Holy Cow!

Earlier today, I heard Jim Rome going on and on about the incident last night between the Houston Astros’ Carlos Gomez and the Yankees. Though I listened to Rome for several minutes (I know, my bad), I couldn’t follow anything about the circumstances leading to players leaving their benches All I heard was something to the effect that Gomez, an intense player whose had his share of run-ins over the meaning of baseball’s unwritten “code,” was barking at the Yankees’ dugout in a blowout (the Astros were ahead 9-0 at the time, and went on to win 15-1).

Imagine my surprise upon learning the details of the encounter. In the top of the sixth inning, Gomez, who has been in a serious slump (he’s hitting .191 since he came over in a trade from Milwaukee in late July) was batting. He popped up and, in frustration, threw the bat down as he ran to first. Apparently, that gesture didn’t sit well with some of the Yankees, who started yelling at him for having tossed his bat in anger. As the encounter heated up, Gomez yelled something about Yankee manage Joe Girardi, though Girardi hadn’t said anything. Girardi later described his response to Gomez:

‘Play the game the right way.’ They are kicking our rear ends, show a little professionalism to the pitcher. I know you missed a pitch and you are frustrated by it. I just think it is a little too much.”

This is pathetic. An endless chorus of players and pundits has lamented the declining competitive edge of today’s ballplayer, lamenting how the pampered, spoiled, entitled athletes of the modern era don’t go in with their spikes high, willing to get their uniforms dirty or play hard and play to win regardless of the opponent or the score. So, Carlos Gomez pops up, expresses frustration with himself and that crosses a line because Houston has a big lead? Could Girardi and the Yankees possibly look or sound any stupider? Even if you buy this code nonsense in general, in what world is a player getting mad himself for not doing better a violation of it?

Of course, the bigger issue here, about which others have commented on, is a culture clash – a simmering tension between the idea of playing the game “the right way,” as understood by white Americans like Yankees’ catcher Brian McCann, and a style of play far more common in Latin America, with fiery celebrations and a freer play of emotional expression on the field. Indeed, McCann (who was not behind the plate for the Yanks last night) and Gomez got into a highly publicized spat two years ago when Gomez – who grew up in the Dominican Republic – was too demonstrative after a homerun against the Braves, when McCann still played in Atlanta.

Many of these incidents over the past couple of years, for perceived violations of the unwritten rules have, it seems, flared between white players and non-white players, whether ballplayers from Latin America or African Americans. Chris Rock pinpointed this culture clash as an important cause of the declining interest in baseball among blacks.

Most announcers and baseball commentators are still white and most tend to share the perspective of the “old school” and the players who are said to hail from it.  As a result, discussions of these dustups tend to lack context. Of note, in the case of the Gomez/McCann incident, the pitcher who gave up Gomez’ homerun had hit Gomez with a pitch earlier in the season. And in the very last second of the six minute video of the fracas linked to above, the announcers acknowledge that, and that it seemed to be intentional. But like last night, the announcers’ fixation was on Gomez, his hot-dogging ways and his breach of protocol.

It’s funny, because for the longest time, Pete Rose was deemed the very epitome of playing baseball the right way by the baseball cognoscenti. But try to imagine, if you will, how Carlos Gomez would be judged for running to first after a bases on balls, as Rose iconically did (including, one presumes, in blowout games), or for running into a catcher so hard during an all-star game that he inflicted serious long-term damage on that players’ career?

That the story about last night’s run-in was Gomez’ temper, or his lack of “respect for the game,” or whatever, and not the Yankees’ utterly absurd reaction to an elite athlete expecting better of himself is remarkable.

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