There's No Villain in the Madison Bumgarner-Max Muncy Spat
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: Madison Bumgarner having the ass; Brett Gardner fighting a helmet and losing; the best names of the 2019 draft; and much more.
This Week In … Red-Ass Baseball!
The war over bat flips is, for the most part, done, and the flippers have won. The generational shift within the game of baseball has taken such displays of emotion from verboten to marketing strategy. Social media lights up with joy any time a player sends his lumber skyward, and while a KBO-style toss is still a bridge too far, drops and heaves are commonplace now. To paraphrase The Big Lebowski: The fun police lost, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences!
Yet there are still holdouts amid the sea change, lonely islands of would-be cops who harrumph and grumble whenever a hitter launches his bat. The Giants’ Madison Bumgarner is one-such man, and has been seemingly forever. His most recent clash came on Sunday against the Dodgers, a long-time source of irritation for him, usually courtesy of Yasiel Puig. But this time, his ire was directed at Max Muncy, for the crime of apparently spending too long watching a homer that majestically plopped into the San Francisco Bay.
As you can tell from that video, Bumgarner was none too pleased that Muncy didn’t sprint to first base like his life depended on it and started a shouting match with the Dodgers’ concrete block of a first baseman (and in turn got yelled at by home plate umpire Will Little). Muncy won that round and then dropped a megaton of trash on Bumgarner afterward, saying, “If he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean.” (Don’t attempt to parse the internal logic of that sentence; just enjoy the weapons-grade burn it represents.)
I want to focus not on Muncy dunking Bumgarner straight into the Earth’s core, though, but on the veteran southpaw’s response.
On the one hand, Bumgarner doesn’t exactly earn sympathy for more or less saying that he reserves the right to be a crotchety jerk over perceived slights and minor infractions of an invisible subjective code. But on the other hand, his invocation—“Let me be myself”—is the spirit of MLB’s campaign of letting the kids play.
“The kids” draws most of the attention there, given the invocation of youth and the promise (or threat) of a new generation replacing the current one. It’s not hard to see the lazy path of the stereotypical Baby Boomer railing against the stereotypical Millennial, more concerned with flipping a bat than Playing The Game The Right Way. “Let the kids play,” though, isn’t about older players getting swept aside by their younger counterparts. To me, it’s a bigger message about the emotion that the sport is built on, both good and bad. It’s a desire to showcase the joy and the anger, the excitement and the sadness, that make baseball so much fun and create such a deep connection with the fans.
There’s nothing wrong with Muncy admiring his homer. There’s nothing wrong with Bumgarner, to use a highly technical baseball term, having the ass over his pitch getting hit into another solar system. But where things go sideways is when that anger turns into vengeance, and when it devolves into throwing at players. It’s one thing to be mad; it’s another to be violent and, by extension, put someone’s safety at risk. (Bumgarner, to his credit, decided the matter was settled and thankfully didn’t deposit a fastball in anyone’s ribs.)
That’s all any of this needs to be. Let the kids play, and let them be happy or mad or whatever they want. Let them feud and snap at each other. That’s more entertaining than a sport where silence rules the day, and where any emotion at all comes under fire.
This Week In … Unproductive Outbursts!
Speaking of anger and violence leading nowhere positive: Here’s Brett Gardner learning about Newton’s Third Law of Motion the hard way.
Gardner was so frustrated over being robbed of a hit on Saturday in Cleveland that he took it out on his innocent helmet, which quickly paid him back by bouncing off the wall and into his mouth, splitting his lip. The injury required stitches, but thankfully for Gardner, that was the extent of it—well, that and the embarrassment of losing a fight to an inanimate object.
This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!
It was a short and uneventful week for Vlad Jr., who hit .250/.286/.400 over five games and continued to show that baseball is a super hard sport to figure out. But even though the consistency hasn’t been there, there have been enough flashes of what Guerrero represents—namely, a baseball-clobbering machine—to keep alive the dream of him soon laying waste to the league. Case in point: This titanic homer off Yankees reliever Zach Britton that just about broke the damn sound barrier as it rocketed out to left-centerfield.
The sound that ball makes off his bat—like someone hitting a slab of granite with a hammer—is what makes Vlad Jr. worth a weekly check-in. It also makes him the kind of dude where, mediocre season aside, you desperately want to see him in a Home Run Derby. Luckily for the world, Guerrero’s up for it.
Of course, he says. Now MLB just needs to make it happen.
This Week In … Angel Hernandez Is Terrible!
Angel Hernandez is terrible! The much-reviled umpire is one of the few men in blue that deserves the constant scorn he gets, given that he’s demonstrably bad at his job. The latest example comes from Toronto, where Hernandez was behind the plate for a Yankees-Blue Jays tilt in which he somehow blew this:
I can’t believe I’m about to do this, but: Hernandez isn’t totally at fault here. Masahiro Tanaka completely missed his spot, and Gary Sanchez’s lunge for the pitch probably made it seem outside. Better execution by Tanaka and Sanchez both, and that’s a called strike. But even with that being the case, that ball ended up right down the pipe—like, right down the pipe.
