Mike Napoli had come through with the heroics, but he didn’t seem to believe it. One out away from a complete-game shutout, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka fed the Red Sox first baseman a 1-2 fastball out over the plate instead of the pitch Napoli expected—a splitter low in the zone, which had already served to strike him out twice on the night. It was a gift. Napoli treated it as such, hammering it over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium for a game-winning two-run homer.
Napoli’s problems began with his incredulty that Tanaka would throw him anything in that situation but the same unhittable pitch he’d already proven unable to hit. They manifested when he reached his dugout after rounding the bases. Even before he entered, he was shouting at his teammates, “What an idiot! What an idiot!” (Watch it here.)
The comments were picked up by TV cameras, of course, which is why this is a controversy. Napoli oviously did not intend to show up Tanaka; his comments were directed toward his teammates, not toward the field, and were made amid the rush of his success. Also, Napoli was right—Yankees catcher Brian McCann did all he could to have Tanaka throw the splitter, but was shaken off repeatedly. Still, any player in the modern era should know better—especially talking, as he did, from field level at the lip of the dugout, without even the cover of a position deep on the bench.
Such was the impact that Red Sox manager John Farrell was compelled to address it on Sunday.
“The one thing we don’t ever want our players to be is non-emotional,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I’m aware of the comment made last night. I didn’t hear it at the time. But I know this: We’ve got the utmost respect for Tanaka and I know Mike Napoli does.”
It’s reminiscent of a scene from The Baseball Codes, in which a youthful Eric Chavez was being interviewed before his A’s played the Yankees in Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS.
Responding to a press-conference question about his opponents, who had won the previous two titles, Chavez talked about how great the Yankees had been in recent years, what a terriﬁc job they’d done, and how difﬁcult it was to win as consistently as they had. He also added that they’d “won enough times,” and that it would be okay for somebody else to play in the World Series for a change. Chavez was twenty-two years old, wide-eyed and hopeful. There was nothing malicious in his tone.
Unfortunately for the A’s, the press conference at which Chavez was speaking was being broadcast live on the Oakland Coliseum scoreboard for early-arriving fans. Also watching were the Yankees, on the ﬁeld for batting practice. “So he’s dropping the past tense on us? Did you see that?” spat third baseman Scott Brosius from the batting cage. One New York player after another—Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams—took Chavez’s comments and blew them up further. The Yankees hardly needed additional motivation, but now they had it. Their ﬁrst three hitters of the game reached base, four batters in they had the lead, and by the end of the frame it was 6–0. The A’s were in a hole from which they could not climb out before they even had a chance to bat.
The Yankees didn’t have any such swing of success against the Red Sox on Sunday—they lost, 8-5—but it underscores the importance of understanding where you are and who can hear you before speaking your mind with anything resembling too much impunity.