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PHOENIX – Cincinnati Reds left fielder Tommy Pham is sitting at a table in the middle of the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field, looks down at his phone, and excitedly yells out to a few scattered teammates.
“Well, I found one friend who wants to go to the Giants game and sit in the left-field stands,’’ Pham says. “Gotta find 50 more.’’
Pham breaks into a grin. Next week, the Reds are playing the San Francisco Giants in a three-game series June 24-26 at Oracle Park.
It will be the first time they’ve played one another since the Slap Heard ‘Round Baseball, residue of a high-staked fantasy football league gone bad, with Pham accusing Giants outfielder Joc Pederson of cheating, jokingly blame Los Angeles Angels All-Star Mike Trout for being a lousy commissioner, and winding up suspended by Major League Baseball and fined $5,000.
“You know what,’’ Pham tells USA TODAY Sports over a breakfast burrito this week, “I’ve got no regrets. None at all.
“Joc deserved to be slapped.’’
The Giants worked themselves in a frenzy when Pham slapped him during batting practice the afternoon of May 27, threatening to file assault charges, or not even play the game. Pham said that MLB intervened and threatened him with an eight-to-10 game suspension unless he accepted an immediate three-game ban.
“They were talking about pressing charges,’’ Pham said. “I’m like, 'Go ahead. Assault for a slap? OK. People do way worse.’’
Pham was ready to play that evening, but union lawyers informed him that if he didn’t accept a three-game suspension, he would be out much, much longer.
MLB was going to suspend him at least eight games, the same suspension former Texas Rangers infielder Rougned Odor received in 2016 for punching Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, which was reduced to seven games.
“I was like, 'Come on, how is that even similar to Odor?’’’ Pham said. “That was a punch, and it was during the game.
“What I really didn’t like was how their pitching coach (Andrew Bailey) was talking behind my back saying stuff. I looked at him face-to-face and said, 'Do we have a problem.’ He says, 'Why did you slap him?' I said, 'Talk to him.’
“This is something personal between me and him. It has nothing to do with the Giants, but they tried to make it about them.’’
Really, Pham was hoping to run into Pederson last year when he played for Atlanta, wanting to deliver the same message. The Padres, whom he played for last season, were playing Atlanta in Sept. 24-26 at Petco Park in San Diego. Several Padres players said in a text strand with Pederson that Pham was looking for him. Pederson never came out before the game when the two teams on the field, with several Atlanta players verifying that Pederson knew Pham was angry.
“I would have slapped him last year if I saw him,’’ Pham said. “He knew that. Everyone knew that.’’
The next chapter of the saga that left Pham dropping out of the fantasy league, Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman winning the league and its $90,000 prize, and Trout questioning whether he wants to remain the 12-person league’s commissioner, now continues in San Francisco where the baseball world will be watching.
“I think I better get on a plane and come out there,’’ says Tawana Polk, Pham’s mother. “I think I need to.’’
Pham interrupted her at breakfast, and said, “I could put 50 people in left field myself and defuse the whole situation if I really wanted to.’’
Considering it has been three weeks, and the story refuses to die, fantasy football will be discussed – loud and clear – by the Giants’ zealous fanbase much more animatedly than anything that happens during the game.
“I hear stuff all of the time from fans,’’ Pham says. “They’re always yelling something. Sometimes, they’re trying to be funny. Most of the time, that (expletive) just ain’t funny.’’
Pham hardly found it comical when several of the Giants came onto the field during batting practice this week wearing black T-shirts that read: “Fantasy Football 101: Stashing Players on the IR isn’t cheating.’’
Tommy Pham responds to the Giants’ new T-shirts and we're officially in an episode of "The League" pic.twitter.com/ST9Uc0Wgd7
— KNBR (@KNBR) June 14, 2022
“They’re the ones who keep bringing this (expletive) up,’’ Pham said Tuesday night. “They’re the ones who didn’t want me to play. Now, look at them.’’
Pham shakes his head in disgust, telling you that Pederson blatantly cheated in the league that cost a $10,000 buy-in, with text messages revealing Pederson throwing shade at Pham and his Padres teammates, and declaring that Pederson is lucky he was only slapped.
