Child’s Play

José Fernandez of the Miami Marlins hit his first major league home run on September 11 off of Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Minor. This may not seem to be an especially newsworthy achievement except that he’s a pitcher and the probable National League Rookie of the Year. Also this was his last start of the season (the Marlins, being a terrible team, decided to end his season early to avoid the risk of injury). Perhaps these factors help explain why Fernandez might have wanted to celebrate his accomplishment in grand style, which he did by watching his home run soar into the night and then taking a leisurely stroll around the bases.

The one-man celebration wasn’t appreciated. The Braves were considerably rankled, which lead to a heated exchange as Fernandez crossed home plate.

After the game Fernandez apologized. But rather than stand up for his player, Fernandez’ own manager, Mike Redmond, sided with the Braves in upholding baseball’s longstanding tradition of respecting opponents and not showing them up. According to Redmond, Fernandez might need an attitude adjustment: “We don’t want to take the ‘having fun’ aspect away from him. That’s what makes him him. But at the same time, I think maybe he can center that a little bit. … That might be a part of his game he needs to look at, and maybe try to do something different.” Off-season goals: 1) work on slider, 2) develop stronger superego. Redmond’s assessment might lead one to wonder if such “centering” is even possible and where that center might be: how much fun is too much fun? Might such an adjustment lead your star pitcher to become crippled by self-awareness?

A week later, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League West by defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks in Arizona. They were asked politely by Diamondbacks officials not to celebrate on the field. They didn’t, technically, and instead headed for the Ram Trucks® Pool in Chase Field, a swimming pool located in the right field seats. There was splashing. There were belly flops.

The Diamondbacks felt disrespected. Corporately-sponsored swimming pools in baseball stadiums are like Native American burial grounds, profane them and suffer the consequences. And so it was that moral indignation and name-calling rained down upon the Dodgers. They were classless. Even Arizona Senator John McCain tweeted his outrage: “No-class act by a bunch of overpaid, immature, arrogant, spoiled brats! ‘The #Dodgers are idiots.’” And what worse, idiots with with poor or indiscriminate bladder control.

And finally, just last week, Carlos Gomez hit a home run off Atlanta Braves pitcher Paul Maholm. Since Maholm had hit Gomez with a pitch earlier in the year, Gomez felt that this home run served as a good occasion to deliver his comeuppance. If the Dodgers and Fernandez celebrations represented a kind of youthful exuberance, Gomez’s represents anger and revenge, pleasures of a different kind. He admired his accomplishment and strutted around bases, rankling the Braves (the Braves, it seems, are easily rankled, be careful around them) and leading to a brawl.

All this rampant machismo is, of course, annoying. But it’s also funny to consider how all the righteous indignation and impotent rage are spawned by something quite unmanly: hurt feelings.

Here’s how Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who was ejected from the contest for his participation in the brawl, justified his actions: “If you have a beef with the pitcher, have a beef with the pitcher…Don’t make us get involved. That’s us. We’re going to back up our pitcher.” He was simply being honorable by protecting his teammate. But why would Maholm even need the “back up”? Gomez wasn’t physically attacking him; he was just circling the bases like a self-aggrandizing jackass who thought he was getting retribution for being hit by a pitch.

Then I realized my short-sightedness. For even though Maholm may not have been in any physical danger, his psyche was in grave danger. That’s what needed “back up.” Maholm, Minor, and even the Diamondbacks and their sacred pool, were all publicly humiliated, one of the worst possible things to experience (but erotic, too). Failure happens all the time in sports—home runs are surrendered, touchdowns are given up, goals are scored against you—and then to have some yahoo celebrate your failure compounds the shame exponentially.

So is enough being done to protect players from all this humiliation? So much concern, attention, and lip service have been devoted recently to protecting players from physical injury, but are we doing enough to protect the fragile psyches of our professional athletes? Shouldn’t a blue-ribbon panel be convened to address the intense psychological ramifications of humiliation in professional athletics? As a government official with an impeccable sense of decency, perhaps McCain could head it up. Or perhaps teams could hire a psychoanalyst or a critical theorist from an academic English department as Manager of Psychic Trauma to aid the coach. Or just cut out the middle man and have Don Mattingly and Joe Girardi start reading Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek.

Some sports have already taken steps to try and curtail humiliation. In football, a player can be penalized for excessive celebration or for taunting another player. In basketball, too, a player can receive a technical foul for taunting an opponent. But taunting still happens, and players are still victims of humiliation because enjoying ourselves at another’s expense is the best kind of pleasure, an illicit one (made all the more illicit by the threat of penalty). What’s the point of even having things like home runs or touchdowns or slam dunks or goals if you can’t make lewd gestures?

Sure it’s juvenile behavior but that seems preferable to the alternative, at least in the world of sports. Often times you’ll hear a coach or announcer preach that the proper way to celebrate is not to celebrate at all, to “act like you’ve been there before.” There’s a quiet, understated confidence to this logic: I’m so good that I do this all the time and will continue to do so. But the lack of exuberance—even mean-spirited exuberance—polite though it may be, is also kind of sad because it turns these occasions for celebration into dull routines so that watching a slugger hit a home run becomes the equivalent of watching a lawyer file a brief.

Eventually it all becomes routine as the crotch-grabbing showboat is made to heel. The Dodgers, bless their pool-hopping hearts, may have refused to apologize, but everyone else has. Gomez apologized. Fernandez apologized profusely. In his apology, Fernandez describes how his tense encounter with Braves catcher Brian McCann resolved itself peacefully: “If at any moment if there was going to be a fight, he was talking to me like a friend. I wouldn’t say as a friend, I would say as a Dad teaching a kid. That’s how it felt. I don’t think it was a fight kind of stuff. It was a friend type of thing.” Kudos to McCann for stepping up and administering a little fatherly discipline. And kudos to Fernandez for being mature enough to take his punishment and not pout or go storm into the dugout (although as far as conflating familiar roles goes, his confusion of the roles of friend and dad rivals only Faye Dunaway’s confusion of daughter and sister in Chinatown.)

For romantics, the diamond or field or court or rink or pitch is a playground where men can be boys and announcers can marvel at the player who “acts like a kid out there” (like this insufferable puerile genius). But that playground is heavily monitored and veterans sometimes have to hand down reprimands and chastisements because a boy need to learn to police his own behavior lest he show someone up on the field (unless, of course, that boy has a preternatural sense of the ethical boundaries of his own enjoyment, in which case carry on). But these authority figures aren’t just selfless noblemen who lasso these wild stallions hell bent on humiliation for the good of the game. Sure, there’s the satisfaction of restoring order, but we would be wise to remember that discipline offers its own pleasures and that the killjoy only kills joy for others not for himself.

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