Last week, The Associated Press ran a feature on Fernando Tatis Jr., the 21-year-old San Diego Padres shortstop who is living up to the hype as baseball’s best prospect.
“He has this aura about him that draws people to him,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “I don’t know if it’s the smile, if it’s the hair, the dance moves, if it’s everything. I’ve got kids. They’re drawn to watching him. They’re drawn to his energy.”
So, what do you do when you have a player in baseball in 2020 who brings energy and can connect with kids? Apparently, you criticize him for putting on a show.
Tatis hit a grand slam on Monday, his second homer of the game to cap a seven-RBI night as the Padres demolished the Rangers, 14-4. Instead of celebrating the achievement, Tatis’ manager pooh-poohed it because the second-year major leaguer ignored a take sign on a 3-0 pitch to take Juan Nicasio deep.
“He’s young, a free spirit and focused and all those things,” 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. … Just so you know, a lot of our guys have a green light 3-0. But in this game in particular, we had a little bit of a comfortable lead. We’re not trying to run up the score or anything like that.”
Why not? This was a professional game. If the Rangers want to quit, let them forfeit and go home. The Padres led by seven runs when Tatis’ grand slam made it an 11-run game. Blowing a seven-run lead is a rare thing, but not unheard of, and so long as this is professional baseball and there’s no mercy rule, why let up? To save Texas manager Chris Woodward’s feelings?
“I didn’t like it, personally,” Woodward said. “But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis. So just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right. I don’t think we liked it as a group.”
The Rangers didn’t like it, so the next pitch, from Ian Gibault in relief of Nicasio, was thrown behind Manny Machado to send the truly stupid message that Texas had a bigger problem with Tatis swinging at a 3-0 pitch than they did with him hitting a grand slam.
“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” said Tatis, whose father is the only player in major league history to hit two grand slams in the same inning. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. … Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”
Why? In the course of a major league career, you only get so many pitches that can be hit out of the park. And are the unwritten rules about sparing your opponents’ feelings more important than the unwritten rules about never giving up an at-bat?
Evan Gattis, then a rookie, didn’t give up an at-bat when Atlanta had a four-run lead against Minnesota in 2013, and he hit a grand slam off Vince Worley on a 3-0 pitch. The AP recap of that game made no mention of anyone being upset about it, though Gattis did get some ribbing from his teammates for tossing the ball from Cory Rasmus’ first career strikeout into the stands.
That’s the last time someone hit a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch when their team was ahead, but Gattis’ shot was in the fourth inning, so maybe it wasn’t as big a deal. But in 2006, Jason Lane did it in the same inning as Tatis, the eighth, turning a three-run lead into seven against the Brewers.
The Houston Chronicle story about that game didn’t even note that Lane’s slam came on a 3-0 pitch from Danny Kolb. It just had Lane saying, “It felt great. I’m not worried about results as much as just having good at-bats. I think I’m starting to get a few more results of late.”
The Gattis and Lane slams came in closer games, but where’s the line between a game that’s in reach and one that’s not? Why should it even matter? If Tatis is in the game, he should be doing his best to perform as well as he can. Nicasio is a 10-year veteran who led the National League in appearances in 2017, not some scrub that the Rangers are just trying to get a look at. Nobody would tell LeBron James not to dunk a basketball because his team had too big of a lead, and if the lead was so big as to be garbage time, James would come out of the game and let other professionals have their chance to get some NBA dunks. Why should a baseball player stop trying just because the score is a little bit lopsided? And why is Tingler offering a harsher reaction to his own player than to the Rangers throwing a pitch behind Machado?
It’s probably just a coincidence that Gattis and Lane, the last two players to hit grand slams on 3-0 pitches with their teams ahead, are white, while Tatis is a Latino star with dreadlocks and an outgoing personality. Baseball wore “Black Lives Matter” patches for a couple of days in July. They’re totally post-racial now.
And forever stepping on rakes whenever there’s a chance to increase the game’s popularity.