As the Braves prepare to enter the Division Series, I want to return to two controversial incidents at the end of their regular season, when they embroiled themselves in two separate incidents when a batter admired his home run for far too long. First it was Jose Fernandez, the inspiring and amazing Rookie of the Year candidate, hitting his first home run in the majors; then it was Carlos Gomez, taking revenge for what he perceived to have been an intentional hit by pitch three months earlier. In both cases, Brian McCann got rather peeved. (He also got memed.)
So, here’s what happened, as explained by Jason Turbow on his Baseball Codes blog. (I quote him every time I write about unwritten rules, because he breaks everything down from the perspective of unwritten rules violations.)
Bottom of the sixth: Fernandez blasts a nearly 400-foot drive off Braves left-hander Mike Minor for his first career homer, flips his bat away and—ostensibly in response to Gattis—stands to admire it. This is not an innocent would-be slugger in awe of his own unexpected power; the move is intended to disrespect the Braves, who take it precisely that way.
As Fernandez crossed the plate, Brian McCann got in his face and yelled at him.
Carlos Gomez, the game’s second batter, homered against Paul Maholm Wednesday, then lingered in the batter’s box. Once he began to trot, his churn rate increased with every step; he shouted with increasing fervor at first baseman Freddie Freeman and Maholm even before reaching third.
Watching this, McCann decided to unload a few of his own notions on Gomez, and made sure that his message could not be ignored. The catcher planted himself about 15 feet up the third base line, completely blocking Gomez’s path to the plate. The runner would not pass without first getting an earful.
As it turned out, he would not pass at all. McCann shouted him down without ceding the baseline, players from both teams stormed the field, Reed Johnson landed a punch to Gomez’s noggin, and the ensuing scrum carried everybody to the backstop. Gomez was ejected shortly thereafter, and left the field without ever touching the plate.
I’m always interested in unwritten rules and the seemingly irrational ways that baseball players enforce them. In this case, Brian McCann and the Braves took a fairly uncontroversial one: you’re not supposed to spend too long admiring your own home runs — “pimping” them — because that is disrespectful to the other team. But the Braves’ angry reactions caused them to lose both moral arguments in the court of public opinion.
Jonah Keri called the Fernandez brouhaha “just another case of baseball players taking themselves and their ridiculous unwritten rules way too seriously,” and the Gomez incident led to multiple articles where a yelling Brian McCann was photoshopped into other historical events, as Mike Bates writes, “to tell them to tone it down and cut the fun short.” Emma Span pithily summed up the Braves in a playoff flowchart: “The slightest perceived slight will be met with a benches-clearing brawl.”
That said, both of the players accosted by McCann apologized. Fernandez said, “I feel like I don’t deserve to be here, because this isn’t high school. This is a professional game. I made a mistake. I’m going to learn from it… I embarrassed a lot of people. It’s just not right for the game. For sure I can promise 120 percent that that will never ever happen again. I won’t show anybody up like that.”
And Gomez tweeted this:
The way I carried myself on the field is unacceptable, I should have done better to control myself and set a good example.
— Carlos Gomez (@C_Gomez27) September 26, 2013
So there appears to be a disconnect: there is a popular viewpoint that the Braves and McCann are in the wrong, while Fernandez and Gomez appear to believe that they were in the wrong. The easy answer could be because they were all in the wrong and that two wrongs don’t make a right. But it is curious to note that Gomez got suspended for his actions, while McCann only got fined. Here is what is likelier: while people outside of baseball think all of these unwritten rules are ridiculous, people in baseball agreed with the Braves.
In baseball, what Fernandez and Gomez did was unambiguously wrong. You don’t show up the other team, ever, for any reason. Meanwhile, while McCann’s actions may have been over the top, his intentions were laudable: he was sticking up for his teammates, which in baseball is unambiguously good. Standing in the baseline may have caused a bench-clearing scene, but Brian McCann didn’t do it for the fans, he did it to stand up for Maholm. Defending your buddy’s honor may be old-fashioned and dumb, but that’s what baseball players are.
As Michael Wex once wrote, referring to the Yiddish practice of referring to one’s wife as “tsiherste,” meaning “Do you hear me?”:
This is what people mean when they talk about a lost world—it might not be to our taste, but the people who used such expressions understood what they wanted to say, and it isn’t always fair to fault them for our own incomprehension.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.