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November 1, 2005
Cleaning Out the Front Office
Announced a failure to reach an agreement with General Manager Theo Epstein, making him a free agent executive. [10/31]
Fired General Manager Paul DePodesta. [10/29]
The revolution is dead, long live the revolution.... now wait a minute, what the hell is going on here, and since when? If you thought it was Turn Back the Clock Day at the Congress of Vienna, when Old Europe tried to pretend that revolutions hadn't happened, then you'll be even more impressed by this new trend in ignorance on the diamond. But in this, baseball is only imitating the days in which it is played.
In case you've missed the events of the last 72 hours, counterrevolution is the fashion, and as our own Will Carroll has put it, the weapon of choice is the White Sox. Skip however smug and frequently fact-free interpretations of why the White Sox won are--maybe it's just me, but "pitching, defense and the three-run home run" was Earl Weaver's formula, not Gene Mauch's. However much Ozzieball is a put-up job, it's manna from heaven for the industry's old guard, a generation of men grown jealous in recent years over the credit heaped upon the game's up-and-coming wave of general managers.
However unnecessary the "rivalry" between old-school baseball and the next generation of management techniques could and should have been, that struggle has taken on a life of its own. In this sort of contest, the scorecard is not one that counts whether DePo and Theo were both General Managers of teams in the postseason in 2004, or one that records that Epstein's Red Sox did something that Gorman's or Duquette's did not. Success is apparently not the measure of success, it is instead what the now-unfashionable smart kids were damned well supposed to deliver, and the moment that they didn't, they were there to be scapegoated.
These are not the same stories, this particular tale of two cities, but I would suggest that both team's decisions to make changes at the top reflect a battle over fundamentals, not just over the way the game is operated, but how it is supposed to be remembered, and more basically, who is supposed to be remembered. In Beantown, the capacity for jealousy is what poisoned what was supposed to be a model for success in contemporary front office management. Sadly, a team president seems unusually insecure over his place in history. But when America was treated to the bizarre spectacle of Tom Werner, the man who Huizenganated San Diego baseball, suddenly sharing in the credit for Boston's victory in 2004, we were reminded of the truth in the adage that victory has many fathers, while defeat is an orphan.
In Larry Lucchino, we have a man who long ago cultivated the legend that he's somehow solely responsible for Camden Yards, and devil take those who remember otherwise. Especially those who might recall his stated desire from the time, which was to tear down the warehouse that today is the signature feature of Baltimore's ballpark. Such a man is jealous of his place in history, coveting the past and the present as comfortably as he feigns disinterest in taking up Czar Bud's scepter the day after the car salesman steps down. In his need to portray himself as the father of victory, he has instead become like Cronus, so jealous of his prerogatives that he would rather consume the future than truly shepherd it. He came to Boston with a reputation for self-promotion, and this latest incident makes it plain that in Lucchino's world, he's the star of his own show.
As for events in L.A., whether you're a boomer on the beat or a frustrated fan of the boys in blue, it's an easy exercise to gleefully blame these newfangled ideas for this past season's failures. We've already had to endure a season's worth of uncomprehending screeching from the likes of Bill Plaschke, but Plaschke was merely the point man in a media crowd ready to blame failure on a willingness to take risks. Such a racket seemed to overlook that DePodesta's willingness to take risks is what helped the Dodgers win their division in 2004. For whatever reason, some people never got over trading Paul Lo Duca or Guillermo Mota, and were only too ready to blame DePo's willingness to upgrade his ballclub as some sort of shortcoming.
But in letting those complaints make him wonder about what was going on with his ballclub, and then subsequently taking too seriously the counsels of men like Tommy Lasorda, team owner Frank McCourt betrayed the quality that has been feared from the start as his stewardship's symbolic signature: weakness. But where before his shallow pockets were supposed to be the source of his problems, McCourt has added a more basic weakness of character. By gutlessly catering to the local media harpies, McCourt ignored the unhappy accidents that reduced the Dodgers to also-rans, and fudged his commitment to a sharp GM with the ability to build a winner. McCourt has instead chosen to kowtow to the memory of the Pastaman, but all he will get for his troubles is a mouthful of wet noodle. That, and the canny wisdom of the man who dumped Paul Konerko, and then tried to cover his tracks by making up a career-ending injury that, last I checked, never did end up keeping Konerko off of the diamond. And did I mention Pedro Martinez, a fact which has left Pedro bitter to this day?
The poisonous synergy between baseball's old guard and media figures only too ready to rely upon them for the peculiarly dopey "inside dope" is a significant component of this backlash. Both are motivated by careerism, and both stand to lose a lot to what will inevitably be characterized as the "Moneyball" generation of GMs. Again, baseball reflects the times in which we live, an age where the historical actors and the fourth estate interact in such a way that each simultaneously perverts and supports the purposes of the other. Journalists consider their jobs to be no more than the regurgitation of the information they're handed, either from every baseball club's increasingly polished media relations department, or courtesy of some unnamed inside source. It doesn't matter that such sourcing is transparent, whether it's Bob Nightengale's reliance on tales told by two owners named Jerry, or Dan Shaughnessy playing Howdy Doody to fulfill the desire of a Larry To Be Named Later to play "who's your daddy." The '90s showed us that careers involving hopping up and dancing on laps were lucrative; little did we know it was journalism that was the real growth industry on that score. Face it, whether you're a columnist or you're on the beat, once you've settled in, it's not only easy to settle for repeating what you're told, it spares you a lot of the lame daily exercise that goes with chasing down stale pre- and postgame quotes. Nobody thinks of affording themselves the opportunity to pursue actual storylines, like the events of a game (you know, the news event), or assessing a team's performance using facts. Such things simply are not done.
But however bad that content, or however transparent its craven quality, however standard-issue the bilge may be, that bilge possesses an addictive quality all its own to the subjects of such attention. Insulated within their profession, baseball management, on the field or off, is notoriously tin-eared. It's this that links these two decisions, whether it is Lucchino's jealousy of the credit given to his one-time protege, or McCourt's fear of being singled out for not being a good "baseball guy" for hiring one of those damned kids. In both cases, the elder man has betrayed his responsibilities to the future to hoard the worthless kudos of fickle friends. In each case, I would suggest they have made life easier for their division rivals in the long term. In the short term, whoever inherits the Dodgers has a great chance to look good for a year before being forced to rely on his own judgement. As for the immediate future for whoever goes to Boston, I think it's much less rosy: whoever goes in is going to have to have plenty of Blistex on hand to keep the Bossling happy, while having very little actual control over the franchise.
And what of the so-called revolution? It won't go away, in the same way that I'd argue that it never did in the first place. The game's mechanics just aren't that complicated once you've mastered the waiver rules and built up the contacts to be able to assemble a management and player development team that can run an entire organization. What the current disappearances of figures like Epstein and DePodesta from the stage represent is the object lesson that in the future it's going to be better to be the stathead in scout's clothing, someone who walks the old school walk, but whose actions will be an informed blend of Moneyball sensibilities and traditional player evaluation. The next-gen GM who can do that is the one who will slip under the radar long enough to build, win, and stay, no differently than the original artifact, Billy Beane, has in Oakland.