Jeff Passan’s story about the Phillies’ clubhouse woes late last season has been the talk of the town today. The synopsis, in case you missed it: as the Phillies’ season was slipping away, some players were allegedly playing the video game Fortnite during games. Former Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana got upset about that, so he smashed the clubhouse TV with a bat.
As Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reports, Phillies starter Jake Arrieta takes issue with Santana’s version of events. Arrieta said, “There is some untruth to the story, some things that were not portrayed correctly. I don’t believe that guys were playing video games during the game. That’s something that I would not allow and a majority of the guys on the team would not allow.”
Arrieta added, “There was a lot of video-game playing and I was a part of it, too, but well in advance of the game — and that was something that we bonded over. It brought us close together and it was something we had in common. It was fun. But as far as during the game, and I’ve talked to a bunch of our guys, I do not believe that was taking place.”
Arrieta also said Santana smashed the TV late at night, when the clubhouse was mostly empty. In other words, Santana was doing it more as a way to express frustration while avoiding the immediate blowback his actions would incur. According to Arrieta, Santana never communicated his displeasure beforehand.
A lack of communication, not video gaming, is the issue. MLB clubhouses have long been a collective petri dish of masculine id. Players are taught that one emotion – anger – is acceptable; all others are unprofessional. Hence why bat-flipping has, until very, very recently, been a baseball culture no-no, but throwing 99 MPH baseballs at other players’ heads to exact revenge is seen as appropriate behavior. Generally speaking, players aren’t taught conflict de-escalation skills, nor are they taught how to resolve their differences verbally. Santana, who turns 33 years old next month, likely didn’t have the tools to express himself because players – and men at large – are socialized to stamp down their emotions and convert it into anger. Anger is the language every man in the clubhouse speaks.
Predictably, the Fortnite-playing players were seen as at fault. But neither Passan nor Salisbury’s report are clear about the actual impact of the video game-playing. No players were specifically named, and as mentioned, Arrieta disputes that video games were being played in the clubhouse during baseball games. Even if video games were being played during baseball games, though, were they being played by, say, relief pitchers in the first inning? A third-string bench guy? It’s a lot different if it was Mitch Walding and Jake Thompson playing Fortnite, hypothetically, since they’re almost certainly not going to get into the game until the late innings. And if they do have to get into a game earlier than usual, they will have had advance warning (e.g. in a blowout).
Aside from that, video gaming outside of baseball game hours is a completely overblown issue, and Arrieta hints at that. Per Salisbury, Arrieta said, “Everybody’s wired differently, everybody locks in for a game differently. For one guy to think that video games are a disturbance to the team, is another guy’s version of getting prepared for the game. You don’t have to be sitting in front of the video screen watching videotape up until the first pitch to get ready for the game. Everyone is different in that regard.”
As someone who was briefly an education major in college, one of the most valuable things I took from my classes was that every student has a different learning style. These styles are broadly put into three buckets: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Some add a fourth bucket, tactile. Personally, I’m a visual learner in that I need to see an example of something first before I understand the concept well. Reading about calculus won’t benefit me at all until the professor does a practice problem on the white board. I never studied for tests by reading the textbook because it never did me any good. Doing and re-doing the same example the professor did for the class helped me much more. Similarly, Phillies players who are less visual or auditory learners may not get as much from pre-game preparation as the players who are visual or auditory learners. Watching tape and going over charts won’t help too much. On the other hand, calming pre-game anxiety with a round or two of Fortnite? That could prove to be very beneficial. As Arrieta alludes to, it could have been a net positive as something for players to bond over as well.
Whatever the case, let’s not forget that professional baseball players are still human beings. They get nerves before games. They get exhausted or bored in the dregs of a long season. It is a totally human thing to want to decompress by playing some video games. They are not robots who need to eat, sleep, and breathe baseball 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to be successful.
Ultimately, though, video games are being used as a scapegoat for the Phillies’ late-season woes. The same was done with the 2011 Red Sox, who went into a tailspin of their own late in the season. It was later reported that some players were drinking beer, eating fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse. Had the Phillies not spun their tires and instead made the playoffs last year, this would have been a non-story. But we got these juicy details and linked the two things together retroactively as we always do. Manager Gabe Kapler seems to realize that tendency, saying, “When you’re winning, the chemistry is great and everybody is bonding. But when you’re frustrated and losing the way that we did at the end of the year, you start to search for answers.”