Tanaka ref­er­ence was no slur, but out­rage shows ig­no­rance

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - GENE LYONS eu­gene­lyons2@ya­hoo.com Ron Dar­ling

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:

Tanaka, the bril­liant Yan­kees pitcher, was mak­ing Red Sox hit­ters look fu­tile. Up in the broad­cast booth, 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 pre­sented it­self to wreck the an­nouncer’s ca­reer with an ab­surd al­le­ga­tion of big­otry.

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 Dar­ling, him­self an ex­cel­lent pitcher for the New York Mets back in the day, was say­ing — and he was say­ing — was that 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: 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,” 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 hap­pens, a few more guys vote Repub­li­can.

TIM BRAD­BURY/GETTY IM­AGES

The New York Yan­kees’ Masahiro Tanaka pitches dur­ing Game 2 of the Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Series last Satur­day.

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