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May 9, 2012

Sobsequy

The Art of Losing

by Adam Sobsey

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The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
- Elizabeth Bishop

Down here on the Durham Bulls beat, I watched “America’s favorite  minor-league team,” as they call themselves, go 5-2 in their season-opening home stand. The needle was pushed all the way over right from the start, when the Bulls and Gwinnett Braves went to extras on opening night. In the top of the 12th inning, Cesar Ramos gave up a go-ahead solo homer to J. C. Boscan; but in the bottom of the 12th, as the game passed the four-hour mark, the Bulls rallied to win it when Gwinnett shortstop Greg Paiml misplayed a fairly easy grounder. The Bulls’ Will Rhymes, since called up to Tampa Bay in the wake of Evan Longoria’s hamstring injury, opportunistically raced all the way home from second base with the winning run.

I was instantly reminded of the 2009 Bulls team, which seemed to have a knack for comebacks. That team won the International League title and Triple National Championship game. Truth be told, they weren’t the most talented squad the Bulls have had in recent years (the 2010 juggernaut was loaded), but they had the spark, the spunk, the spitfire—whatever it is that champions have. Ask Rudy Tomjanovich, I guess.

One thing champions have is luck. The 2009 Bulls, for example, won the Triple-A National Championship game on an 11th-inning passed ball. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Bulls’ first game of 2012, won on an error, encouraged the comparison to the 2009 team. Luck may be the residue of design, as Branch Rickey put it, but it’s more often simply a field of chance, and with occasional outlying exceptions you need it to tilt your way if you’re going to win trophies.

The final game of the opening home stand was an 11:00 a.m. affair, under a bright blue sky and a cold, cutting wind that made players’ jerseys ripple. The Bulls beat the Charlotte Knights, 5-4, getting their fifth and final run on, yep, another error. The game ended in the middle of lunch, the Bulls were 5-2 and in first place in their division, it was my birthday, and my fiancée and I went to the courthouse and got our marriage license. I didn’t really feel like writing a game story—and wouldn’t you know it, I, too, was visited by good luck: the back end of my paper’s web site was down, and no one could post any new material until the next day.

All in all, a flying start here in Durham.

Then the Bulls played 14 straight road games in four cities and lost 13 of them, including the last 10 in a row.

And came back home, and lost three more. That tied the franchise record for consecutive losses (13).

When the Bulls finally beat the Indianapolis Indians to end the long, long slide, instead of the customary handshake or high-five afterwards, Bulls infielders Reid Brignac and Shawn O’Malley hugged. In the clubhouse, Jeff Salazar was singing along, plaintively, to keening country music. Fifteen minutes later, the music was a 20-year-old Michael Jackson song. Not an ordinary winning locker room.

The Bulls won three in a row over Indianapolis but wound up 5-5 in their second home stand of the season. They are now in last place in their division, eight games back of Gwinnett, the team they beat three out of four times to start the season just a month ago.

It’s hard to explain to people who don’t follow the Bulls—which is just about everyone in America, “favorite minor-league team” or no—how weird this is. The Bulls have won their division and made the playoffs for five straight seasons, ever since manager Charlie Montoyo arrived from Double-A Montgomery. They’ve finished above .500 in 12 of their 14 seasons as a Tampa Bay affiliate. Fans are so used to the Bulls winning that the town has basically forgotten what a losing team is like.

And so have I, more or less. The Bulls of my youth weren’t great, but even in two of the five seasons during which I followed them, they went to the Carolina League Championship series. The local college basketball teams here are North Carolina and Duke, two of the best programs in history. I moved to New York City in 1993, just as the Yankees woke from years of dormancy to build their late-‘90s dynasty. And then I started covering the Bulls, who have simply kept winning almost every single year.

Until April 2012—and perhaps beyond. The prognosis not good for this year’s Bulls, who seem to have (to borrow from Elizabeth Bishop) “the intent to be lost.” The team isn’t likely to produce many runs, sporting a league-worst slugging percentage and fewest extra-base hits. They are almost comically overstocked with left-handed hitters: with Brandon Guyer’s callup to Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, nine of the Bulls’ 11 position players are lefties. Almost all of them have struggled against same-siders (.206 AVG., .562 OPS).

