What do you do when your team is a depressing stew of suck?
In light of this morning’s piece, some people have asked me if I don’t understand what Braves President John Hart and GM John Coppolella are doing or if I don’t appreciate the way the Braves’ rebuild is being handled. Some others have asked me why, given how long I’ve written about the process of team building, how I’ve said watching young prospects develop interests and excites me and how I have been (roughly) on the side of sabermetrics for so many years I seem so dismissive of the Braves who, on the surface anyway, appear to be rebuilding in a smart way even if the fact of their having to rebuild is depressing.
Fair questions. And I will acknowledge once again that, setting aside the reasons for the rebuild, I tend to think the Braves’ baseball operations folks have handled it well. I like most of the young talent they’ve gotten back and I’m happy that they’ve unloaded some bad contracts. I even understand -- and in my unguarded moments accept -- the reasons some of the players I hated to see go had to go. It was unlikely that the Braves would sign Jason Heyward to a long term deal and Shelby Miller was a good return. A team that sucks does not need an elite closer like Craig Kimbrel. While part of me still thinks Andrelton Simmons will have a year, eventually, where he puts up some good offensive numbers, he has regressed and I wouldn’t bet serious money on a some fluke great year at the plate ever happening. Simply put: I get it, in baseball terms, and at times even allow myself to appreciate it.
Yet I remain sour about it all. Not because I think Hart and Coppolella are doing a bad job. I’m sour on it because, as a fan, I have come to a place in my life where I simply want to be entertained, and the Braves are not at all entertaining.
For most fans this isn’t some kind of epiphany. Of course fans want to be entertained. For the past 15-20 years or so, however, there has been a strong, albeit narrow subculture of baseball fans who want . . . something else out of baseball as well. It’s a group of people -- myself very much included in this -- who, due to the Internet, usenet groups, Bill James annuals and such began to think of their fandom somewhat differently than other people. Rather than merely cheer for the players (and head-in-the-spreadsheet stereotypes notwithstanding, we still cheered for the players) the idea of being something of a shadow general manager became an essential part of fandom as well. We think about the team but think about team building even more at times. The forest, on occasion, is missed for the trees.
This phenomenon is completely understandable. With more information -- statistical information, salary information, access to advanced thinking by experts and the direct words of baseball decision makers -- at one’s disposal, one can think more deeply about the game. Rather than saying “we need to trade Shlabotnik, the guy is a bum,” we argue about what we can expect to get for Shlabotnik, whether his contract is favorable, whether the club is developing a good replacement for Shlabotnik and whether, given where the club is on the success cycle and how it’s doing on the revenue side, trading him now even makes sense. Even if he is a bum.
I don’t discount these topics at all. They’re highly interesting and, of course, form the basis of a great deal of the content of this blog. And even if you don’t write a baseball blog, a side benefit of looking at and caring about these aspects of the game is that when your team is a depressing stew of suck you still have things to talk about like prospects and the draft and rebuilding plans. That stuff can be really exciting!
I will and still do talk about all of those things when I’m writing about other teams, but in the past couple of years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to do so -- or at least to do so intelligently -- about the team I root for, the Atlanta Braves. At first I feared this was creeping burnout. That it was manifesting itself first with the team I love and that, eventually, I wouldn’t give a rip about such things for any team. That being a shadow GM or, at the very least, a quasi-informed fan cum analyst, was losing its appeal. That’s a pretty scary thought when it’s your job to write about baseball on a level that is, in theory anyway, supposed to be deeper than “Shlabotnik’s a bum!”
Upon reflection, though, I think it’s something less serious than that. In fact, it’s something rather encouraging: I’m enjoying baseball purely as a fan more now than I used to and I’m able, in ways I was unable to for a long time, to separate baseball I watch for enjoyment and baseball I think about for work or intelligent online chatter with likeminded baseball geeks. I can turn my Bill James-and-sabermetrics-informed brain off and just watch a game now in ways I couldn’t five or ten years ago. I can enjoy a bunt even if I know it’s tactically dumb. I can enjoy an expensive veteran even if I know his presence on the roster is handicapping the baseball ops folks. I can consume the game without wondering or worrying that I’m consuming it in ways that people at rec.sport.baseball would make fun of me for back in 1999 or something. In some ways my writing is just starting to reflect this -- I’ve done more longer, less analytical pieces about the milieu of the game in the past year or two than I used to -- but my temperament is feeling this pretty strongly.
This is wonderful if your team isn’t a depressing stew of suck, as it allows you to enjoy the subject of your work as leisure as well without feeling that you’ve shut off real life to too great a degree. I have my baseball work and then, hey! There’s a game on and I can just root and not analyze! And where’s that beer? If your team is a depressing stew of suck, however, and you’re no longer enthused at looking past the current entertainment value they provide in order to appreciate the team-building and business aspects of it, you really have no place to go. And that’s where I am with the Braves now.
Shlabotnik wasn’t a bum, but they traded him. Don’t bother me with talk about these kids they got in return. I’m off the clock.