On Saturday the Los Angeles Dodgers hosted the San Diego Padres in what has become baseball’s hottest rivalry. To say the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr started it off with a bang would be putting it mildly.
After taking a chest-high cutter from the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer on the game’s first pitch for a strike, Tatis struck back on the very next throw, slapping essentially the exact same pitch over Dodger Stadium’s left-field fence to furnish the visitors with a 1-0 lead. It was your classic, cut-to-the-chase moment, one of baseball’s biggest bats getting over on its reigning Cy Young winner. But what came next was even more explosive. As Tatis was rounding first base, he slowed down, looked back and cupped a hand over his right eye. No doubt, for baseball purists, this – not the homer, his first of two on the day – was the real shot.
In the unerring view of these righteous observers, baseball is a blessèd, sanctified thing that should only be played a certain way – the right way: Clinically. Deadpan. Repressed. And here was Tatis making a meme out of his home run and quite literally sticking a finger in the eye of everything good and virtuous about the game and deep enough to make the late Sandy Koufax squirm. What’s more, Tatis’s own father, Fernando Sr, was a big leaguer, too. Clearly, the kid should know better.
But before these zealots could really hit back at Tatis, Bauer hurled more dynamite into the fire. He told reporters after the game that he actually liked what Tatis did. “If you give up a homer, a guy should celebrate it,” he said. “It’s hard to hit in the big leagues.” Bauer went to YouTube and broke down Tatis’s celebrations in a 13-minute video. After the first home-run pitch, Bauer gives Tatis high marks for calling back to the one-eyed stare that Bauer flashed at the Padres hitters he retired during spring training.
After the second home-run pitch, which missed the outside of the plate by a foot, Bauer continues to give Tatis props for showing him up tastefully and directing his antics at the Padres dugout until Tatis drops into a Conor MacGregor-style strut after crossing home plate. “This is where I have an issue … feel like you gotta go for it,” Bauer said before tracing a red circle around Tatis’s upper torso. There needs to be a little bit more shoulder swing. The arms are a little bit reserved. The head needs to come forward a little bit. If you’re gonna make fun of me, you gotta make it more pronounced. Not as high marks here.”
And then just when you thought Bauer, baseball’s lovable troll, couldn’t go any further, he took to Twitter and boosted a fan theory chalking up Tatis’s success against Bauer to – gasp – stealing signs. To be sure, the accusation is a major baseball no-no that just proved to be the undoing of a World Series juggernaut in Houston. And yet the charge is totally predictable. Taunting is always taken as a symptom of competitive ruination. Baseball is hardly the only sport that struggles to appreciate the value in a well-timed eye-poke.
Just last week the NFL drew headlines for its plans to call more taunting penalties in 2021, with competition committee chair Rich McKay calling existing protocols against finger-pointing, over-standing and the like “too lax”. That this story was most often accompanied by photos of Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr flashing a peace sign at Kansas City Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill after intercepting a pass meant for him in Super Bowl LV goes to show just how much is being lost in translation. Winfield wasn’t taunting Hill as much as he was doing to Hill what Hill had done to Winfield and the Bucs when KC topped Tampa in the regular season and Hill torched the Bucs for three touchdowns on 269 receiving yards – 203 of them compiled in the first quarter alone. With the butt-kicking on the other foot, Winfield was not only entitled to revenge, but he could’ve really rubbed it in and added the backflip Hill punctuated touchdown No 2 with, too.
These are the moments that add spice to matchups that would be bland otherwise, that turn true rivals into something more – bitter frenemies. Part of what makes the NBA so compelling are the micro mano à mano clashes that flare up after big buckets. Curry’s shoulder shimmy. Jordan’s shoulder shrug. LeBron’s chest beating and high stepping. These aren’t just the moments that make Jamie Foxx impersonations. These are the moments that get fans tuning in for the next game. Even the soccer pitch reserves swaths of time for goal scorers to completely indulge themselves.
Thing is, baseball itself is rife with this brand of exuberance. Yasiel Puig’s bat flips, Jose Bautista’s bat flips, Ozzie Smith’s back flips, Bo Jackson scaling the outfield wall at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium – these are the wrinkles in the game that make people pay attention, not messing with the ball, shortening the field or moving back the mound. In east Asia and the Caribbean, you’re not playing the game right if you’re not flexin’ a little. Only within the starch-white preserve of Major League Baseball is “pimping a homer”, the artful term for Tatis’s delightful hijinks, largely frowned upon.
To those who say pimping sets a bad example for the kids, um, have you met kids? They’re constantly taunting one another and watching WrestleMania. And even though most of them know full well that the melodrama is scripted, there’s something about the passion and the emotion that spills over the top that speaks to them nonetheless. That’s the thing that always rings true.
If America’s pastime were truly this hallowed training ground for instilling fairness and merit in leaders of tomorrow, tell me: How does baseball explain all those years that came before Jackie Robinson crossed the color line? How does baseball explain the racial, political and economic problems that still divide us now? Instead of ascribing so much sanctity to a game where the only object is to hit a small, fast-moving ball with a long slender stick, let’s call it what it is: some jolly good fun. As long as no one’s throwing up gang signs or dragging a finger across the throat, let that man remind us not to take the singular spectacle on display for granted. And if their opponent can’t take it, well, then they should step up or sit down.
In a world that obliges conformity as a means of survival, the kids could do with more stand-out moments like the one at Dodger Stadium last Saturday. On one side there was just Tatis avenging his team and building on the Dodgers rivalry. On the other there was Bauer taking his lumps while giving a masterclass in how to resolve and escalate a conflict at the same time. Of course Tatis couldn’t let that stand. After Bauer’s tweet, he responded with one of his own: a photo of him cradling a toddler but with Bauer’s winking mug photoshopped over the face.
Gone are the days of where it’s enough to switch on a baseball game and follow along while filling out a box score. If America’s pastime is going to survive this century, it’s going to have to let its brash young personalities shine through. There’s nothing like a little conflict to bring out the best of them. And if that should come about with the flip of a bat, hey, so be it. Bring it on, baby.