Tanaka practically stares a hole into Hernandez, he’s so convinced it’s a strike. Sanchez is so confused by the non-call that he stops and turns around (I kind of wish he’d frozen with the pitch ala the catcher in The Naked Gun). I don’t know how Aaron Boone in the Yankees’ dugout didn’t go thermonuclear. I mean, this is what it looked like in the strike zone map:
How do you miss that?
It wouldn’t be a Hernandez blunder, meanwhile, if it didn’t have an impact. One pitch later—in a 1–1 count instead of down 0–2—Grichuk took Tanaka deep to cut a 2–0 Yankees lead in half. Three batters later, a Freddy Galvis homer gave Toronto the lead for good. Maybe all of that doesn’t happen if Hernandez gets the call right. Then again, expecting him to do anything correctly seems like too big of an ask at this point.
This Week In … This Week’s Worst Play of the Week!
The Mariners are barely functional right now. Since starting the season 13–2, they’ve gone 15–39, or a 125-loss pace over a full year. Part of that collapse has been their defense, which ranges anywhere from “actively harmful” to “evacuate the city.” Last week against Houston, Seattle showed off that beer-league softball-level play with this gem that, in an alternate universe, would’ve been a beauty.
Credit where credit is due: That’s a great throw by Dylan Moore at shortstop. Had Omar Narvaez been at the plate, that’s an out and lauded as heads-up baseball. The only problem is that Narvaez is over backing up first base for … well, who knows why? Maybe he thought there were two outs, or he figured Moore would go for the harder play, or maybe he wanted to go chat with Edwin Encarnacion at first.
Either way, this missed connection was so bad and so emblematic of the Mariners’ puke sandwich of a season that it’s This Week’s Worst Play of the Week. Congrats, Seattle!
This Week in … Hernan Perez, Showing Off His Stuff!
Last Wednesday, the Marlins absolutely bludgeoned the Brewers, 16–0, in a laugher up in Milwaukee. As is custom with such blowouts, that meant an inning on the mound from a position player. In this case, the Brewers chucked out Perez, a 28-year-old utility infielder who actually has a few outings to his name in similar situations. Those have been ugly, but against Miami, he put on a show.
That shimmy would make Johnny Cueto jealous, and that high leg kick is textbook Bronson Arroyo. He even tossed in an eephus pitch that was so slow that it didn’t register on the Statcast guns. But for as goofy as it looked, Perez’s chameleon show worked: He worked a 1-2-3 inning and didn’t allow a hit—the only Milwaukee pitcher to do so that night.
This Week In … Draft Names!
The MLB draft is over, and with it, the league has gained an entire new class of kids named Hunter, Logan, Braden, Kaden, Caden, Cayden, Kaeden, Ca3d3n and so on. Those slices of 21st century American naming convention, though, don’t interest me as much as the truly gonzo, minor-character-in-a-Thomas-Pynchon-novel-esque monikers that the draft provides with regularity every summer. Here, then, are my favorite names from the 2019 draft, in no particular order.
Gun to my head, if I had to pick a favorite, it’s probably AJ Bumpass, because I’m a child and can’t say no to the word “Bumpass.” But there’s something here for everyone: the 1980s action movie star panache of “Cameron Cannon;” the nominative determinism of Brickhouse, who’s 6’4” and 235 pounds; the aggressive attempt to get a triple word score that is “Jackxarel.” There’s no loser in this bunch.
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Jim Deshaies, pitcher, Houston Astros (Donruss 1988).
The Yankees career of Deshaies—upstate New York native and 21st-round pick in the 1982 draft—lasted all of two games and seven innings. The lefty made his MLB debut that season but managed only a pair of starts in early August before heading back down to the farm. He wouldn’t make another appearance in pinstripes: A year later, he was dealt to Houston for veteran knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who was then 40 years old and in his 19th major league season. Niekro’s contributions to the Yankees were minimal: a 4.58 ERA over 36 starts before being dumped on the Twins in ‘87. Deshaies, meanwhile, starred in the Astros’ rotation for the next six years.
That kind of result was common for the 1980s Yankees, who constantly gave away young players in exchange for name-brand veterans who were past their primes. A 1989 Newsday story noted the long list of fresh-faced hurlers drafted by New York but finding success elsewhere: Deshaies, Jose Rijo, Al Leiter, Doug Drabek, Eric Plunk. “If you struggle early, you’re under a microscope,” Deshaies said. “If they think you can pitch in the big leagues, they run you out of there.”
The problem at the time was the blustering George Steinbrenner, forever impatient when it came both to winning and the timeline for prospects to turn into stars. Deshaies was but one of many casualties of the decade or so during which Steinbrenner was the final decision-maker for the team. Not coincidentally, that stretch was one of the least productive in franchise history.
That came to a halt with Steinbrenner’s suspension in 1990, which lasted until ’93 and bought the Yankees’ front office time to accumulate prospects without worrying they’d be traded in a fit of pique for a washed-up former All-Star. That was too late to save the likes of Deshaies, but it was the path that led to Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and the rest of the core that would turn the Yankees into a juggernaut.