How a tired argument engulfed Fernando Tatis Jr., a slow-moving game's dynamic new superstar

In the restless saga in which baseball aspires to become a modern game yet secretly pines for the 1940s version of itself, there are no new arguments, only new participants in them.

Generations pass, calendar pages turn, and on a Monday night in the summer of 2020, on the occasion of a pipe-shot fastball to a 21-year-old Dominican player, the game out of habit recasts for heroes and villains.

You’d think this would have been settled by now, but an hour later, asked to answer for the back end of his two-homer, seven-RBI game, Fernando Tatis Jr. apologized, “That was on me.”

His manager appeared to defend Tatis insomuch as ensuring it would not happen again. “A learning opportunity,” Jayce Tingler called it.

All of this, allegedly, over a missed sign from the third-base coach. But it’s not that, or wasn’t in real time. It’s that Tatis had the gall to swing at a 3-0 fastball with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a game the San Diego Padres led by seven runs. And so the afflicted party, the Texas Rangers, threw a fastball at the next batter as a means of retribution and, presumably, so as to reinforce young Fernando’s “learning opportunity.”

There are no new arguments, only new welts.

The manager of the Rangers is a 44-year-old California guy named Chris Woodward. He played 12 major-league seasons before becoming a major-league coach. By Tuesday afternoon, MLB had suspended him because he was in charge of the guy who’d sought revenge against the batter that followed Tatis (that being Manny Machado). Tingler, 39, is a former minor-league outfielder with a nice résumé as a coach and manager, including in the Dominican Republic, many of those years with the Rangers. Woodward and Tingler are young, charismatic, fresh to the top step and learning as they go. They also are products of a system that forever has told players how to conduct themselves and held on-the-fly seminars in what decades ago was called “the right way to play the game” and today is called “the right way to play the game” — the gist of that being, “We’ll let you know when you foul up.”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 18:   Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres sits on third base during a play review against the Texas Rangers in the fourth inning at Globe Life Field on August 18, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Embroiled in an age-old debate about unwritten rules, Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. leads MLB in home runs. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The difficult part is, we are counting on these guys, the next wave of leaders who would see the game, the world it lives in, the men who play it, through a softer, clearer lens. The codes of yesterday — who gets to have fun, how it is expressed and when, and when baseball games are considered settled, and how one player’s effort can be construed as another’s failure — keep the game in yesterday.

So, Tatis, the son of a former big leaguer and a rising superstar, is scolded for being the best player on the field through the entire game and not just until the Rangers decide they’ve seen enough. As dangerous a place as that is to live for a sport whose personality lags behind the NBA and NFL, and for a game whose spectator demographics are growing old with it, baseball at times barricades itself in.

Tuesday morning’s conversation was not about Tatis, his two home runs Monday night, his 11 home runs in four weeks, and his captivating presence in a season that needs all the captivating it can get. Instead, shamefully, we were treated to another lesson in decorum by a bunch of old people adhering to the wishes of a bunch of dead people. Bless them, they think they’re defending the game. But it’s not their game anymore, not the way they want it, and if Juan Nicasio is going to pitch himself into a 3-oh hole against one of the best hitters on the planet, well, neither Jayce Tingler nor Fernando Tatis Jr. should have to defend what comes next, and Chris Woodward should save his ire for the men responsible for that seven-run (soon to be 11-run) deficit and the game ought to honor all of it.

There may, indeed, be progress. By the time the Padres and Rangers started over on Tuesday afternoon, by the time all the old arguments were spent again, Tingler had sought to clarify his statements, Woodward had granted he could have been wrong, and while plenty would die on the hill of unwritten rules, the unwritten rules remained but the hill seemed less severe.

Tingler said he had not intended to suggest Tatis was out of line within the context of the score, which was how his postgame quotes played and also appeared to ally Tingler with the Rangers, his former team. He said he only wished Tatis had looked to the third-base coach, who was trying to tell him to take the 3-and-0 pitch, except that now, with a night to sleep on it, he was pleased with the result. We get there how we get there.

“We rode home on the bus together,” Tingler said. “[He] sat right behind me. We talked for 20 minutes. Joked around. Talked with him this morning. We’re good. I don’t know if there’s a story that there’s gonna be a rift or anything like that. But, he’s an ultra, ultra, super talented player. I can’t praise him enough for just his work ethic and everything he’s done. He just continues to grow. I don’t know what to say. He’s off and on his way and we just gotta keep him going.

