November 2, 2012
David Wright, R.A. Dickey, and What Smart Fans Really Want
I have two distinct memories of April 29, 2009. One is that Jerry Manuel, then with the Mets, made the single worst managerial decision I’ve ever seen. The other is that what should have been a treat—a Mets fan then living in Boston treated to a rare nationally televised game in resplendent high definition—was somewhat soured by the commentary of then-ESPN analyst and former Mets GM Steve Phillips, whose aesthetically pleasing screen presence was overshadowed by the negative associations of his time with the team.
Late in the game, talk turned to Phillips’ tenure as Mets general manager (which lasted from 1997-2003, or as I like to call it, forever). Phillips said some interesting things about having to learn to run an office and handle a large-market press corps and added a few other nuggets to remind us that being a GM would be much easier if it really were all spreadsheets and video. What he said next, though—a little side comment you’ve surely heard from your favorite team’s general manager, star player, manager, or owner—has stuck with me ever since. This was over three years ago, so allow me to paraphrase somewhat:
Mets fans are the smartest fans in the game. They won’t tolerate a loser.
I don’t blame Phillips for saying this, nor do I think he meant anything by it other than to explain the pressures of his job. But when someone you don’t know throws you an unexpected compliment, you aren’t a cynic for wondering if perhaps you’re being taken advantage of. When the car salesman says, “Hey, you seem like a smart guy; you really know your stuff!” you roll your eyes. When a politician tells you you’re a great American who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and will no doubt make an informed decision on Election Day, you know he wants your vote.
Similarly, the above cliché, in no way unique to Phillips, comes off as so confoundingly disingenuous it makes me wonder what its originator meant in the first place. Whoever that originator is, though, should win an honorary MLB Executive of the Year award, because his turn of phrase has thrown a safety blanket over every shortsighted move a large-market team ever made. Sure, the trade didn’t work out, but we had to pull the trigger—these fans won’t tolerate a loser. Of course, the idea that any fan base is smarter than another is rubbish, but we accept that statement with a grain of salt as part of the de riguer politicking common to many public positions. What’s truly insulting is the idea that a fan base might not see the difference between a bad move and a move that weakens the team only in the short term. To then imply that it might somehow be smarter for not seeing this difference is all the more galling.
(While we’re here, what about the inverse of this statement? Are Royals and Pirates fans dumber for “tolerating” a loser for so long?)