Last week, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote a rather curious column in which he asked a very simple question. Why do Major Leaguers high five each other so much? The issue came to light after the Milwaukee Brewers had to ban high fives for a little bit after an outbreak of pink eye in the clubhouse. (Makes sense, since pink eye is very transmissible.)
A high five is fairly obvious after a home run or after a starter’s seventh shutout inning, but now it seems that if you look into a dugout, even after a groundout to second, a couple of guys greet the batter with at least a little slap. Are we so far gone as a culture that we are now celebrating ground outs to second? In fairness to Olney, he was a self-aware in his writing and ended it with an admonition to his readership to get off of his lawn. But it’s an interesting question. There are a lot of high-fives in the dugout. What’s up with that?
To answer this question, we go to the most obvious place in the world: Moscow, Russia. My wife is from there, and as a result, I spend a lot of time hanging out with people who have come to the United States from Russia. In Russia (as in a lot of Europe), people greet each other by kissing on each cheek, which to me was strange. In United States culture, people are very selective about whom they kiss. One isn’t better than the other, that’s just culture for you. Now, I was aware of this custom, but I’d never really experienced it, until I started getting invited to my then-girlfriend, now-wife’s family parties. Especially the ones where everything was explainable by “On Americanitz” (He’s an American.)
I find it helpful to think of a baseball clubhouse (or baseball in general) as having its own little culture. We often think of other cultures in terms of people who speak a different language, whether totally different (my wife’s Russian speaking family) or at least somewhat different (I could go to England and understand most of what they say, but some things I’d need explained.) But one thing that we don’t often think of when we talk about other cultures (or even United States culture), is how people communicate non-verbally, and especially the way that they communicate through touch.
I’d argue that you can learn much more from how a culture uses non-verbal communication, especially touch, than from their verbal communication or at least you can learn very different things from non-verbal communication. Lying is easy. Lying with a straight face, not so much. But how often have you thought about how many touch rituals, places where the touch serves no practical purpose but serves a social one, you go through on a daily basis. Just for fun, I kept track one day last week and came up with this list:
- I gave my kids a hug before I left for work in the morning.
- I kissed my wife.
- At work, while passing someone in the hallway, I nodded in lieu of touching them
- But when someone new was wandering the halls on her first day, I introduced myself and shook her hand.
- In a meeting, when someone reported on some particularly good news, I looked across the table and did a “If we were closer, this would be a fist bump”
- Back home, I hugged my kids upon getting in the door.
You probably recognize some variation on those from your own life, but I doubt that you ever thought of them as communications or rituals. I’m probably missing a few myself. The messages are pretty obvious. Upon departing, I’m re-assuring my kids that I’ll be back later in the day and telling them that I love them. I’m doing much the same with my wife. I’m performing a small initiation ritual with the new person, by shaking her hand, but I refrain from doing so with the person whom I pass in the hall daily, because we don’t need an initiation ritual. I use implied touch for celebrating good news, and when I got home, I engaged in a reunion ritual.
But let’s go back into the world of the baseball player and we really stop to look at the players and think about the ways in which they use touch to communicate, suddenly, there’s a whole new layer of communication that you’d never really noticed before. Baseball players greet each other by slapping hands, celebrate departures at the trade deadline by hugging each other (#HugWatch), and there’s the traditional pat on the backside that the manager gives a pitcher as he walks off the mound. Fielders slap gloves (but not hands) after a good catch, but slap hands (not gloves) after a win.
In fact, if you look closely, even the high five itself has several variations. There’s the full-on, “I’m going to smack you as hard as I can and make a face” high-five. There’s the more reserved, but “something good just happened” high five. There’s the passive “I am walking by you and I will place my arm in a perpendicular position so that our hands may touch as we walk by each other.” If there’s something that Statcast can’t do, it’s measure the force that players put into high fives after different events. Now that would be a study.
I’d argue that most of the high fives that Buster Olney noticed were of the last kind. They are likely perfunctory touches that take the form of a high five, but probably aren’t as intense as a “proper” high five. But why do players do it to begin with. They could simply nod at each other, or say “jolly good!” but they choose to high five. The thing about touch rituals is that they are often ways that cultures regulate who belongs to a group and who does not. Touch can be a way to bring a new member into a group or to maintain those social ties. I’d argue that’s the secret behind the high fives.
My personal favorite definition to the idea of “team chemistry” is that it’s the answer to the question “Why should I bother?” During a baseball season, there is plenty of incentive to not bother. It’s hot. The season is long. There’s a lot of travel. You have to play every night, whether you are having a good day or not. Now, a good reason for being bothered to keep going despite the fatigue and the heat is that there are 24 other guys counting on you. We’ve seen that even small effects, not visible to the naked eye, can add up to big value over time in baseball. And that’s why keeping people grounded in reminders that “You are part of this team” with an implied dose of “Don’t let us down” is a good thing for baseball. Teams aren’t really celebrating that ground out to second. Whether you did something good or something bad, you are part of our team and we will be there to support you, but we also want you to remember not to be a slacker.
There’s a study that comes out of basketball that shows that teams which touch each other more often on the sideline actually perform measurably better. In basketball where five men must work together as a team, that sort of team reinforcement makes a lot of sense. In baseball, it’s easy to dismiss the need for this. The primary unit of a baseball game is one pitcher against one hitter, and while the defense must work together a little bit in the field, there’s not a lot even to that. But there’s more to playing baseball than what happens on the field. Players using touch rituals to reinforce the idea of team might just cut down on players slacking before and after the game or even from taking at-bats off.
Of course, one high five isn’t going to be the difference between feeling a sense of belonging and not, but the ritual aspect of it is important. Some days, because of circumstances like my youngest daughter needing a diaper change or throwing a major fit, I’m not able to kiss my wife before I leave for work. Even on those days, she knows I love her. I know she loves me. Now, if one of us completely stopped our little ritual, it would be very strange. It’s the ritual that creates that link, rather than the behavior itself (although… the behavior is kinda nice there too). It’s something that we share between us and no one else. We are a team.
That’s why teams perform the high five ritual even in situations where it might seem a little weird. By turning it into a ritual, something that is done regularly. There’s room for embellishment on the form when there’s something major to celebrate, but baseball teams (and all teams) need those links. So, the next time you see your favorite team’s players exchanging seemingly meaningless high fives, remember what’s going on. They’re engaging in a ritual that reminds them to stick together. And there’s reason to believe that it even helps them to play better.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now