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BASEBALL IS IN REAL TROUBLE WHEN FANTASY FOOTBALL IS THE BIG STORY
Who knew Tommy Pham would overwhelm the season with his slap of Joc Pederson and rebuke of commissioner Mike Trout, whose subsequent 0-for-26 slump is only one example of the widespread fallout?
My takeaway from baseball’s still-simmering dramedy — “Phamtom Of The Opera,” let’s call it — doesn’t involve fantasy football’s scourge as a societal brain drain. We already knew that. What we didn’t know is how a ridiculous story about pretend football, following the leads of the NFL and college football, would swallow a sport whole.
The diminishing relevance of MLB is so profound that a slapstick farce — emphasis on the slap — has managed to reduce all other baseball events to meh/blah/snore minutiae. When anyone who still cares chooses to recall the 2022 season, it’s possible the sound of Tommy Pham’s hand striking Joc Pederson’s cheek will take fond precedence over the crack of any October bat. I say that even as Aaron Judge enjoys a monster season and could lift the Yankees into: (1) another blood grudge series against the Astros, misdemeanor cheaters vs. felonious cheaters, for the American League pennant; and (2) an all-Gotham World Series against the payroll-bloated Mets, unless they are upended by the filthier-rich Dodgers. Those showdowns actually might draw a few eyeballs.
But who cares after Pham, a journeyman whose nose for trouble once involved being stabbed outside a San Diego strip club, accused Pederson, another well-traveled veteran, of illegally stashing a player on the Injured Reserve list in their fantasy league? “He did some s— I don’t condone,” said Pham, holding a grudge for two years. “So I had to address it.”
He addressed it by confronting Pederson, as he was warming up in the outfield with his San Francisco teammates before a game in Cincinnati, and attacking him with a full-force, UFC-worthy slap. Calling himself a “big dog in Vegas” — which should concern MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who is preoccupied by cutting sponsorship deals with sportsbooks — Pham said he plunged a $10,000 buy-in fee into the league. “I looked at it like he was f—ing with my money along with the disrespect," said Pham, who also was angry Pederson had mocked his team, then the Padres, with GIFs and other trash-talk on league group texts.
If this mindless tripe only confirms a general perception about major-league players — they’re hopelessly stuck in adolescence — the fallout has dropped a bomb on the current season. It was absurd enough when Pham next targeted the sport’s most prominent player, Mike Trout, and blamed him for failing to intercede as the league’s commissioner. Never mind that Trout’s status as an all-time great should excuse him from ever stooping to such a role, especially when Pham said he was too busy. “Nobody wanted to be commissioner, I didn’t want to be the f—ing commissioner. I’ve got other s— to do," Pham said. “He didn’t want to do it; we put it on him. It was kind of our fault, too, because we made him commissioner.”
And? “Trout did a terrible job, man," Pham said. “Trout’s the worst commissioner in fantasy sports. Because he allowed a lot of s— to go on and he could’ve solved it all.”
All of which could be dismissed as frivolity, if not comic relief in another anxiety-ridden American annum, if Trout didn’t immediately stumble into the biggest slump of his career. Since The Slap II on May 27, only weeks after Will Smith attacked Chris Rock at the Oscars, Trout’s latest awesome season dipped mysteriously into a 4-for-42 drought — including an 0-for-26 rut — that saw his batting average slip from .328 to .274. Here we thought he finally had overcome injuries and was ready to team with Shohei Ohtani, in one of the sport’s most entertaining tandems ever, and lead the Angels into an elusive postseason, where he might actually win his first playoff game in 12 years.
Maybe not. They’ve lost 11 straight and fallen 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Astros in the AL West. “I’m just trying to get into a good position to hit. And right now I’m not,’’ said Trout, accustomed to lining ropes in his sleep. “I’ve got to get out of it. I’m just searching too much right now.” He spoke in Philadelphia, where the Angels were swept by a Phillies team that fired its manager Friday. So much for the ballpark well-wishers from his nearby hometown, Millville, N.J. You couldn’t help but think back to the Angels’ previous series, in New York, where Trout was surrounded by a media mob over an unprecedented topic.
“I ain't talking about fantasy football," he said. “It's one of those things where everyone is competitive.”
Would he resign his position? He wouldn’t say. “Every commissioner I know always gets booed,” he said.
Pham was suspended three games by MLB. The damage he has done since then, coincidental or otherwise, has been cryptic and far-reaching. What other forms of hell has he roused? Who knows? Let’s see. One of his former teams, the Rays, has been shaken by a LGBTQ-related clubhouse dispute. Management in Tampa Bay should not have forced players to wear rainbow-colored logos on “Pride Night” at Tropicana Field. Inevitably, some removed the logos, and suddenly, an AL pennant contender known for its steady organizational equilibrium was in an avoidable controversy.
Relief pitcher Jason Adam, among five Rays players who rejected the logo, said the decision was “faith-based” and not a judgment about a gay lifestyle. Hmmmm. “It's a hard decision," Adam told the Tampa Bay Times. “Because ultimately we all said what we want is them to know that all are welcome and loved here. But when we put it on our bodies, I think a lot of guys decided that it's just a lifestyle that maybe — not that they look down on anybody or think differently — it's just that maybe we don't want to encourage it if we believe in Jesus, who's encouraged us to live a lifestyle that would abstain from that behavior.
“It's not judgmental. It's not looking down. It's just what we believe the lifestyle he's encouraged us to live, for our good, not to withhold. But again, we love these men and women, we care about them, and we want them to feel safe and welcome here.”
One of the team’s biggest stars, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, didn’t agree with Adam. “It's one of those things, my parents taught me to love everyone as they are, go live your life, whatever your preferences are, go be you. I can't speak for everyone who's in here, obviously, but this is a family-friendly environment here at a big-league ballfield. ... We just want everyone to feel welcomed and included and cheer us on. No matter what your views on anything are.”
The good news: A team known for low attendance figures in an archaic ballpark enjoyed a spike on Pride Night — 19,452, about 2,500 more than the average announced crowd. By Sunday in St. Petersburg, the figure was back to 11,162. Manager Kevin Cash said the difference in in-house opinion won’t divide the team. But he couldn’t speak for the rest of MLB.
“Absolute joke,’’ Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty tweeted, admonishing those who rejected the gay pride logo.
Not to belabor the Jinx of Tommy Pham. But at one time, he played for the Cardinals, too. When the idiosyncrasies of “Phamtom Of The Opera” are more interesting than the season itself, baseball is in more trouble than we thought.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.