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May 28, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Shocked, Shocked!

by Steven Goldman

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"A man he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."
-Paul Simon, "The Boxer"

We need a Claude Rains Award in baseball. Now, Claude Rains wasn't a baseball player. He was an actor, and a very good one. As best as I can tell, he never played in a baseball movie, not surprising given that he didn't really fit the type: he was an Englishman with precise diction who tended to play troubled urbane types like the incest-practicing Doctor Tower of Kings Row or the corrupt Senator Paine of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For a change of pace he would play a snide villain in a costume piece, such as Prince John in the Errol Flynn vehicle, The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Leo Durocher Story just wasn't in his bag of tricks.

Despite Rains' total non-interaction with the game, we need his award because of one particular line he spoke in a particularly famous movie, one of the great weasel lines in this great weasel world. In Casablanca, Rains plays a corrupt French official, Captain Renault. Renault works for the Vichy government, and thus by extension for the Nazis. When the Germans order Renault to close Rick's (Humphrey Bogart's) café with its open-secret back-room casino, the following exchange takes place:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[A croupier hands Renault a pile of money.]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault [sotto voce]: Oh, thank you very much.

On Saturday, Seattle Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi was shocked, shocked to find losing going on in his ballclub, giving rise to his entry in this year's Claude Rains shift-the-blame derby. As reported by Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, on May 24, Bavasi observed:

This is not a field managerial issue. John [McLaren] is doing a good job. Our performance is not related to his work. It's purely related to player performance and underperformance and underachievement. Nobody had the nerve to pick us less than second place in our division. We were picked anything from first to second to wild card. You name it. The expectations were a heck of a lot higher than this, based on any analysts' evaluation of out players' individual track records and their age. Their ages are such that they're not all young guys that they're inexperienced. But they're not too old to believe that they would backslide. So, I think those expectations are realistic. They were and they are.

Lacking the gravity of world events, this is not quite up there with some of the best Condoleezza Rice quotes. (My favorites include, "No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon… into the World Trade Center, using planes as missiles" to the 9/11 Commission, and "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing" after the Palestinian elections). But it's of the same responsibility-evading ilk: nobody could have seen this coming, claiming, "see, even the experts had this ballclub pegged wrong." That is, the experts were right, but they were wrong. Let's blame the players.

The easiest response to this is yet another quote, this one from these very (virtual) pages:

"Prediction for the 2008 Mariners: 76-86, third place."-PECOTA, April 24, 2008

You can find a lot more like this from other pundits and projection systems, with the caveat that those that picked the Mariners to finish second in the West often did so by default, because in March the Angels seemed the only solid team in the division. The A's were badly underestimated by most, and so, to a lesser extent, were the Rangers. If the M's were going to finish second, it was largely because a team has to finish there. Their weak offense and commitment to players like Jose Lopez and Jose Vidro, who have the nigh-magical ability to hit without being productive (Lopez's current .301 average is one of this season's more empty-calorie confections) precluded grander expectations, regardless of how strong their starting rotation looked on paper. Run prevention is only half the game, and the Mariners weren't going to have the other half under any circumstances.

Bavasi knew this at the outset, or he should have, based on a 2007 offense that was average at best, and likely to decline based on age and the off-season defection Jose Guillen. If he didn't know it, he was in an advanced state of denial, a dangerous mental state for any decision-maker. We know that teams improve or decline from year to year for reasons that can be articulated. Specifically, something in the runs/runs allowed ratio changes. Last year, the Mariners went 88-74, but with a Pythagenport record of only 79-83 due to a negative balance of runs scored and runs allowed-essentially, management should have viewed last year's team as having had a losing record. While acquiring Erik Bedard promised to help rectify the problem from the run prevention side of the ledger, the offense still involved a great deal of, to borrow a Kahrlism, wishcasting. While Ichiro Suzuki, Raul Ibanez, and Adrian Beltre seemed reasonable bets to continue to produce in solid but unspectacular ways, the rest of the lineup excelled in not reaching base. Whatever the defensive merits of Kenji Johjima, Jose Lopez, and Yuniesky Betancourt, none of them was willing to take ball four. Richie Sexson lacked both ball four and defensive merit, and last season seemed to be rehearsing for a new one-man show, This is How Dave Kingman Would Have Hit at 55. For the Mariners to score a reasonable amount of runs on wish to base their hopes, a monumental comeback would be required from Sexson, and one from Brad Wilkerson-signed to replace Guillen in another bit of optimism-as well. Finally, the team would have to survive its spring training decision to demote Jeff Clement and continue to use confirmed non-slugger Jose Vidro at DH, a choice they still can't seem to work up the nerve and commit to.