It was the most famous slap since actor Will Smith walked onto the stage at the Academy Awards and expressed his displeasure with Chris Rock’s joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head.
“There were about 100 people that thanked me after I slapped him,’’ Pham says, “players, coaches, trainers, reporters. What does that say? I was like, 'Damn, I didn't know Joc was this disliked.’’’
So, after this, you really think Pham is going to sit out the fantasy football season just because it cost him a suspension and damaged his reputation? Uh-uh.
He may return to the same 10K Fantasy Football League, providing that a commissioner enforces the rules, again play in the Padres’ fantasy league that he won last year, St. Louis Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright’s charity league, and maybe another one, too.
“Look, I’ve already been studying,’’ he says. “I was training with the football players in Miami, and picking their brains. I’ll be talking to them. I need to call (Dolphins receiver) Tyreek Hill, and say, 'Hey, man, I need you to pick it up for me.’ I was telling guys at the combine, 'Hey man, if you have a good combine, I may take you in the ninth round.’
“I watched (Green Bay Packers rookie receiver) Christian Watson during the combined, and told him, 'Damn, you may be my sleeper.’’’
Cooper Kupp weighs in on the fantasy football beef.
"I certainly can't relate to that but I'm sure there's actually an embarrassingly large number of people that actually do relate to that, people get passionate about their fantasy football." pic.twitter.com/mqftfxAnpI
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) June 3, 2022
Old school attitude
While the baseball public may be entertained, bewildered or, disgusted wondering how a fantasy football game can create such aggression and hostility, they don’t know Pham.
Pham, 34, is the ultimate competitor, who has never played a single thing without wanting to beat you. You name the game, and he’s in it to win it, at all costs.
It was no different growing up in a household where his father was in imprisoned for drugs and street crime, and his mom returning from work at 2 in the morning to see the lights still on in Pham’s room, studying to keep his straight A’s. He played youth football with future NFL players DeMarco Murray, Brandon Marshall and Quinton Carter, losing just one game in three years. He played basketball and baseball, with Reds teammate Mike Moustakas remembering him during showcase tournaments at the age of 17.
“He’s the same way now as then,’’ Moustakas says. “Plays the game hard. Never takes a pitch off. A true competitor. You see how fiery he is. His competitiveness rubs off on everyone in here.’’
Says Reds reliever Hunter Strickland: “He’s one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever seen. He’s the ultimate gamer. He wants to win, every at-bat, every pitch, every game.
“There’s no B.S. about him, and that’s just not normal in today’s game.’’
Pham doesn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. If you’re not playing the game right, he’ll let you know. He may have come around a couple of decades too late.
You want to know the truth.
Well, you better not be afraid to ask.
“He’s gruff, he’s old-school, and he’s tough,’’ says All-Star first baseman Joey Votto, the heart and soul of the Reds. “I’ll be honest with you, if you don’t have the toughness that it takes to play every day in this game, he’ll rub you a certain way. You have to stand up for yourself. If you have any sort of softness, if you’re worried about his lane, or worried about what he’s doing, that’s the wrong way to go about it. But if you play, and you play to win, and you play to be a good teammate, you’ll fit in just fine with him."
It’s this intensity, this burning desire for greatness and to win, which led the Reds to sign him to a one-year, $7.5 million contract during spring training. The Reds may have been cost-cutting, but with Pham on the board, they jumped on him.
Reds manager David Bell, who was on the St. Louis Cardinals’ coaching staff for four years when Pham played in the organization, lobbied for him. GM Nick Krall thought he was the perfect fit for an organization badly in need of outfielders. And owner Bob Castellini signed off on it.
“I remember the first time I saw him I was an assistant hitting coach in 2014 and he was still in the minors,’’ Bell says. “We’re in Jupiter (Florida) during spring training. Everyone had gone home for the day. But here’s this guy still in the cages for hours, working and working and working, hitting off a tee. I said, 'Who is this guy?’
“It was the first time I met him, and that intensity, it just jumps out. It’s real. He cares a lot. He plays so hard, he studies the game, he’s so intelligent, and he does all of the things that’s great for our team.’’
