Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Much More Than a Scuffle: Unacceptable Bias in Jose Fernandez's Slow Trot

Watch this video all the way through if you would. If you are reading this at work or in the library, don't worry, I have excerpted the key phrases, but first, watch the video, form a conclusion about what happened, then I will present mine.

Jose Fernandez, a 21-year old pitcher, who a year before was pitching in single-A ball and is currently the odds-on favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year, hits the first home run of his career.

Fernandez flips his bat, admires his shot as he strides down the baseline, and then simultaneously breaks into a grin and a not-terribly brisk trot.

As he rounds third, Fernandez spits on the ground... about 15 feet away from Chris Johnson, who apparently caused some indefinable tension in the previous inning. The entire incident is barely even visible on TV, and certainly does not seem out of character on a field in which the only activity engaged in more regularly than spitting is surreptitious scratching.

The Braves' veteran catcher, Brian McCann, then holds up Fernandez at home, talking rapidly and from far too close to Fernandez for comfort. So naturally Johnson sprints in from third, looking to every viewer as if he is about to cold-cock the young hotdogging pitcher. The benches clear, and the baseball equivalent of a fight breaks out for the better part of 2 minutes.

I've described the events to you, but I will leave it to the overly exuberant Marlins announcers to attempt to reconstruct the motives behind this strange series of events.

First, as Fernandez leisurely rounded the bases, one of the announcers, screeching somewhat, declared: "And I don't care if he took a peek at it, it's his first one!"

But, as the Braves began to take issue with his actions, the other Marlins on-air personality slowly proclaimed: "They're on him for taking a peek. He stood at the plate and watched, I understand that." Jose set it off by standing at the plate and admiring the home run, Johnson is still going nuts right now."

As the scrum dies down and a series of replays begin, the announcers begin to break down the drama point by point:

"Well Fernandez finally hits a home run, so he watched it."

(Fernandez spits as he rounds third)

"and that may have set Johnson off there even more."

"yeah I think he did. Now Jose did some 21 year old things during that sequence. Chris Johnson's from a baseball background, he understands that whole thing. And Jose, yeah he acted like a kid in that situation. He paused, he watched the home run, he shouldn't have done that. And when he ran around third, little look at the ground, looked like he spit, didn't spit toward Johnson, and that set off Johnson. And I think McCann is just trying to say: 'hey kid, you just don't do that up here.'"

"I don't understand Johnson running in from third base."

I've maintained a semblance of professionalism thus far while describing this incident, but I fear I can do so no longer, because, unlike Chris Johnson, I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS WHOLE THING! 

Maybe I am entirely missing the point, but from what I saw, Fernandez got a bit exuberant about accomplishing an amazing baseball feat! His exuberance showed up the pitcher who allowed the home run, and perhaps by extension the entire Atlanta Braves franchise. So, in response to feeling emotionally slighted, a member of that franchise pushed Fernandez and yelled in his face, another charged him from behind while yelling and swearing, and the remaining 23-38 (september rosters... so who knows) quickly joined in the yelling and swearing.

Collectively, the Atlanta Braves turned just about the only moment of true happiness in a Miami Marlins game this year into a confused and bittersweet memory for all involved. Congratulations Braves, you may have just done more damage to the psyche's of the Marlins' fanbase that all the years of Jeffrey Loria (I kid of course).

I honestly don't understand how Jose Fernandez, who shared a moment of pure emotion and achievement with his aching fanbase "acted like a kid," while Johnson and McCann acted reasonably and correctly in the eyes of the MARLINS' OWN BROADCASTERS!

Is starting a fight because someone did something that slightly impinged upon your ego a quality to be admired and emulated?

But that is all mere fluff and conversation fodder, what is of far greater concern for me is one sentence buried in the absurd justification for conflict offered up by the Marlins broadcast team that immediately set my teeth on edge:

"Chris Johnson's from a baseball background, he understands that whole thing."

An innocuous enough phrase perhaps, but what the hell is it intended to mean? Without a doubt it implies that Fernandez is not from a baseball background, otherwise he would have understood "that whole thing." Now, according to the estimable, Chris Johnson's father, Ron Johnson, played 17 games for the 1982-3 Kansas City Royals, and 5 for the 1984 Montreal Expos. Did Chris learn from his baseball playing father that the proper reaction to a minor slight is to start a fight? Are the 22 games in the Bigs that Ron Johnson played (poorly) in 30 years ago what the Marlins' broadcaster is referring to when he says that the Braves' thirdbaseman is from a baseball background?

Other than that difference, and their ages, Fernandez and Johnson actually have very similar backgrounds, with Johnson growing up in Ft. Myers, Florida and Fernandez in Tampa, Florida. The former went to college and was drafted in the fourth round, the latter was plucked straight out of high school in the first round.

Really, the only difference between the two men is that one was born in Naples and the other in Santa Clara... that is, Johnson was born in Naples, Florida... Fernandez in Santa Clara, Cuba. Are we going to assume that by spending his formative years in Cuba, Fernandez was never exposed to the game of baseball?

Or can I just say what I think was really underlying that thoughtless comment, the same specter that has lurked behind every criticism of Yasiel Puig's attitude and work ethic: Johnson is white, Fernandez is not white.

Fernandez, like many Latino players in baseball's past and present, is here being marked out, this time BY HIS OWN TEAM'S ANNOUNCERS, as not understanding the unwritten rules of the game because he does not come from a "baseball background."

Had the announcers merely stuck to their patronizing description of Fernandez as a kid who didn't know any better but would learn soon enough in the Big Leagues, this could be dismissed as merely another in a perpetual chain of old-school baseball cliches about the unwritten rules. But, by marking out the unexplained backgrounds of the players as the reason why one knew it was not only acceptable, but practically a requirement, for him to react to a bit of emotion by the opposing team with the threat of violence, while the other failed to understand the intricacies of the game, the announcers allowed a racial bias to color their commentary.

And to quote Brian McCann, "you just don't do that up here."


  1. Havana-born, Miami-bred, longtime fan of Marlins, but not their owner. I thought your racial bias observation was off-base.

    The clip shows Rich Waltz and Tommy Hutton at their best. The excitement over Fernandez's feats was palpable, but as his actions became evident during the replay, they avoided homerism by letting their audience in on why an opposing team could have a problem with what happened. It was an honest call by announcers who were thrilled, like all Marlins fans, for what Jose Fernandez has done this year, but had a job to do with fans who may have been wondering what was going on.

    The Chris Johnson angle goes beyond his Dad, his college coach was related to Chipper Jones etc.

  2. I can't believe any of this childish, infantile nonsense. What a pack of stupid crybabies baseball players are. In a game where these anal, oral morons chew like a pack of brain-dead cows, spit themselves dry, scratch themselves raw, and refuse to clean their spit-encrusted helmets, a rookie (or anyone else for that matter) can't look at his own home run, including a FIRST home run?!?!?! Why?!?!?! And they can (or must?) spit here, but can't spit there? And the other team gets OFFENDED?! ... and act like they were all kicked in the crotch by a Clydesdale?! What the bloody hell planet are they on? Are they all 4-years old?! I don't thinks so! They're not as mature! I'd say, "GROW UP", but there's NO chance of that ever happening!

    1. Right on! If all this hubbub is based on the precious pitcher's princess-and-the-pea sensitivity, then why doesn't the bull pen empty out when the manager REALLY embarrasses Nancy and takes that long slow walk to the mound? How ironic that such a "cerebral" sport is occupied by such a horde of zombies! Apparently the parts of the brain that control motor skills and quick decisions on the field are working full time, but are using up all the brain's energy - and the rest is really brain-dead!