Fernando Tatís Jr Knows Baseball Better Than the Scolds

The Fernando Tatís Jr controversy this week shows how absurd many of baseball’s “unwritten rules” are. Imagine the NBA’s Zion Williamson or NFL’s Patrick Mahomes having the game of their life and the focus afterward being their need to do less.

Fernando Tatís Jr of the San Diego Padres hits a single during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images)

The crack of the bat. The roar of the crowd. The seventh-inning stretch. The Yankees winning. The Mets embarrassing themselves.

Despite declining ratings, baseball is still the “national pastime.” Its storied traditions and long history is part of the appeal of the sport. But sometimes those traditions show their more reactionary side.

The San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatís Jr, one of the game’s elite young talents, came up to bat in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers’ Juan Nicasio. The Padres led 10-3 and had the bases loaded as Tatís got ahead in the count 3-0. Texas catcher Jose Trevino set up low and away, a location where most batters wouldn’t swing in a 3-0 count, and Nicasio’s pitch was on target. But Tatís went down and got all of it, launching it over the right field fence for a grand slam.

Usually grand slams are exclamation points, but Tatís’s birthed an interrobang. The Rangers brought in a new pitcher, Ian Gibaut, who expressed his unhappiness with Tatís by throwing his first pitch behind the next hitter, Manny Machado. After the game, Texas manager Chris Woodward expressed his displeasure.

“I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game. But like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis…” Woodward’s assumptions regarding “we” and “all” reflects some of the prejudices that date as far back as the game itself.

Tatís grew up in the Dominican Republic, Woodward in Covina, California, twenty miles from downtown Los Angeles. Most of us haven’t been to both places, yet most of us know they’re not the same.

Tatís came to the United States speaking no English. Dominican culture is not American culture, and Caribbean baseball there, as well as in Puerto Rico and Cuba, is famous for its passion, pageantry and flair, especially when contrasted with American baseball. The rest of the world generally treats baseball more like fun and less like church: here, flipping one’s bat after hitting a homer can ignite a holy war; in Japan and Korea, they’re benevolent bursts of joy and color.

Racism in baseball has always been as American as America. Dominican pitchers like Pascual Pérez and Pedro Martínez were labeled “headhunters” for intimidating hitters by throwing pitches near their heads; when white contemporaries like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens did the same, it was just “good old-fashioned country hardball.”

Think about it: Tatís leads the majors in home runs, RBI (runs batted in), stolen bases, total bases, and runs scored. If he sustained his pace over a full season, it’d be arguably the greatest offensive season in Major League Baseball history. The night of his grand slam, the Padres, who haven’t had a winning season for a decade, evened their record at 12-12.

And yet, after the game, rather than the focus being Tatís’s brilliance or the team’s ascension, even San Diego’s manager was talking about his star player like a puppy who has not been housebroken. “He’s young, a free spirit and focused and all those things,” Jayce Tingler said. “That’s the last thing that we’ll ever take away. It’s a learning opportunity and that’s it. He’ll grow from it.” Imagine the NBA’s Zion Williamson or NFL’s Patrick Mahomes having the game of their life and the focus afterward being their need to do less. In baseball, it’s par for the course.

Tatís became a talking point because he supposedly dared to go against tradition, even though anyone who’s played the game at any level knows a 3-0 count does not oblige the hitter to stop playing. But consider why this game was happening in the first place. Over its entire history, even during world wars and work stoppages, baseball has never tried cramming in a sixty-game season like they are now. For generations of fans, the love language of baseball is its numerology — 500 home runs, 300 wins, a .300 average, an earned run average under 3.00.

More than any of those numbers, perhaps, is 162. That’s how many games are in each season. That’s the canvas whose constancy allows comparisons between Mike Trout and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. But the COVID-19 virus threatened profits, so rather than cancel the season, ensure everyone’s safety, and come back next year with more time to prep for 2021, it was cool to scrap 162 games. 60 is fine. Tradition, schmadition.

Fans of a certain age may have smirked at the irony of pearl-clutching over tradition because of something that happened at a Padres/Rangers game. For nearly a century, the National League’s teams never played the American League’s until the World Series. Then in 1997, that tradition went out the window.

Why? Because baseball was still down financially after the 1994 work stoppage, and the league knew the intrigue of certain matchups happening for the first time — intracity affairs like the Mets vs. the Yankees, the Cubs vs. the White Sox, the Dodgers vs. the Angels — would increase ticket sales and television ratings. That’s why San Diego and Texas, two teams that didn’t exist until MLB’s seventh decade of operation, were playing one another on a Monday night during a global pandemic. “‘Cuz tradition.”

There are no crowds in this COVID-19 season. No seventh-inning stretches. But the bats still crack. The Yankees are in first. The Mets are not. There are familiarities. There are changes. The designated hitter in the National League. Starting every extra inning with a runner on second base. The sport’s racist and reactionary fabric will conflict with its ever more diverse and connected reality. Maybe the next Fernando Tatís Jr can just be awesome and enjoy it, and the rest of us can, too. Unwritten rules don’t need to be erased if we forget them and move on.