Pham, who admittedly wasn’t ready when the regular season began, playing in just six spring-training games, got off to a horrific start, with one hit in his first 26 at-bats. He since is hitting .282 with eight homers, 24 RBI, and a .841 OPS.
The Reds are expected to shop Pham at the trade deadline to add prospects. He knows if he performs well, he’ll likely be traded, perhaps back to San Diego. But if truth be told, he doesn’t mind staying one bit.
“I like it here, and I love DB (David Bell) and the coaching staff,’’ Pham says. “They really care about you, man, and try to make you better. That's so refreshing."
'I would have won that league'
While Pham will be keeping his eye on the Reds, whether he stays or is traded, rest assured he’ll be intently paying attention to the fantasy football league season.
If he hadn’t dropped out of the 10K Fantasy Football League, which featured the likes of heavy hitters Trout, Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Bregman and others, he certainly doesn’t believe Bregman would be $90,000 richer.
“I would have won that league,’’ Pham says. “Bregman’s team was trash at the beginning of the year because he had a ton of running backs and needed a receiver. I could have easily finished 10-4 and dominated that league. Look, I dropped out in Week 5, and I finished 7th, so I wasn’t even setting my lineup. I had (running back) James Conner on the bench, and had (receiver) Devante Adams on the bench.’’
Now, no one will ever know, not with Pham dropping out, infuriated that no one was following the rules. They had different rules than what appeared on their ESPN fantasy website.
“Everything was different,’’ Pham said. “The point scoring system had only four points for a quarterback throwing a touchdown instead of six. There were no bonuses. I was like, 'Oh, man, this is going to be a low-scoring league. I need to get a running quarterback.’’
He grabbed Buffalo’s Josh Allen, figuring he would throw two touchdowns and rush for two touchdowns most games.
“So, after the draft, everyone saw their projected points, and people were like, 'Hey, man, we got to change scoring system,’’’ Pham recalls. I was like, 'Hold up, ya’ll should have put that in there before the draft. You’re the ones who said, 'Read the rules.’’’
A vote was taken: It was 7-5 to change the rules, with all five no votes coming from the Padres.
“I was like, 'Well, this is (expletive) … But I’m still going to beat you guys.’’
The next thing Pham realizes, is that people were no longer following the original rules.
“I’m like, 'Joc, what you’re doing is illegal,’’’ Pham says. “I’m playing you this week. You’re doing some illegal (expletive). Now, he’s beating me, and I’m hot.’
“I sent out a message, 'Yo, we’re not going to do something about this.’ Then everyone started doing what Joc did. There was no structure in the league. We had rules against that, but it was not being enforced. That’s when I said, 'I’m out. Joc keeps changing (expletive). Two weeks later, who knows what’s being allowed.
“That’s when I told Joc, 'When I see you, I’m going to slap you.’’’
It wasn’t just Pederson’s interpretation of the fantasy rules, but his GIFs and insults that he wrote on the Fantasy Football group’s text strand that incensed Pham.
“I was in the Dodgers league with Joc,’’ Giants president Farhan Zaidi said recently on KNBR. “He definitely likes to poke the bear, whoever the bear is. I've been on the receiving end of that.’’
Well, the combination of loopholes and ill-advised jokes, Pham said, exhausted his patience.
So, eight months later, Pham saw Pederson in the outfield at Great American Ball Park, calmly walked over, slapped him across the left side of his face. Pham stood there, expecting retaliation. Pederson retreated.
Pederson was lauded for being a pacifist. Pham was vilified, with the public wondering how he could possibly be so enraged?
“People in baseball, man, they talk, and they don’t understand,’’ Pham says. “They can’t relate to me"
So, if Pham is invited back into the league, Trout remains commissioner, and Pederson returns, is Pham in?
“I don’t know, man, we probably have to hire a commissioner, that’s Step 1,’’ Pham says. “I mean, Trout handled this whole situation perfectly. We talked. He was able to joke about the whole thing.
“But we’ve got to hire a new commissioner. We probably have to pay someone to be our commissioner now. That way, rules are enforced.
“That’s what started this whole thing in the first place.
“It’s a matter of principle, man.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tommy Pham opens up about Slap Heard 'Round Baseball