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April 30, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Hate List, Part II

by Jay Jaffe

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Stick around long enough in the business of covering baseball and you're bound to hear accusations of bias, particularly when you bring a little extra vitriol to an analysis of somebody else's favorite team. Let's face it: Even the homeliest of franchises is somebody's favorite team, and the homelier they are, the higher the chance that its fan base gets a wee bit sensitive when folks come a-piling on. After getting under a few more skins than usual, I started this project a few weeks ago as a way of making light of the grudges, great and small, that I bear against every team—including the ones for whom I cheer when I'm kicking back on the couch or at the ballpark. Welcome back to the Hate List, where I've got something against your team.

I'm working alphabetically by franchise, so pardon me if the vitriol can't match that of Arizona or Boston. Don't take it too seriously, lest I sentence you to an eternity of watching Tony La Russa changing pitchers.

Chicago White Sox: The whimsy of the Bill Veeck eras—1959-1961 with its exploding scoreboard, 1975-1981 with the shorts, and the owner setting up shop in a hotel lobby—is offset by two of the more odious owners in baseball history. Charles Comiskey may have been a key figure in the formation of the American League, but his miserly ways—he underpaid his players, skimped on meal money, ordered them benched to prevent them from reaching bonuses, and allegedly billed them for laundering their uniforms—were his undoing. By most accounts, the reason eight of his players conspired to throw the 1919 World Series was to get back at his stinginess, and the evidence suggests that he knew of the fix and did as much to cover it up as anybody. Yet he's in the Hall of Fame.

Current owner Jerry Reinsdorf is no Comiskey, but he's almost certainly the game's most powerful owner, and like Comiskey, quite the miser. His hardline stance against the players' union and rising salaries placed him in the thick of baseball's mid-‘80s collusion scandal, the 1992 overthrow of commissioner Fay Vincent and subsequent installation of crony Bud Selig, and the 1994-1995 strike. That's grating enough as it is, but on an even more personal note, beyond the diamond he also owns the Chicago Bulls. Amid their second dynasty, the Bulls downed the Utah Jazz (my home state's only major league sports team) in the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons, crushing the last best hope the franchise had of winning it all during the John Stockton-Karl Malone era. No, Reinsdorf didn't hit the winning shot in the 1998 Finals, but he even made Michael Jordan beg for the opportunity to keep the championship-caliber team together for a chance to repeat their three-peat. When an owner tries to be bigger than the game's biggest star, that's downright distasteful, and if it motivated Jordan to take it out on the Jazz, so much more my loathing.

But whatever. The Sox spent a good portion of the past decade as one of the majors' top soap operas, alternately entertaining and annoying thanks to the ongoing friction between Reinsdorf, general manager Kenny Williams, and manager Ozzie Guillen. It all came to an end last fall, when Reinsdorf engineered Ozzie's trade to the Marlins, and while he's already found new ways to get into trouble in South Florida, the game could certainly have done without that particular international incident. So: boo.

Cincinnati Reds: Such is my ire at the Reds that I forgot to write about them until after this article was sent to press. I'll get those forgettable chumps next time. 

Cleveland Indians: I've long had a soft spot for the Cleveland ballclub which, after sustaining decades of mediocrity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, emerged as one of the AL's powerhouses in the mid- to late ‘90s thanks to a fearsome offense that at times featured Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, David Justice, Roberto Alomar, and more. For want of just a bit more pitching—a closer just a stitch better than Jose Mesa—they might have broken what's now a 63-year streak without a world championship.

Even so, the nickname and the mascot have got to go. The Braves and their "Tomahawk Chop" are bad enough, but the Indians' Chief Wahoo is, as this recent article notes, the only pro sports logo in the Western world that caricatures a race of people. You'd think a franchise that stands as the first in the AL to integrate—Larry Doby debuted less than three months after Jackie Robinson—would manage more sensitivity than to plaster what's effectively a Jim Crow-era "red Sambo" on their uniforms, but noooo. If a new ownership group unveiled Chief Wahoo today, they'd be run out of town on a rail for their insensitivity, and yet it survives without being seriously challenged. Perhaps the team's championship drought will survive as well, so long as it's around.

Colorado Rockies: Unless you're the Minnesota Vikings playing on the frozen tundra while John Facenda narrates your march to yet another losing Super Bowl, purple isn't the most dignified color for a sports team, so it's been hard to get used to having the Rockies around. Particularly so given that they play half their games in a mile-high stadium where the thin air distorts the physics of the game to the point of producing 30 percent more runs than anywhere else. The relationship isn't linear; baseball isn't anywhere near 30 percent more fun with 30 percent more runs. When a game gets out of hand at Coors Field, the 19th run looks numbingly like the 18th run, and watching becomes a painful test of endurance, like a three-cavity day at the dentist.

A good portion of my own resentment for the Rockies goes beyond the uniforms and the high scores, centering squarely on manager Jim Tracy. At the turn of the millennium, Tracy was an up-and-coming skipper with the Dodgers; in his fourth year (2004), he piloted the team to a 93-69 record and an NL West flag. Somewhere along the way, our own Nate Silver declared him the game's best manager, and one can envision Tracy taking that clip and reading it to himself in the mirror until he actually believed it. Things went south for the Dodgers and Tracy in 2005; the manager shirked his share of responsibility for the 71-91 season while doing his part to throw general manager Paul DePodesta under the bus.

