, ballplayers seemingly would rather line up in front of a firing squad than line up to press palms.
"We play 162 games," says Piscotty, who might miss Sunday's game in Williamsport after a surprise demotion to Triple-A last week. "I think it loses its meaning if you're just doing it over and over."
And yet guys on the winning side have no problem shaking hands with their own teammates over and over, as MLB's self-congratulatory code dictates. Victory after victory, that never loses its meaning. Even to a playoff team that wins 90-plus games over the course of six months, plus a few more in the postseason, the intrasquad squeeze never seems to get old.
Maybe the absence of the postgame handshake isn't so much about losing its meaning as it is about simply losing.
"The last thing you want," Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison says, "is to be going through an 0-for-15 struggle and a guy just struck you out three times and he's like, 'Yeah, I got you.' That's the last thing you want to hear at that point."
Says Wainwright: "The guy who gave up the lead or blew the save or lost the game, he doesn't want to stick around and shake hands."
Of course he doesn't. Just like Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson probably didn't want to stick around and shake hands after allowing a double-overtime score in Game 7 of this year's Eastern Conference finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But he did.
Because sportsmanship. Unfortunately, that particular brand of decorum has no place on the diamond.
"The best part of baseball is not shaking hands," Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock says. "It drives me crazy when I see it in football. A team gets their butt kicked and you see guys laughing afterward. We play 162 games. I love the fact that when the game is over, win or lose, you go right to the clubhouse. When you get to this level, it has nothing to do with sportsmanship."
So why go to such great lengths to drive home the whole handshake thing in youth baseball if it's only a matter of time before it all flies right out the window?
"Sportsmanship goes further than just shaking hands and saying, 'Good game,'" Harrison says. "Sportsmanship is playing the game the right way and acknowledging the other team playing right. We might not shake hands on the field, but we do give credit to the other team in postgame interviews or whatever it may be."
MAYBE MELDING MITTS isn't the only way to show respect after a hard-fought battle, but as NHL fans can attest, it certainly is the most obvious and impactful way.
"Those guys beat the tar out of each other," says Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, an avid puckhead and father of five whose daughter Katie spent the past four years playing college hockey at Ohio State. "Then, after they physically beat each other up, they line up and shake hands. It's a classy thing to do."
It's so classy the St. Louis skipper -- a noted advocate for perspective in youth sports who authored a book called "The Matheny Manifesto" -- has designs on bringing it to the bigs.
In fact, he has already tried.
In each of Matheny's first two seasons as manager, his team made it to the postseason. During that pair of playoff runs, the Cards played in three different series that went the distance. According to Matheny, on the morning of one of those winner-take-all elimination games, he picked up the phone and called the opposing manager with an idea inspired by a conversation he'd had with another hockey dad from St. Louis.
"I'm thinking out of the box here," Matheny told his fellow skipper. "But if it doesn't go well for us today, I'd be honored if our guys came out and shook your guys' hands."
Not surprisingly, the other manager didn't go for it.
In retrospect, Matheny thinks he caught his counterpart off guard, and that if he'd gone through the proper channels and broached the subject with the commissioner's office, he might have had more success. For what it's worth, he still has his sights set on shaking the handshake tree.
"I do actually want to bring that up to Mr. Manfred. I know there are some old-school people that would hate it, but it goes back to sportsmanship. There's nothing wrong with us shaking hands and acknowledging the fact that two teams left it all out on the field."
His pie-in-the-sky plan could land soon. Like, real soon.
On Sunday evening, Matheny and the Cardinals will face the Pirates in the inaugural MLB Little League Classic. The game, which takes place right smack dab in the middle of the Little League World Series, will be played at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The pint-sized park has about 2,500 seats, nearly all of which will be occupied by Little Leaguers and their coaches and families. Translation? If ever there were a time to green light Operation Handshake, this would seem to be it.
Not for nothing, MLB is well aware of this. According to a league source, the possibility of a postgame handshake between St. Louis and Pittsburgh has been discussed and has gained traction in the wake of this year's World Baseball Classic, where Team United States and Team Puerto Rico shook it out in impromptu fashion following the finals. And the universe as we know it did not end.
"It wasn't like playing during the regular season," says Gregerson, a Team USA member, trying to put his finger on why he and his big-league cohorts were inspired to get their Little League on at the WBC. "It's tough to say this, but it's a job. We're here to work. We're getting paid to do this. We're out here every day for eight months and that's all we do. The WBC was kind of like a little break, and it felt like you were back in high school or Little League."
In other words, work is work and play is play and never the twain shall meet. And never shall the palms of opposing players meet either -- unless it's just for fun.
But nobody knows for sure what the game at Bowman Field will feel like until it happens. On the one hand, it's a break from the norm, a whimsical one-off played at a tiny minor league park in front of a bunch of kids on summer vacation. On the other hand, it's the finale of what's sure to be a hotly contested four-game set between bitter divisional rivals who will still have to face each other six more times after leaving Williamsport.
To shake or not to shake, this is the question.
"I wouldn't be opposed to it at all," Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer says. "Baseball's not bigger than life. If we can show some kids the proper way to do things, I'm all for it. Ultimately, the game's for them. That's the whole reason we changed the venue and made it in Williamsport. It's for the kids."
Regardless of what happens in Williamsport, don't expect MLB to suddenly fall head over heels for handshakes. At least not in the regular season.
As for the playoffs, where losers typically make a masochistic point of stewing in their own dugout while the winners celebrate after the final out, that's another story.
"Part of the self-punishment is to sit and watch," Matheny says. "You're just beat down, you left everything you had out there, you're told you can't play any longer, and a bunch of guys will stay out there and watch, just to keep it tattooed in their memory. I hope that turns into an opportunity in the postseason for teams to acknowledge each other. Because that's different. That's special."
The problem is, in a game so deeply steeped in tradition, Matheny's manifesto might be the minority mindset.
"To go out there and shake hands while they're celebrating," says Schoop, "it would be weird. You watch and wish it was you. Then you walk away."