The Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves would have had a quiet, awesome evening together had Jose Fernandez not simply stood a few seconds longer at the plate than he did when he hit his first career home run.
Fernandez took some extra time at the plate, perhaps due to Evan Gattis's somewhat long home run trot from the previous inning. Braves third baseman Chris Johnson took offense. His jawing may have caused Fernandez to spit at the ground near third base. Brian McCann felt the need to discuss this with Fernandez, and that set off Johnson, who ran down to home plate in support of his case for "Fernandez being a braggart," and that in turn set off everything else.
Who is in the right and who is in the wrong in this case? As in almost all cases in which blame is assigned, the results are never quite so clear. The instigating event is almost certainly Fernandez's demeanor at the plate after the home run. Was it a stare? Probably, in that it took a little long. The age-old adage is that you are supposed to "act like you've been there before," and Fernandez admiring his first career home run probably does not constitute that.
But, oddly enough, that really was the first time Jose Fernandez had been there! It was his first career home run, and not just in the majors. Fernandez has no record of any home runs in the minor leagues before either, meaning that this was his first professional home run and likely his first homer in more than a few seasons. For a guy who seems like he genuinely enjoys swinging the bat, why should he simply put his head down when he does something amazing like that for the first time?
Unfortunately, the silly "unwritten rule" is not written that way. It demands that players make a quick trip around the bases when they hit a home run, and to a degree it is understandable. You already showed up the pitcher with your feat of monstrous strength, so there really should not be anything else to do. But it was not as though Fernandez blew a kiss to the pitcher a la Bryce Harper circa 2011. Fernandez took a few seconds to get out of the box and watched the home run, something that occurs fairly often with many hitters fairly frequently. For example, David Ortiz hits almost every home run like this one:
This isn't egregious, but it is long on the backswing and the stare, and it isn't too much shorter than Fernandez given that Papi is a left-handed hitter. The point is that a lot of hitters do this naturally, and they are not all vilified every time.
Nevertheless, as silly as the unwritten rules are, Fernandez quite clearly broke one. He most definitely watched that home run, and he probably could have refrained from throwing a spitball on the ground near the jawing Chris Johnson. But Fernandez is not all at fault. It is enough for the Braves to be insulted, but Chris Johnson escalated the problem when Fernandez and McCann had their "conversation." Johnson's charge to the plate and bickering made the situation seem more important than it certainly was, and he remained irate throughout the process. All of that escalated the event.
Did he have to do it? Almost certainly not. Even if the jawing was light-hearted, the charge to the plate could have been handled better. If Johnson casually walks over there, maybe the situation does not blow out of proportion. Then again, Fernandez was not helping by standing so close to McCann, who appeared to only be offering friendly advice in the heat of battle.
So if you want to place fault, Fernandez and Johnson both earned it. But placing fault misses the point of this situation. Jose Fernandez, a rookie phenom pitcher, hits his first home run of his professional career. He makes a mistake, at least in the eyes of baseball's supposed moral code. Young players are oft to do such things. The important thing is not the action itself, but whether Fernandez learned from his actions, and it would seem that he did. Fernandez was apologetic in the press conference afterward.
"I had a good year, and it ends up like this, on a day like today, which is really important to all American people," Fernandez said on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "It's something that is not right, and I'm embarrassed by it."
It sounded as though Brian McCann was merely trying to set the kid straight good-cop style, as he had some words of advice for Fernandez.
"Him and I are really close," Fernandez said of McCann. "[Freddie] Freeman, too. He told me, 'Buddy, you can't do that.' I told him, 'I'm sorry, the game got the best of me.' I was just going to walk away. He was talking to me as a friend, or a dad, teaching a kid. That's how I felt."
McCann was a class act in saying what he said and doing it in what appeared on television to be a peaceful fashion. Fernandez was right to accept those words as advice and not anything adversarial. Given that we know Fernandez is quite the humble guy, this response seems genuine enough to take at face value. Having McCann as a veteran on the other side in an understanding role makes the smoothing-over process much easier.
More importantly to me, it is a shame that such a seemingly non-event should mask something that was so awesome. No matter what team you follow (outside of the Braves), you had to be happy to watch the rookie phenom launch, of all things, a home run. It should be a moment of celebration! A pitcher hit a freakin' home run, guys! Instead of dwelling over ancient unwritten rules and moral codes of a child's game, why don't we try and enjoy the interesting things that make the game magical? The home run should have been an event that we could put on a pedestal and enjoy, rather than one we needed to dissect and bring down.
This home run should have never elicited these sorts of negative feelings, and now that the majority of the parties involved are moving forward, fans should also allow themselves to enjoy the good that came from that one Fernandez swing. Amid the muck, there was plenty of gold to be had in there.