After getting his just deserts for that—two years of managing the Pirates—Tracy sat on the sidelines for a season. Hired as a bench coach by the Rockies prior to 2009, he re-emerged as a manager when he took over for the fired Clint Hurdle in midseason, guiding the team to a wild-card berth and earning Manager of the Year honors for his abbreviated patch of work. Since then, the Rockies have drastically underachieved on his watch despite fielding some of the best young talent in the division: Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Chris Iannetta, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jhoulys Chacin. And it's not just that they've underachieved, which can happen due to injuries or a supposed ace like Jimenez going south, but that they've done so in part because of Tracy's mishandling of his bullpen—consistently failing to get his best relievers into high-leverage spots, for example—and his lineup while remaining so impressed by his own intellect. As somebody rooting for a different NL West team, particularly one where he's worn out his welcome, it's a joy, but as somebody rooting for smarter baseball, not so much.

Detroit Tigers: The Tigers are another team for whom I can't muster a whole lot of ill will; if it's the franchise of Ty Cobb, it's also the one of Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton, Ernie Harwell, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker—not to mention the late, great ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, to which I made a pilgrimage in September 1999, just before it closed. I suppose it's as good a place as any to set my baggage regarding the whole Jack Morris Hall of Fame business.

Houston Astros: The rainbow uniforms of the ‘70s were always more kitschy than anything else, and thanks to sabermetrics, I've come to appreciate how underrated the best players who toiled on the godforsaken artificial turf of the Astrodome were in their heydays, players like Jimmy Wynn, Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz, and, later, Jeff Bagwell. Even so, the 1980 Astros in particular gave me a kick in the teeth as a young fan, because just when they were busy rolling over and dying—losing the last three games of the regular season to the Dodgers to force a Game 163 play-in—they woke up and kicked the ass of free-agent flop Dave Goltz (4.31 ERA, -0.6 WARP), who started instead of 19-year-old rookie Fernando Valenzuela. The latter's time would come a year later, when after leading the charge out of the gate, he'd help the Dodgers past the Astros in the split season-driven Division Series en route to their first world championship since 1965. Revenge is some nasty rainbow jello dish served cold. 

The Astrodome and the rainbow unis are long gone, and after years as one of the NL's powerhouses, the Astros have fallen upon hard times by forestalling a rebuilding effort for years while owner Drayton McLane tried to sell the club. When he did, he found a rather unsavory buyer in Jim Crane, whose various business misdeeds kept colleague Maury Brown plenty busy in researching a scathing article for Forbes.com last year. As one wag summarized in this year's annual: 

…back in 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a 104-page report detailing the practices of Crane's Eagle USA Airfreight company, which included paying female and minority employees less than white males doing similar work, failing to investigate employee allegations of sexual harassment, and destroying evidence pertaining to the investigation. In 2000, the Houston Chronicle reported that Crane told his subordinates not to hire blacks because "once you hire blacks, you can never fire them," and used various means of discouraging blacks and women from applying for jobs. The company's General Counsel corroborated those claims and was sued for violating attorney-client privilege. Ultimately, Eagle paid a $9 million settlement to plaintiffs for its discriminatory practices. Furthermore, another one of Crane's companies, Eagle Global Logistics, was sued four times by the Department of Justice over allegations of war profiteering, paying around $10 million in fines and civil suit settlements from 2006 to 2008.

Makes George Steinbrenner seem kind of quaint, no? To be fair, the Crane-led Astros have already shown themselves to be a progressive organization as far as baseball decision-making goes, starting with their hiring of the sabermetrically-savvy Jeff Luhnow as general manager. Our own Mike Fast, who turned the industry on its ear with landmark studies of catcher defense and batted-ball quality of contact, was quickly snapped up by the front office. I can root against a smart baseball team, but I can't hate on one with quite the same fervor as a stupid one. Which brings us to…

Kansas City Royals: Led by future Hall of Famer George Brett, slick-fielding Frank White, and tougher-than-nails Hal McRae, the Royals of my youth were a juggernaut, making the playoffs seven times in a 10-year span from 1976-1985 and capping it with a world championship, albeit one forever linked to Don Denkinger's blown call in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. Since then, the franchise has fallen on the hardest of times, to the point where they've fielded just one winning team in the past 17 years, losing 90 or more games 11 times, and 100 or more four times.

It would be easy to simply pity the Royals, but I can't pity a franchise that has failed to take advantage of having smart people like Bill James and Rob Neyer in their backyard, yet failed so miserably to take advantage of that kind of brainpower. What kind of team rips the guts out of their smartest and most passionate fans, such as Rany Jazayerli? Supremely talented though their farm system may be after decades of high draft picks, what kind of team employs a manager who has not only anointed Yuniesky Betancourt a starter, but batted him leadoff on multiple occasions despite there being no evidence of a hostage situation? When does Angel Berroa get his turn?

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

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