I doubt I’ll ever entirely understand why Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish didn’t flip Yuli Gurriel in his first at-bat last night. It’s game seven of the World Series, you’re at home, lovely Chavez Ravine, the stands are packed with 50,000 mostly Dodgers fans, there’s a worldwide audience in the tens of millions watching you, and the guy who made fun of you a few nights back steps to the plate. They showed on TV what he did—the eye thing—when he got back to the dugout after hitting a home run off you. He pulled his eyes into a squint, then he laughed. Everyone saw it. Oh, he’s got to go down right here and now. Put it right under his chin and watch him hit the dirt like a chair was pulled out from under him.
Wait, what’s he doing? Did Gurriel just tip his helmet at me? Now he wants to make like this is an exhibit from the “Peace and Reconciliation Wing” in the Museum of Moderation? Is this guy for real? This is baseball. He’s definitely going down.
As a fan, I don’t really like to see pitchers throwing at hitters. Everyone knows the tragic story of Tony Conigliaro, the Red Sox star who was never the same after taking a fastball in the face. Sure, hitters are supposed to know how to get out of the way, which is why brushback pitches are aimed at the chin—the hitter’s instinctive action is to move backward, the head, then the body. That’s why if you’re really looking to hit someone you throw behind them, so they move into it. But pitchers aren’t perfect, and a fastball like Darvish’s that tops out around 99 MPH could really hurt someone.
But baseball is about more than just reason and calculations. The millions who love the game so much love it because—more, arguably, than any other sport—it’s about character, and about what you do when the stress piles on and your opponents dial up the heat and it’s time to stand up and be counted.
The tens of thousands of fans in Dodgers stadium, not to mention the legions watching at home, wanted Yu to do just that. Instead, he trembled, choked, and cost the Dodgers the game and the championship.
I mean, after all, Gurriel made a racially insensitive gesture rudely referencing Darvish’s Asian heritage. Everyone agrees it was racially insensitive—from the Dodgers faithful, which booed Guriel when he stepped to the plate, to the commissioner of baseball’s office, which has already suspended Guriel for five regular season games starting next year.
But that’s the problem. The issue isn’t that Guriel wasn’t sufficiently respectful of the half-Japanese half-Iranian Darvish’s unique heritage, but that he insulted him. As a man. And that’s not done in baseball. Jackie Robinson wasn’t in the big leagues to prove that African Americans could play baseball as well as white ballplayers, which was in fact already a given. He was there to make clear the fundamental point that Robinson was, primarily and above all, a man, and as such deserving of respect.
I don’t mean this in a callous, chest-thumping way. I mean this as a simple and straightforward declaration that ought to be obvious but is somehow lost in the sound and the fury of our dumb political moment: A person’s dignity must be respected, and if it isn’t, we ought to take steps to assure that it is. Poor Darvish, it seems, got lost in the haze of a cultural conceit—that Gurriel’s slur was an offense directed at an ethnic group, not an individual, and that the correct response therefore was to accept or reject any apology offered on behalf of the group. “I am saddened by your ignorance and must require you to raise your consciousness and engage in some form of symbolic reparations, again towards the group,” goes this inane logic. “Once those are made, I must accept/reject those gestures on behalf of the group.” That dynamic, however, deprives the individual of agency. A much healthier response is this: “Actually, YOU took a shot at ME. Here’s a 99 mph fastball in the small of your back. Now I’m a man and you’re a man—which is what you were trying to take from me with your race caricature bullshit.”
By beaning Gurriel responsibly at his first at-bat, Darvish could’ve sent a message that he won’t stand for anyone treating him odiously. It would’ve not only galvanized his fans, but, perhaps, his teammates as well. Instead, he remained cowered and insecure, and his team paid a very steep price.
At its best, baseball is not only a metaphor but also a guide. What we saw yesterday in Los Angeles is what happens when someone messes with you and you choose to do nothing at all.