One of the guys they were counting to provide some pop (and right-handedness), shortstop Tim Beckham—the no. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft—was just suspended 50 games for testing positive for a recreational drug. Another righty, catcher Nevin Ashley, is out for a month or more with a broken hand. His replacement, longtime org soldier Craig Albernaz, is probably not to going to get within cannonball distance of the Mendoza Line. The team’s leading hitter, Leslie Anderson, is extremely unlikely to maintain his current .347 average (his .410 BABIP is fourth in the league).

Juan Miranda, who “was one of the least productive first basemen to get 200 plate appearances last season,” according to the BP Annual, was acquired as a minor-league free agent to hit Triple-A home runs and stand near first base. So far, he has been a virtual ghost, hitting .183/.256/.302, still looking for his first homer of the year, and is the proud owner of six errors through just 19 games at first base.

But that’s all right, because the Bulls once again have all those great Tampa Bay Rays pitching prospects. Right? Well, Alex Cobb has looked generally very good so far this season, but he’s the only starter about whom you can say that.  Top pitching prospect Chris Archer has looked better recently, but he has allowed 24 walks in 36 innings and has a 5.50 ERA. His rotation wingman Alex Torres has been so bad—he walked 21 batters in 18 1/3 innings over his first five starts—that the Rays have already moved him to the bullpen, perhaps ending his career as a starting pitcher. (In his first two relief appearances, Torres has been worse, issuing seven more walks in just four innings.) Relievers Brandon Gomes and Cesar Ramos are better than Triple-A and will probably spend the season waving to each other in midair as their planes cross paths on the Durham-Tampa shuttle, but beyond them, the options are iffy.

The Bulls are largely the victims of Tampa Bay’s success. When the (Devil) Rays were terrible, they of course had all those high draft picks, many of whom are with the big-league club now. But the drafts haven’t been as fruitful since the Rays became a winning franchise. The top prospect among position players currently with the Bulls is Guyer, who isn’t in the same class as Durham outfield predecessors like Desmond Jennings, B. J. Upton, and Carl Crawford—and who wasn’t originally drafted by the Rays. He, along with Archer, came over in the Matt Garza deal.

I’ve indulged a little more what-ails-‘em here than is perhaps necessary in order to try to get at what it must be like to follow a team that is bad all the time. Pirates fans, A’s fans (since 2007). What exactly do you root for? You surely know your team won’t win. So are you just tracking individual players, like a fantasy league in which all of your players happen to wear the same uniform? Or are you merely enjoying what few successes the team stumbles over in the course of yet another miserable season? Maybe you’re fantasizing about what could be, if only you had some other team’s G.M., hadn’t traded away Johnny Allstar and signed Yuniesky Pierre? Maybe you’re squinting at the farm system and seeing the saplings of a future pennant-winner, only to conclude that they’ll be gone before they can take root.

After the Bulls lost their 16th of 17 games, the team I really started thinking about was the Kansas City Royals. More specifically, I started thinking about Rany Jazayerli and Rob Neyer, whose “Rob and Rany on the Royals” blog was a regular web destination of mine for years. These two writers, among the very best in the business, were regularly spilling thousands of words on their terrible, terrible team. They seemed to spend more (and better-focused) time and energy trying to put together a successful club (in theory) than the Royals front office did in practice. It was both touching and bemusing to observe. Would they not, at some point, simply give up, no matter their historical association with the franchise? The Royals had been run, it seemed, completely into the ground.

Rob and Rany went out of business in 2008. This was not, I suspect, because they stopped caring about the Royals but because other, bigger things were calling. (Presumably, some readers know exactly why; feel free to enlighten us.) Yet Jazayerli still soldiers on without Neyer, writing the equivalent of “Taps” almost every day for the team that has lost more baseball games in the last 25 years than any other.

I thought of the Royals not only because of Rob and Rany. I thought, too, of Joe Posnanski, another Royals devotee who happens also to be one of the best baseball writers alive. I daresay the Royals have been blessed with sportswriting of far higher quality than any of the teams they’ve put on the field over the last 10 years. (Twenty. Twenty-five.) Perhaps great writers have more material to work with when the substance is failure. In his “goodbye” column about (and to) the Royals—he moved away from Kansas City last year—Posnanski put it this way:

I tend to sympathize with the loser. I always felt closer to Charlie Brown than Bill Russell... The Royals have been fun to write about, they've been frustrating to write about, they've been sad to write about, they've been ridiculous to write about. There's not much more you can ask for as a writer.

