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July 24, 2003

Breaking Balls

Courtesy Lies

by Derek Zumsteg

You've heard it all before: "We're comfortable with our team," "We're going to go to battle with what we have," or the best one of 'em all, "We don't want to tamper with success."

No matter how you slice it, though, each one of those phrases translates into the same thing: "Yes, we know we've got some gaping holes, but we don't want to make a trade because we're cheap, or we don't think we'll make it to the playoffs anyway."

Here's a better lie I'd like to see GMs use because it's at least hopeful: "We're always looking to improve our club, and if we find the right opportunity, we'll certainly take it." Then fans can improve the lies to themselves: the price was too high, Player X wasn't a good fit in the clubhouse...whatever. It's better to think your team's GM is smiling because he's happy than because he has the IQ of a bath mat.

The best lies, though, don't require a GM to actually do anything, or even to try to make a deal. They're the "I don't have time for a serious relationship right now and so staying together's not fair to either of us" lies. You may have heard some of these ones before:

"Getting back this player from injury is like making a big trade."

And losing that fragile player to injury is like making a bad trade. This one at least makes some sense: if you've had a star player on the DL with something simple--aggravated cuticle abrasion, for instance--that's easy to heal from and not prone to recurrence. The player returns, the lineup improves.

If a team's playing .500 ball at the halfway mark and in heated competition with others, though, and that injury's exposed a total lack of organizational depth in the middle infield, getting that player back does nothing to conceal the fact that you're still screwed if either of two players goes down with an injury.

Further still, say a team had planned on winning 90 games and their division, and their star player--worth eight wins in the standings--went down with flu-like symptoms for a couple of months, forcing them to patch the lineup with someone much worse, and at the mid-point they've only won 40 games. Other teams in their division likely picked up some of the games the team dropped, and now instead of looking at finishing first with 90 wins, the team has two teams just ahead of them. Getting the star player back might get them to 44 wins in the second half--the star player's not going to be twice as astonishing because he was injured for 40 games. So to reach 90 wins, the team's got to find six more wins in 81 games, and that's not easy.

"We're already over our payroll budget."

And your fans are over their frustration allocation. Payroll budgets are numbers spun from thin air, along with the amount of money a team loses. They're based on things like attendance, merchandise sales, and for teams that didn't expect to compete, they're likely running way ahead of projections, too. The team doesn't turn into a pumpkin if they pick up half of a $7 million salary and that puts them at $81.5 million instead of just under $78 million.

There is no team besides the Expos in major league baseball that could not go out and find the money to add another player. If Alex Rodriguez and Tom Hicks decided their great experiment was over and Rodriguez should be traded to a contender, there's no contending team that couldn't sign him if they really wanted to. Payroll is a convenient excuse that also reminds fans of how overpaid players are (wink, wink).

"We want to field a competitive team now and in the future."

This one's pretty common--but at least it's one that I can bite on. Many deadline trades turn out to be long-term dogs. Trading a guy with the potential to play a good third baseman for the next four or five years in exchange for a second lefty doesn't make any sense.

And yet, say you've got an aging crew of increasingly injury-prone players. Maybe a couple key pieces have said they're absolutely going to retire after this year, and if they don't, you might not be able to re-sign them anyway. The farm system has a couple of guys in it with potential, but the team's going to lose a lot of games with them either way.

Swing for the fences, I say. If there's one run left in a team and the team's stuck between first-round dropout and World Series contender, blow the doors off. Teams go decades without winning a championship. Years from now, are Mariners fans going to remember that they played over .500 for a couple years and look at that with more pride than Angels fans will think back to a World Series title? No, they won't. Trust me on this.

You can tell I'm big on the courtesy lies, the at-least-sort-of-plausible lie. When I know a team's shopping a player and they come out and say, "We absolutely have not talked to any team about that player," I sigh and roll my eyes. I understand teams are reluctant to make moves and take risks, and that sometimes there are sensitive negotiations and egos involved with trade talks. But as a fan, all I want is the courtesy lie. They should either admit they've been playing ping-pong all the time and not working the phones, or give us a good lie to believe in. "We were all doing volunteer work at the orphanage, lost track of time, and totally forgot to call Littlefield back on Giles" just doesn't cut it in my book.

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2003-07-24 - Breaking Balls: Courtesy Lies
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