There are very few things that make Scott Bonnett panic.
Spending the last 15 years making sure the Pittsburgh Pirates have whatever they need whenever they need it has taught the longtime equipment manager the importance of being prepared for anything.
Well, almost anything.
Bonnett found himself in the dugout in Seattle late last month watching Andrew McCutchen round third following a leadoff home run against the Mariners when joy was quickly replaced by panic. The pathologically meticulous Bonnett scanned the end of the bench looking not for a helmet or a glove or pine tar but … a rubber sword and a black suit jacket that looks like it got attacked by an overzealous tailor with an affinity for patches.
Welcome to major league baseball in 2023, where an ever-increasing number of homers and big hits aren’t met with simple fist bumps or forearm bashes but a full-on production.
In Pittsburgh, they swashbuckle. You know, as Pirates do. In Minnesota, the fish. In Miami, they drape themselves in bling. In Seattle, they don a tricked-out Darth Vader helmet and brandish a trident. In Washington, they literally wig out. In Arizona, they wrap themselves in leather.
A trend that began with a few rogue teams during the pandemic as a way to bring life to fan-less stadiums is catching on thanks in part to social media and simple competitive one-upmanship.
The surprising Pirates began using a sword — OK, technically a “cutlass” — this season at the behest of a group of fans that call themselves “The Renegades of the Rotunda” and regularly show up to games at PNC Park in full cosplay glory. McCutchen — who was able to flamboyantly parry with an invisible opponent in Seattle after his 295th career homer when Bonnett found the momentarily misplaced prop just in time — figures his club is just trying to keep up with the times.
“You almost feel like an outcast if you don’t have it on a team,” the five-time All-Star said. “It’s just kind of where we are.”
Or more specifically, where they’re going.
Baseball isn’t just evolving on the field but off it. Sure the pitch clock is cool. It just doesn’t go viral like say, players slamming water through a funnel or turning themselves into “human sprinklers” like kids goofing off around a garden hose, as the Baltimore Orioles do after big hits.
“It is very dumb, but it is hilarious,” McCutchen said. “Especially when you get the whole team involved.”
McCutchen pointed to the crowded dugout rail as proof the Orioles are creating the kind of good vibes difficult to quantify but essential to navigating a six-month season that can sometimes feel like a slog no matter how well it’s going.
“Everyone is watching the game, they’re watching what’s happening,” McCutchen said. “You don’t have guys in the clubhouse just wondering what’s going on or not paying attention. They’re out there.”
It’s also creating a bond with the people who buy the tickets. The Orioles have labeled a section of left-field seats “Bird Bath Splash Zone” where fans can get doused — thankfully with water from a cannon and not a player’s mouth — after extra-base hits.
“They want to feel connected to their team, and I think it gives them a way that hopefully they’re enjoying it,” Baltimore pitcher Kyle Gibson said. “It gives them a way to get in touch.”
There are a handful of unwritten rules — of course, there are unwritten rules, it’s baseball — that comes with the territory. First off, the props have to be organic, or at the very least on brand. Oh, and they can’t upset a league sponsor, like when Atlanta broke out a comically oversized Braves hat, only to be chided by MLB because it wasn’t created by New Era, MLB’s official hat provider.
The Twins started their “Land of 10,000 Rakes” routine at the urging of pitcher Pablo López, who created an informal planning committee to hatch something symbolic of the region. They came up with a beige fishing vest and a child’s fishing pole, with the opportunity for more to be added over the summer.
“Maybe we can add a bucket hat, or a big fish would be good,” outfielder Michael Taylor said.
Change can be good. Miami’s homer party has morphed from a simple chain with a massive Marlins logo to a full-on ensemble that now includes a giant straw hat and a pair of sunglasses, a nod to a city that’s part neon glam, part retirement community.
Arizona used to pull out a stuffed rattlesnake but has since traded it for a “victory vest” that the night’s star player can wear during postgame TV interviews.
“Anything you can do to break up the dog days of the season, little things like that, sneak in a laugh,” Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker said. “We’ve had a couple of things we’ve retired along the way, but it seems like the jacket is sticking.”
It helps that the Diamondbacks are winning, a key factor in whether something catches on or fizzles out. San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. thought he was on to something when he brought a full-size red, white and green sombrero into the dugout during a series in Mexico City against the San Francisco Giants in April. The Padres homered six times that first night, with the sombrero finding its way onto the head of whoever sent the ball over the fence.
A May swoon, however, soon followed. And the sombrero went back into storage after two short-lived weeks.
“It died,” Tatis joked, allowing it will “probably” return at some point. “It’s in the back. It’s resting. He gave everything he had.”
Still, San Diego doesn’t lack options. The Padres occasionally pose for photos with a baseball — typically with a face drawn on it by bench coach Ryan Christenson — that sports a mini-sombrero up top after homers.
Nearly every player The Associated Press talked to stressed most of the celebrations are generally all in good fun and don’t cross the line into something personal, unlike say a particularly showy backflip or the “sword” motion former MLB pitcher Trevor Bauer used to flash after a strikeout.
They’re also typically done in the “privacy” of the dugout, out of the sight of the opponent on the field.
Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally get under the skin. That’s where the beauty of the game comes in.
“It’s a two-way street,” McCutchen said. “The hitter can do what they want. The pitcher can do what they want. But just know if there’s ever a meeting again, that other person is going to feel like, if I get you here, I’m going to do something to where I feel some type of vengeance. I have some time of vengeance against you because you did that. I’m going to really celebrate on this one.”
It’s not on McCutchen to decide what’s good for the game or bad for the game. At 36, he’s old enough to be considered “old school,” even though there’s been a flashiness to his game from the moment he made his major-league debut in 2009. Now a father of three — including two young sons who are already playing T-ball — he understands the game needs to adapt or die.
If that means turning every home into a production — within reason — then so be it. Bring on the props. A decade ago he was part of a team that flashed a “Z” in reference to Zoltan, the villain in the early 2000s comedy “Dude Where’s My Car? — perhaps one of the most random “things that became a thing” in the sport’s modern history.
This season, it’s a cutlass and a jacket that’s a little too tight. Next year it’ll be something else.
“It’s going to change,” he said. “For me, you either accept it or you’re just mad. We’re showmen. We put on a show. That’s what brings you to the ballpark. You play the game but you also do some things that make people be like, ‘Man, that was really cool.’”