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Murph: The Fernando Tatis Jr. mess is more nuanced than most are saying

© Jerome Miron | 2020 Aug 17

Move over, Bobby Thomson.

It’s really Fernando Tatis, Jr. who hit The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Setting aside the fact that it’s just AWESOME TO BE ARGUING BASEBALL DURING A PANDEMIC — do not underrate that, sports fans; be thankful for what we have — I find myself irked by the certainty with which so many are condemning Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward.

Woodward didn’t like Tatis swinging on a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded and a 7-run lead in the 8th inning. Woodward found it an affront to the code of the game, something passed down to him by those who played the game before him; which in turn was passed down to them by those who played the game before they.

See, the thing is: That Major League Baseball has “unwritten rules” is, to me, part of its funky charm. 

I like that there is an oral tradition passed down, as has been the case in human culture since the dawn of time, in every corner of Earth.

I like that Duane Kuiper told us he learned things from Frank Robinson, like don’t swing at the first pitch after a pitcher has surrendered a home run. I like that Kuip told us Frank learned things from Hank Aaron. 

Traditions, to me, bind generations. They form bedrocks of a culture. Life is transitory. I like connecting to those who have gone before me.

Of course, this is not a blanket thing. Duh. An unwritten rule saying ‘whites only’ in MLB is the stupidest thing ever. All unwritten rules are not equal. 

But Paulie Mac has on his sound board two clips that come to mind. One is from Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in “GoodFellas”, who saw kids carry his Mom’s groceries home and said: “You know why? It was out of respect.” Now, I am not advocating a life of organized crime. But I do endorse respect for the game, respect for the difficulty of the game, respect for the preponderance of failure in the game, respect for an opponent that is struggling mightily — and why, through the years, players at the highest level determined taking a hack on a 3-0 count with a 7-run lead in the 8th inning crossed the line of respect.

Many of you think my opinion on this is stupid, outdated, moldy. I humbly disagree. I find it heartening that players in today’s game would understand their role in the game’s history, that they are part of something larger than themselves.

By no means does any of this Tatis controversy diminish what a thrilling and exhilarating player Fernando Tatis, Jr is. I’ve heard it said that the unwritten rules are somehow dampening the luster of his star. I don’t buy that for a second. Everything about Tatis is electric, and the culture of baseball has allowed it to be so. He plays the game with skill and joy, and you see it on display all the time. Him taking a 3-0 pitch, up 10-3 in the 8th inning, has zero point zero to do with diminishing his stardom. His stardom shines, and can shine bright, even with the confines of the unwritten rules.

At the heart of it all is a consideration of sportsmanship. Every sport has its own form. These analogies are not all 1:1, but they are 1:1 in terms of their core message — that it’s OK sometimes to extend a gesture. Football teams with huge leads run the ball and don’t throw deep. Golfers in match play with big leads don’t make opponents putt out short putts. Right here in the Bay Area, Steve Kerr will frequently remove Steph Curry from the 4th quarter of blowouts. It was bought up that preventing injury is a primary consideration in that move; I concur that preventing injury is a reason, yes. But I submit the primary reason is . . . out of respect. 

There’s a reason why the phrase “calling off the dogs” exists in sports. Sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.

I have heard all the arguments: If you don’t want to cough up a grand slam, throw a better pitch. If you don’t want him to swing 3-0, don’t fall into a 3-0 count. Baseball has no clock; the game is never in the bag until the 27th out. All true. I hear those. 

I have said on the air that my position on all this is more nuanced, and I know that’s not a hot take. I just find the furnace blast of criticism that came Woodward’s way was too dismissive of a culture that has taken a century-plus to gestate; a time-tested code that most everyone who has played the game accepts on some level. It’s not perfect, but there is something good and decent in abiding by it. That’s why I am irked by the certainty with which the pro-Tatis crowd states its case. There’s more to all this than just kicking the ass of your opponent. There’s a way to do things that has some merit.

And don’t tell me these are the reasons why young kids aren’t watching baseball. Video games is why kids aren’t watching baseball. It has nothing to do with taking 3-0 pitches, up 10-3 in the 8th inning.

The other clip from Paulie Mac I think of in the Tatis mess is from “Pope of Greenwich Village”, in which Eric Roberts’ character pinches a bottle of cognac and urges his friend to “have a couple of cognacs . . . like gentlemen.”

Beyond being a hilarious sound piece, there’s a truth to it. The Rangers and Padres can play ball, and the Padres can kick the Rangers’ ass, and they can still sit afterwards, and have a couple of cognacs. Like gentlemen.

And you know why? It was out of respect.


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