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Finally, A Baseball Beef For A New Generation

Joc Pederson
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Baseball’s longterm sustainability can be questioned on a daily basis if you don’t have an actual instinct for fun, but it is getting points for trying. Not through organized rule changes or City Connect abominations that only try to reinvigorate the shrinking fan base into shrinking at a slower rate, but through organic developments that nobody organized or held meetings to conceptualize or struggled to monetize.

No, we’re looking at Joc Pederson and Tommy Pham. They’re the idea people. In a melting world that deteriorates a bit more every day, they are seizing on a perfectly trivial yet relatable set of kids’ problems to make baseball less, well, baseball-y.

Their exchange in the outfield in Cincinnati Friday afternoon—well, Pham slapping Pederson for saying “disrespectful shit” and Pederson calling Pham out for not understanding fantasy football rules—is more modern American than anything else baseball has managed in years, and it just took two guys with the entrepreneurial spirit and gumption to act. They didn’t clear it with their managers, they didn’t take it upstairs to the suits or call their player reps. They did what most folks in the baseball’s dwindling 18-to-35 demographic target range would do. They argued about a series of silly things, five months after the league they were arguing about ended; they held a grudge and they did it in such a way that Pederson got an own and Pham got a three-game suspension.

Not that we have an opinion on the punishment, mind you. But it was thoughtful, even diabolically clever that they shared their beef and seemed to be backing each other up on the details, more or less.

“It was regarding my former team. I didn’t like that and I didn’t like the sketchy shit going on in the fantasy,” Pham said on Saturday. “We had too much money on the line, so I look at it like there’s a code. You’re fucking with my money, then you’re going to say some disrespectful shit, there’s a code to this.”

Hurray! Another code argument! See? Cutting edge stuff here. But Pham enforced the code.

“I said I didn’t forget about that shit, and I walked up to him and slapped him,” Pham said.

Which is all well and good, and sure beats the hell out of Udonis Haslam or Steve Kerr citing the code, whatever the code in question happens to be on any given day. But that this isn’t about playing or talking the job. It was about fantasy football, and a demographic baseball has struggled and failed to touch for decades now.

Pham and Pederson played in the same fantasy football league in 2021, Pham said. Pederson said Friday that Pham accused him of cheating because he was “stashing players on my bench.” Pederson said he looked up the rules the league used and he was in the right. Disagreements ensued on a group text for the league, which sources told The Athletic includes MLB players from several teams.

You can now descend into a debate about why Pham tempered his response to be a slap rather than a full-on punch, or why Pederson didn’t swing back, but the confrontation isn’t important. It’s that it happened, and that it happened over something that had nothing at all to do with baseball. And that it wasn’t a debate about unwritten rules at all. That’s refreshing stuff.

Compare this to the new debate about whether Gabe Kapler’s decision not to be in the dugout during the national anthem is honorable or disrespectful, or how 28 of the other 30 other managers tried to equivocate on their own positions (or 29, if Tony La Russa’s one-quarter-support-three-quarters-disagreement counts). The whole debate descended into white noise and mouth taffy like, we support him but I won’t say that I would do the same thing, completed by Washington’s Dave Martinez putting it all in baseball perspective: He skips the anthem because he has other pregame stuff to do.

Now this may touch fantasy football because nobody who plays fantasy football stands before the game to sing the anthem (after all, the networks stopped bothering with that years ago), but it seems like the kind of argument old people make. Fighting over who said what in a fantasy league seems more contemporary, more in line with what the inheritors of our hot-mess-on-sourdough culture find relatable. The serious stuff that we have refused to deal with because we don’t want to fight the big fights that could destroy us all, or the time wasted looking for roads suitable for kicking those cans away—that’s not what stirs America, sadly. Arguing about fantasy football and vague terms like “disrespect” is more to our liking. It’s trivial. It comes and goes quickly. It’s clickable.

So, in a depressing yet marketing-savvy way, Pham and Pederson have managed to give baseball a link to the next generation of sports fans. We like arguing about “codes” because like MVP debates or etiquette re: a potential opponent or even anthem attendance, they’re never really meant to be settled. They’ve been going on forever without ever finding resolution, and we’re all here for the ouroboros of talk.

The sad part, though, is this: None of the other guys in the league that Pederson and Pham shared have spoken out about their roles or lack thereof in the League Of Beef. Too bad. They’re missing a chance to attach themselves to baseball’s first effective reach-out to the lost generation. But the lesson remains the same, for the young and old alike—whatever you do, do it in defense of the code.

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Tommy Pham Slapping Joc Pederson Over Fantasy Football Is The Sports Story Of The Year