“There’s just so many wide opinions on it. What I know is if we’re looking to grow the game, let the guys play. And promote ‘em. And go. Are there times for some of the rules and some of the things out there? Absolutely. There are. But, we’re not looking to break unwritten rules. We’re looking to win the game.”

He added that if Woodward and his bench coach, Don Wakamatsu, were not OK with that, it was fine by him.

“I’m always going to respect Chris and [Don],” he said. “They’re going to feel how they feel and he’s going to feel how he feels. And they’re trying to kick our ass and we’re trying to kick their ass. And win. That’s the bottom line. We can’t sit here and worry about people’s feelings. We’ve got a team over here that we believe in.”

Woodward told reporters in Texas, however, “It makes me think about it a lot. I might be jaded because it was always a no-no. Maybe that wasn’t right.”

As for the pitch thrown at Machado, Woodward said, “We shouldn’t be taking things into our own hands.”

San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler walks off the mound after making a pitching change during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in San Francisco, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
First-year Padres manager Jayce Tingler seemed to agree with the Rangers Monday night that Fernando Tatis Jr. shouldn't have swung and hit his grand slam, but changed his tune on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

On that they agreed.

“Definitely not OK,” Tingler said. “Didn’t expect it. It happened. And, you know, throughout the year, the beginning of the year, we’ve had to put a lot of trust in MLB and the umpires. Just, that whole stuff is tired. Throwing at players and throwing behind ‘em, it’s just tired.”

Maybe it was a little late to save Machado from having to dodge that fastball, and maybe Tatis had better things to do postgame than summon regret for shillelagh-ing that fastball over the fence, and maybe some will always consider a seven-run lead to be sacred (until one is not). Baseball is so slow to change it can hardly be seen by the naked eye.

And yet Aaron Boone, manager of the New York Yankees, told reporters Tuesday, “I think it’s a little silly. The needle has moved in that regard.

“Guys aren’t and shouldn’t be offended by guys swinging on a 3-and-0 count.”

Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, at 66 old school by birth certificate, called it a “courtesy” to pass on the 3-and-0 pitch with a big, late lead, even adding, “For the most part it holds up.”

For him. The other guy, he can do whatever he wants. Still, you can hear the old days in his voice, in the way some things just are.

“I’m certain that in San Diego it’ll probably start holding up again there,” he said. “Some things may get lost in the translation to a young player. He probably didn’t even think about that. For me, I would not be too upset about it overall. I don’t really worry about all that stuff. For me, if we’re getting our butt kicked it’s our fault. It’s not the other team’s fault. The purpose of the game is to score runs. I’d always adhere to that. But for us, if we had a very large lead, more than likely you would not see a guy swing at a 3-and-0 pitch.”

Asked about where that line is drawn, at 3-and-0 and not, say, 2-and-0 or 3-and-1, he laughed, perhaps at the absurdity of it all.

“Yeah, I mean, 3-oh, it’s different than 2-and-oh,” he said. “Two-and-oh is still wide open, although I’m betting you’ll see a lot of real veteran hitters not swing on 2-and-oh. Uh, 3-and-1 is different because it could go to 3-and-2, you’re not going to let that one slide. Three-oh is just the moment where you can’t defend yourself anymore. You gotta throw a strike. And, so, with the big lead, to me it really comes down to one group feeling as though the other group is trying to embarrass them. I think it really comes down to that.”

Now, if you’ll wait another moment, Maddon will work his way all the way to the other side of this.

“If you went back into baseball lore and researched it all the way back,” he said, “I would imagine it had something to do with that. My argument against that has always been, back in the day it took 10 singles to score six runs. Now it happens with two three-run homers. When all this stuff was written, it was a different game than it is today. Balls are flying out at record paces and in the past they were not, they were not going to fly out. … So, this has been passed down through time. I think it is rooted in those thoughts. Whether you agree with it or not, that’s where it’s at. I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it. And, normally, a veteran player will talk to a hitter if in fact he somehow breaches this moment of 3-oh wonderment.”

He laughed again, which put the previous 12 or so hours in a reasonable place. A young man had hit a home run. Somehow it became an issue, for reasons no one can articulate beyond, “Because.” Somehow one of his teammates almost paid for it. Two men — the manager of the Rangers and the pitcher who fired at and missed Machado — were suspended. Jayce Tingler was right, it is tired, except not just the attempted retaliation — all of it.

And Fernando Tatis Jr. was wrong. This was not on him. This is on the game and on an argument that’s been around for just as long, which doesn’t mean it’s still worth having.

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