The Tatis Question and Baseball’s Aversion to Fun

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Fernando Tatis, Jr., is very good at baseball. He now finds himself at the center of a controversy, as some people think that last night he should have intentionally performed worse at baseball, the thing he is paid to perform well at. Why? Because it was mean.

In the eighth inning of last night’s Padres–Rangers game, the 21-year-old Tatis stood at the plate with a 3-0 count, the bases loaded, and a 10-3 lead. Instead of taking the 3-0 pitch, he launched it to the opposite field for a grand slam, putting San Diego up 14-3. The Rangers weren’t happy with this lack of sportsmanship; the next at bat, Rangers reliever Ian Gibaut came in for Juan Nicasio and threw behind Manny Machado. Padres manager Jayce Tingler made clear both to Tatis and to the public after the game that Tatis had missed a take sign; they had no intention of “running up the score.” Rangers manager Chris Woodward complained that he “didn’t like it, personally.” I’ll bet he didn’t like his pitching staff giving up 10 runs prior to that inning, either.

In some corners of the baseball universe it’s taken as a given that there’s something wrong with swinging away on a 3-0 count when you’re winning big. This is obviously stupid. The grand slam is one of the most exciting plays in baseball; it’s the most successful an offense can possibly be on one swing of the bat. If a batter can accomplish that, no one should discourage him, even if it might hurt the feelings of the opposing pitcher or manager.

What is it about the sport of baseball that makes so many of its adherents hate fun? To be sure, baseball isn’t the only sport that seeks to minimize enjoyment—I’ve felt for a long time that the NFL should allow taunting—but it’s certainly the best at it. (Who can forget the Tim Anderson bat flip controversy?) For years, baseball has tried to figure out ways to make games more interesting. Many of those attempts are positive improvements to the game: speeding up the time between pitches, limiting mound visits, etc.; and some are abominations, like independent league robot umpires and the runner on second base to begin extra innings. But while these structural changes get tossed around like nothing, the simple act of having fun playing baseball is off the table. I’m no market research expert, but this seems dumb to me. I’d like to meet the person who’s not watching extra innings unless there’s a runner on base to start the inning, but who’s glued to the TV to watch the NL’s leading home run hitter pass up a grand slam opportunity.

Fortunately, much of the reaction from both players and commentators has been in Tatis’s defense. Podcaster Mike Duncan summed up the controversy well on Twitter: “It is impossible to explain this to a non-baseball fan because it is so indefensibly dumb.” Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez posted that “you just have to pitch better if you don’t want that to happen.” Seems simple enough. But not for everyone, I suppose.

In the late years of the Roman Republic, social and economic changes led to a breakdown in the norms that bound the political conduct of elites. Once the standards of public life began to be skirted, some officials broke them further, and others tried in vain to admonish the rulebreakers. There’s a reason more people know Caesar’s name than know Cato’s. Unwritten rules are just norms, and norms only work so long as they’re accepted by everyone. The reason this controversy seems so ridiculous, so inscrutable to those outside the game, is that there’s no basis for the norms Tatis’s detractors are working from. We’ve reached a point where the “You can’t do that” crowd fails to have an answer for “Why not?”

Because baseball fandom is full of people who hate baseball, this kind of controversy will surely pop up again. But I hope talented young players like Fernando Tatis keep hitting bombs in late-inning blowouts and flipping bats on no-doubters, because people like watching players enjoy themselves. And I don’t think it’ll hurt their opponents’ feelings too badly.

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