I have no right to claim I know what the unwritten rules of baseball are.
As a kid, I played exclusively in a small house league in Rockwall, Texas that seemed set just to give a local travel team a few home games every year. I wasn’t particularly good — I spent most of my time watching the game from right field — but if there’s one thing I do remember, it’s watching a kid on that travel team look humiliated as his dad made him quit.
My team was losing badly, and the opposing coach was giving the bunt sign to his players so that they could practice it against live pitching. But that dad wasn’t having it. After screaming curse words at the coach and his son for a couple of minutes, he walked into the dugout from the stands and pulled his kid off the team without letting him finish the at-bat.
We didn’t feel disrespected by them bunting. We didn’t feel disrespected when opposing batters swung at 3-0 pitches while we were losing by ten runs in the top of the 4th inning. But that dad felt disrespected because he thought his kid was too good to bunt. And so we all got to watch him throw an adult temper tantrum all because he felt slighted from the stands.
And so, when I saw Padres’ Manager Jayce Tingler, Rangers’ manager Chris Woodward, Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer, and prominent members of the baseball press complaining about Fernando Tatis Jr. breaking unwritten rules after hitting a grand slam, the only one that came to mind was the most important rule of youth baseball: look cool in front of the other dads.
Let’s not complicate this. Juan Nicasio served up a 3-0 fastball to Tatis Jr., who placed it in the seats. Woodward pulled Nicasio and then instructed Ian Gibaut to throw behind Manny Machado. And after the game, both managers decided that the former was the action that was wrong.
After the game, Woodward told reporters that “there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game” (he has himself swung at and doubled on a 3-0 pitch when his team was leading). Tingler, for his part, said that Tatis Jr. had missed a “take” sign and called it a “learning opportunity,” seemingly placing the blame directly on his own player’s shoulders. And Hosmer was caught on camera jawing at Tatis Jr. immediately after the at-bat, despite having previous telling USA Today reporter last July that he has “no problem” with swinging at a 3-0, citing the Padres’ seven-run comeback against the Rockies. Tatis Jr., though, seemed to think he’d nothing wrong.
Today, the MLB did the right thing and suspended Woodward and Gibaut for their actions.
It very well might be the case that Tatis Jr. did something that players consider wrong in the MLB, but we’re not going to establish that on the back of a juicy pull quote or tweet. But because I feel obliged to get a voice that has some sway, I’m partial to what Johnny Bench had to say:
So you take a pitch…now you're 3-1. Then the pitcher comes back with a great setup pitch…3-2. Now you're ready to groundout into a double play. Everyone should hit 3-0. Grand Slams are a huge stat. @tatis_jr https://t.co/4D3ilsD9Sh
— Johnny Bench (@JohnnyBench_5) August 18, 2020
It’s almost overdone less than 24 later to say that players aren’t all playing by the same unwritten rules. This isn’t anything new — a 2015 USA Today study of five years of data found that 87% of brawls centered on conflicts between players of different ethnic backgrounds. When Rangers manager Chris Woodward appeals to “the way we were all raised in the game” to justify his actions, he’s ignoring that the culture of the game isn’t the same stateside as it is in the Dominican Republic, or in Puerto Rico, or in South Korea. And yes, Fernando Tatis Jr. might be the son of a former MLB player, but he was still born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and never played American high school or college baseball.
But as long as we’re focusing on whether or not he knew, we’re asking the wrong question. Woodward, Tingler, and those backing them are all pretty straightforwardly arguing that it’s disrespectful to play the game in a way that makes their opponents look bad. Woodward was the screaming little-league dad, but instead of throwing a fit full of f-bombs, he told his pitchers to throw at the other team. And for some reason, the other team went along with it.
What needs asking is whether they get what it means to respect other people. Respecting other people means recognizing their inherent value as a person, thinking about how your actions affect them, and all of those other things that we teach five-year-olds to do. Respect isn’t going out of your way to avoid embarrassing someone.
Complaining about Fernando Tatis Jr. hitting his home runs against your teams isn’t about respect. It’s just smarmy nonsense.
If you’re not familiar with what I mean by smarmy — and you are, you just don’t know it — I strongly recommend Tom Scocca’s excellent-if-PG-13 piece on it from 2013. As he explains it, “Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.”
There’s absolutely no substance to Woodward’s complaint. The game doesn’t get any more exciting, or even shorter if Tatis Jr. takes a 3-0 fastball. Woodward isn’t hurt by it other than by choosing to be. Tingler and Hosmer have nothing to do with it. They’re all siding against fun, competitive baseball in the name of not upsetting the person who ranks above them. But because it’s all transparently nonsense, smarm in baseball melts away pretty quickly if you have the backbone to question it.
When people like the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson say that swinging at 3-0 when leading “has traditionally been baseball no-no and a sign of disrespect toward the trailing team,” ask them to cite his sources.
When people like Chris Woodward claim that Tatis Jr. is breaking unwritten rules, ask him if it’s acceptable to throw at opposing players.
When people like Jayce Tingler decide that not angering his former team is more important than calling them out for throwing at his current players, ask him what his priorities are.
Baseball should be more fun than ever right now. We should be preparing for a decade of Tatis Jr. fighting Ronald Acuña and Juan Soto for NL MVP titles, not arguing about whether they’re dominating the league in an acceptable way.
But in the interim, it’s not the kids who need to grow up.
(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)