For somebody like me, the Major League Baseball playoffs serve as a splendid diversion from the squalor of partisan politics. For serious fans, the drama of an October Red Sox-Yankees series provides the kind of emotional release others derive from a night at the symphony or a hike through a national park.
Escapist? You bet.
But they won’t let you escape, the nation’s influential cadre of humorless racial grievance specialists. So it was that the New York Daily News delivered the following sports headline: “Ron Darling uses slur in reference to Masahiro Tanaka on TBS broadcast of Yankees/Red Sox Game 2.”
Here’s what happened: Masahiro Tanaka, the brilliant Yankees pitcher, was making Red Sox hitters look futile. (In my opinion, he’s the best they’ve got.) Up in the broadcast booth, Ron Darling, the former Mets pitcher doing commentary for TBS, thought he detected a lessening of Tanaka’s pinpoint control. Lacking overpowering stuff, i.e. velocity and movement, Tanaka needs precise location to be effective.
“Chink in the armor for Tanaka here,” the announcer said. “It’s the first inning he has lost a little of his control.”
Whoop, whoop, whoop! Clang, clang, clang!
Racial grievance monitors at the Daily News, Yahoo Sports and a few other media outlets signaled a red alert. An opportunity to wreck the announcer’s career with an absurd allegation of bigotry presented itself.
To the Daily News, Darling’s “boneheaded comment” was only made worse because the announcer “did not appear to realize that he had used the slur in reference to Tanaka, who is Asian.”
Actually, it’s the cliche alarms that should have gone off. Like every phrase I’ve used to describe Tanaka’s performance — “pinpoint control,” “overpowering stuff” — the expression “chink in the armor” is a familiar sports expression. Maybe it’s possible to describe an entire baseball game in witty, original phrases but I don’t believe I’ve heard it done. Indeed, the very familiarity of baseball jargon is part of its appeal. Everybody knows what it means.
Except the aforementioned grievance specialists. So let’s go to the dictionary, shall we? The word “chink” is defined as “a crack, cleft or fissure,” such as “a chink in a wall.” It is derived from Old Norse. The phrase “chink in the armor” to describe vulnerability dates to the 17th century. It’s what George Orwell called a “dead metaphor” — that is, one whose original vividness faded after knights quit wearing suits of armor.
Alas, “chink” has in latter days evolved into a homonym. That is a word spelled and/or pronounced the same with divergent meanings — “horse/hoarse,” “deer/dear” or “clink,” which is both a noise and a jail cell. Context is all. English seems to have more of them than any other language.
The other meaning of “chink,” is of course offensive — a derogatory reference to a Chinese person dating to the late 19th century in America, and probably derived from the Chinese language itself, as in the “Ch’ing Dynasty.”
OK, enough pedantry. In context, what Ron Darling, himself an excellent pitcher for the New York Mets back in the day, was saying — and ALL he was saying — was that Masahiro Tanaka appeared to be tiring, and that if his precise control faltered, the Red Sox might light him up. Nothing more or less.
Any other reading is both perverse and malicious.
Because here’s the rest of the story: Masahiro Tanaka isn’t just “Asian,” he’s Japanese. The best pitcher the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ever had. He once won 26 consecutive games in the Nippon Pacific League. Calling him a “Chink” would be like calling an Englishman a “Frog.”
As somebody who grew up in the shadow of World War II, I certainly heard anti-Japanese slurs in my youth. But “Chink,” as one of my Arkansas country boy friends likes to say, “Not never one time.”
It gets worse. You see the imaginary bigot Darling is himself of racially mixed heritage. Specifically, he was born in Honolulu to a mother of Hawaiian/Chinese descent. His father was French Canadian. You’d have to think he’d be just about the last guy in the broadcast booth to use an anti-Asian slur.
Nevertheless, and probably wisely under the circumstances, Darling, a Yale graduate who has written actual books, took the easy way out. He apologized. “Earlier (Saturday night),” he said in a statement to Yahoo Sports, “I used an expression while referencing Masahiro Tanaka’s recent pitching performance. While unintentional, I apologize for my choice of words.”
Now me, I’d have wanted to confront the fake-outrage machine over something so egregiously stupid. Darling, however, does baseball. To him, it’s the Red Sox-Yankees series that’s important. Why risk professional suicide to defend an aged sports cliche?
This has happened before. ESPN once fired somebody for using the phrase with reference to Chinese-American NBA player Jeremy Lin.
And every time it does, a few more guys vote Republican.