More immediately, I thought of the Royals because they, like the Durham Bulls, recently had a long losing streak over their own, dropping 10 in a row. (That’s nothing: in 2005, they had a 19-game losing streak.) This particular 10-gamer had Rany Jazayerli apoplectic. It’s worth quoting 10 percent of Jazayerli’s recent 3,320-word post:

Nearly six years after Dayton Moore was hired, in a year when the Royals were themselves so certain that they were going to take a step forward that they boldly unveiled the “OUR TIME” motto, the team has dumped a steaming pile of crap on the curb. Ten straight losses, and even worse, nine of them have come at home. The Royals have the worst record in baseball. Playoff dreams have been extinguished, and it’s still April.

And I’ll confess: I’m this close to losing it.

It’s one thing to play poorly. We’re used to that; you might say we’ve been inoculated against it. The losing streak shines a spotlight on the team’s incompetence, but the reality is that in 15 games, the Royals have been outscored by 21 runs. That’s not the worst run differential in baseball, and it’s not the run differential of a 3-12 team. The Royals should be 5-10 right now, which is to say they’ve played badly, but not so bad that you can’t chalk it up to a mediocre team being in a collective slump. I predicted the Royals to go .500, and .500 teams go 5-10 all the time. They even go 3-12 sometimes.

It’s not the losing streak that makes me want to snap. It’s that the Royals apparently have learned nothing from an entire generation of losing. For 25 years, the Royals have been the most anti-sabermetric team in all of baseball – while the Godfather of sabermetrics lived down the road in Lawrence – and over the last 25 years the Royals have the most losses in the major leagues.

From the art of losing to the art of losing it. But really, why should Jazayerli lose it now? “It” could have been lost so many times, during any number of Royals losing streaks, under any number of bumbling front offices. It could have been lost over bad managerial choices, over any number of great players the Royals couldn’t or wouldn’t pay to keep around. It’s tempting to conclude that Jazayerli has been “this close to losing it” many, many times, but never will—because after all, writers like habitualness, and the Royals have mastered the habitual art of losing. They have that “intent to be lost.” It seems, indeed, like losing is what they set out to do every year.

And they are wildly successful at failing. “Our time,” went the club’s motto a few years ago, when the Royals marketing folks decided their team was on the verge of positive change. But this is “our time,” in Royalspeak: losing. Week to week, year to year.

Baseball is, famously, a game of failure. Just the other day, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo was talking about how hard it is to hit. He said it just like this, after I asked him why his players weren’t hitting even though they knew they needed to make an adjustment, especially against left-handers: “Because hitting is hard,” he nearly pleaded, like a high-schooler failing calculus. And then Montoyo reiterated the often heard line about how going 3-for-10 your whole big-league career makes you a Hall of Famer.

And that is the wonderful irony of losing baseball games. If it’s a game of failure, it would seem like everyone would be losing, all the time. Yet one team has to win, and somehow does, every game. One team, to borrow from Samuel Beckett, fails better than the other. Stay in the game long enough, and you will fail 13 times in a row. Charlie Montoyo was, like Elizabeth Bishop, equable about the losing. For him, it was no disaster.

And it is no disaster for Rany Jazayerli and Joe Posnanski. It is no disaster for Tim Williams, proprietor of Pirates Prospects, who came all the way down from Pennsylvania to Durham in late April to watch the Bucs’ Triple-A affiliate take on the Bulls and to dream big dreams for Starling Marte and Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson—who, wouldn’t you know it, combined with two relievers to no-hit the Bulls on April 29, one of many, many ways the Bulls came up with to lose games for two weeks straight. Still, losing generates eternal hope for better days.

So what about you, you who are attached to bad teams? What gets you out of bed and to the message boards and TV broadcasts every day? What is it like to cheer for a loser? To write about a loser? How do you do it? What, in other words, is the art of losing? I’m afraid that this year, we in Durham might really need to know.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

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