It is very rare for a general manager to say, "I built this mess. Blame me." In fact, it is nigh-impossible to think of an example of a general manager taking that level of responsibility. In the 1940s, Connie Mack, who was the owner-general manager-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had a little Opening Day ritual in which he would hype the team, one which had not won a pennant after 1931, and rarely made even a pretense of contending in other years. The old man was a beloved local character, kind of a racist cheapskate baseball version of San Francisco'sEmperor Norton I, and he had to be allowed to hype his product, so each spring the microphones were dutifully erected, the reporters convened, and Mack would make his pronouncement: "I believe that the Phil-a-del-phia Ath-a-let-ics"-Mack, with his New England inflections, could stretch the name of his team out to roughly 49 syllables-"will win the American League pennant this year." Cue cheers, applause, whistles, and not a little laughter, because this was delivered with a grin and wink tantamount to a pervert's leer. Everyone knew that Mack knew that the A's had no chance, and he knew that they knew. Perhaps they didn't realize that by this time he was actively rooting for a fast start and a slow finish so as to pump up mid-season sales and cool off-season salary negotiations-that might have broken the illusion of everyone being in on the joke together.

In the end the joke was on Mack, as not everyone was in on the joke. As the A's settled into the sediment at the bottom of the league like some flanneled flounder, the Phillies rose (however temporarily). Fans switched their affiliations, attendance flatlined, and Mack retired. His clueless sons weren't nearly as endearing, and the club was enserfed to the cares of a Yankees co-conspirator and moved to Kansas City. Look at my works ye mighty, Mack said to the world, and chuckle. He lived to see his life's work erased from the surface of the earth.

Still, Mack's transparently bogus predictions are about as close as we've come to a team-builder stating the obvious. It's far easier to blame the players, as Bavasi did-damn, you, Brad Wilkerson!-or to let the manager twist in the wind, as Omar Minaya and Mets ownership are now doing. As Joe Sheehan wrote on Tuesday, "Willie Randolph is managing an aging, injury-prone roster that he did not assemble." Randolph doesn't run the barren farm system, and he didn't make the trades that helped strip it bare. For that matter, he didn't deal Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon either, but he makes for a convenient target because he's not Mr. Personality and recently came off sounding a bit paranoid about his home TV network in an interview. None of which is to say that he's a great manager; as Sheehan detailed in the above-referenced column, Randolph has some obvious, persistent weaknesses (and Joe got through the whole thing without mentioning Guillermo Mota, which deserves its own award for tact). We've seen time and time again that managers with obvious, persistent weaknesses can win if they don't have to think too much-Bob Brenly has a ring, after all. It's all in the roster.

Some general managers will review bad moves years after the fact. In his as-told-to autobiography, Yankees general manager Ed Barrow recalled the expensive signings of Jimmie Reese and Lyn Lary out of the Pacific Coast League as "The most disappointing deal I ever made. In fact, I've got to be ashamed of it." His book came out over 20 years later. You almost never hear a GM do so in anything like real time, even when it's as painfully obvious as, "Carl Pavano, what a freakin' bad idea. I just completely missed that. Excuse me, please." General manager jobs are rare. Men willing to take responsibility for their mistakes frankly, openly, and publicly are even rarer still.

That's why we need a Claude Rains award. Practiced hypocrisy needs some kind of recognition. For some in positions of power, it comprises their most accomplished, and only, skill.

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

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