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The Yankees Have Discovered the Transformative Power of Human Touch

Outfielder Cameron Maybin’s ‘hugs for homers’ challenges traditional notions of masculinity, and experts say that’s a very good thing

NY Yankees teammates Gleyber Torres and Cameron Maybin hug as they celebrate a two run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays
NY Yankees teammates Gleyber Torres and Cameron Maybin hug as they celebrate a two run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees teammates Gleyber Torres (#25) and Cameron Maybin (#38) hug as they celebrate a two run home run in the 6th inning of their game against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 14, 2019. Photo: Cole Burston/Getty

Cameron Maybin is hitting a solid .284 for the Yankees, but the outfielder’s most winning contribution to his team is the hugs he delivers in the dugout.

After each homerun, players walk through the dugout getting high fives, then get one last reward: a warm embrace from Maybin. Now fans are hugging in the stands, too, and even making T-shirts to commemorate this new baseball tradition.

“Hugging just makes people feel good,” Maybin told the New York Times. “Everybody needs a good hug sometimes. Even when you don’t think you want one.”

He’s right. And beyond building team spirit, hugs could actually be fueling the Yankees’ winning streak. A 2010 University of California-Berkeley study of the NBA showed that basketball players and teams that hugged more at the beginning of the season played better all season long. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reviewed 25 hours of that year’s Olympics to measure the U.S.’s “touchiest” team: It was men’s volleyball, which beat out even women’s volleyball for displays of affection — and made it to the quarterfinals.

Butt slaps and bro-hugs have, of course, been ubiquitous in male jock culture since at least the 1970s, but Maybin’s hugs aren’t “bro-y.” They’re not quick with a couple pats on the back. They’re embracing and warm. They’re affectionate. They’re something baseball has never seen before.

Indeed, pro athletes are generally expected to conform to a traditional image of hyper-masculinity, and have long been celebrated for traits such as dominance and stoicism, not spontaneous displays of genuine affection.

The stubborn notion that there is one monolithic, “natural” kind of masculinity — and the enforcement of its unyielding rules — has been blamed for an alarming litany of health risks in men, including suicide and heart failure. Part of the problem is that “traditional” or dominant masculinity has as its central tenet the notion that expressing emotion or, crucially, asking for help, is “feminine” and therefore “weak.” Men who subscribe to traditional ideas of masculinity are less likely, therefore, to seek help, and may even not be treated properly when they do. The American Psychological Association issued guidelines earlier this year for treating men, warning therapists especially to guard against their own biases about how men are “supposed” to behave in therapy. They warned therapists to be careful not to miss signs of depression in men who are adept at masking their feelings, as they have been socialized to do from birth.

“Hugging just makes people feel good. Everybody needs a good hug sometimes. Even when you don’t think you want one.”

But there’s nothing inherently gendered about the healing power of touch, says Tiffany Field, a professor of psychology and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. Touching (which Field defines as moderate-pressure “moving the skin,” as opposed to more “activating” light touch like tickling) doesn’t just create winning teams. Touch stimulates the calming vagus nerve, which runs the length of the torso and is in charge of regulating our “fight or flight” response with relaxation. “Increased vagal activity knocks down cortisol, which is the culprit stress hormone,” Field says. The healing and health benefits of moving the skin — like reduced stress, heart rate, and blood pressure — are well-documented and universal, as is the relationship between lack of touch and harmful feelings of social isolation.

Who touches who and how often is, Field says, largely cultural. In a 1999 study, she looked at adolescents of all genders in Miami and Paris, and found that the Parisian teens were more physically affectionate and less violent to one another than their less-affectionate American counterparts — across gender. Even in the United States, it hasn’t always been this way. “Brotherly love” between friends was affectionate and sometimes sexual, and that was considered quite “normal” up until the time that “homosexuality” became a distinct identity in the early 20th century, and therefore homophobia also began to be a thing.

Despite a recent downturn in what was a steadily climbing level of “comfort” with LGBTQ people, many younger men today are more open to challenging gender and sexuality norms than their fathers, and there’s some compelling evidence that straight men are embracing once again more affectionate friendships.

In her recent observational studies of greeting behaviors at airports and conferences, the touch researcher Field has noticed a trend toward more male embraces. She hasn’t measured gendered behavior quantitatively, but she says anecdotally she has seen that men are a lot more affectionate than they were when she first started in the field: “It used to be a handshake. Now I see a lot of men hugging each other.”

Resisting restrictive notions of dominant masculinity — as the hugging Yankees are doing — pays off for boys and men, says the New York University developmental psychologist Niobe Way. And she dismissed as a “stereotype” the notion that men simply don’t hug.

“Most boys continue to resist norms of masculinity throughout their lives,” says Way, who studies adolescent boys and what she calls the “crisis of connection” in male friendship. “Those who resist the most are almost always the ones who are happier and have healthier bodies than others who resist less.”

Which means Cameron Maybin’s performance-increasing dugout hugs could be yet another signal that American men are challenging outdated masculinity models — or returning to much older models. “There are many cultures where for millennia men have hugged each other and been very physical with each other,” says Field. Still, she added, to “see these prominent ball players doing it… That sets a model. That sends a message.” And it changes the game.

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.

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