During the seventh inning of the first game of Tuesday’s Nationals-Braves doubleheader at Nationals Park, Fox Sports South analyst Joe Simpson implied that 19-year-old Nationals outfielder Juan Soto was lying about his age.
“He is — if he’s 19, he has certainly got his man-growth,” Simpson said of Soto, the Dominican Republic native who walked in his final plate appearance of Washington’s 8-3 win to become the youngest player since Robin Yount in 1975 to reach base five times in a game. “He is big and strong,” Simpson went on.
Simpson didn’t elaborate, and Braves play-by-play man Chip Caray let the speculation slide. After Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo got wind of the comment from a team PR employee, he decided to confront Simpson about it before the second game, as first reported by the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.
“Our PR people, when they see these tweets out there and that type of thing, I get alerted to it,” Rizzo said during his weekly appearance Wednesday with the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan. “Because I have nothing to do with social media. They alert me when things come up that I need to know about, and they thought I needed to know about this. Then I handled it. It took all of about 10 minutes.”
Rizzo said Simpson’s comment was “uninformed” and “unfortunate.”
“He’s been in the game too long,” Rizzo said of Simpson. “He was a player, he’s been an announcer for a long, long time. Just uninformed, not in touch, and he made a mistake. Like we handle most of the problems in Nationals Land, we went up to the booth and I had a man-to-man discussion about it. He apologized for it. … The worst thing about this is that the poor kid may have to answer questions about it when it’s so unfair and just out of touch and just not accurate.”
Rizzo, who vehemently defended Bryce Harper in June after an anonymous executive called the Nationals’ outfielder a “selfish, losing player,” said Simpson told him he would “make it right in game 2.”
“It’s cool,” Simpson told the Athletic when asked about his conversation with Rizzo. “I’ve already squared it away.”
As Soto rounded third base after hitting his 14th home run of the season in the first inning of the nightcap, Simpson addressed his ill-advised comment from earlier in the day.
“If you were with us in game 1, you might have heard me make a comment off the top of my head about if he’s 19,” Simpson said. “Well, he is. He’s bona fide 19. And he is a full-grown man. He is strong. And he is one heck of a player. You might well just write his name in on the rookie of the year award right now.”
“He is not playing like a teenager,” Caray said.
“No, he’s not,” Simpson, 66, said.
Still, at least one Nationals fan let Simpson hear it during the second game, calling up to the broadcast booth from the stands.
Dominican players falsifying their ages used to be more pervasive, but Major League Baseball has taken steps to curtail identity fraud in the past decade. Rizzo helped rebuild the Nationals’ presence in the Dominican Republic after a scandal involving the signing of 16-year-old shortstop prospect Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, who was actually 20-year-old shortstop prospect Carlos Daniel Alvarez, cost former Nationals GM Jim Bowden and one of his top advisers their jobs.
This isn’t the first time Simpson has come under fire this year. Last month, he apologized to infielder Chase Utley and the Dodgers organization after criticizing the Dodgers’ “very unprofessional” batting practice attire. During Atlanta’s last visit to Washington, he described the dugout confrontation between Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg as “chest to chest, nose to nose,” while replays showed no such thing.
“I’d much rather be talking about the 19-year-old that’s tearing up the league, and one of the best players not only on the Nationals, but in the whole league,” Rizzo said of Soto on Wednesday on 106.7 The Fan. “The stuff that this guy is doing is remarkable. He is truly one of the great players currently in the league right now. It’s unbelievable that we’re talking about an age thing when we should be talking about a performance thing.”
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