April 13, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Hate List, Part I
Last month, when the NL West preview I wrote with Geoff Young got under the skin of a few readers who found our jibes directed at the Giants to be unfair, I made a half-in-jest promise on Twitter: "[A]nybody got a favorite team? I promise to hate on them unreasonably tomorrow. I will rain down bias." Persistent problems in locating myself along the space-time continuum have prevented that promise from being fulfilled, until now.
As I've found over the past 11 years, the higher you climb in the world of baseball writing, the more you have to walk the thin line between fandom and objectivity. Particularly so once you move into the press box, where no cheering is allowed; you're there to report and analyze, not to root or to fawn over players once you're exposed to them (literally) up close in the clubhouse. Which isn't to say that it's impossible to check your rooting interests at the door, particularly since a commitment to the rationality of sabermetrics lends itself to detachment from the sentimentality of fandom in favor of an objective stance. One can marvel at the sheer volume of thrills Derek Jeter has brought you as a fan, yet understand the mountain of evidence that suggests he's a lousy shortstop in the field, and one can root for the Dodgers to bury the Giants in the standings, yet rail against the ineptitude of both teams' managements if the occasion requires.
Which isn't to say accusations of bias don't pop up. Persist long enough in this racket and you'll be accused of prejudice against every team; a running joke for the likes of Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law is that they've collected such accusations from fans of all 30 clubs. As Kevin occasionally notes, he grew up a Mets fan, but his devotion to the art of prospecting and the necessity of networking with employees of every team has changed the lens through which he views the game. While I'm certainly close to completing the 30-team circuit, particularly thanks to my time writing the Prospectus Hit List, I haven't had to distance myself to quite that extent.
So what follows is the first installment of a series in which I share my beefs with every team, the grudges great and small that I bear when I kick back with a beer from the comfort of my couch or a ballpark seat. Adopt them as your own if the shoe fits; some of these are universal reasons for loathing, others just my personal baggage. All are offered in the spirit of fun; anyone who takes this stuff too seriously or presumes that my hyperbolic threats of hypothetical violence should be actualized is hereby sentenced to an eternity in a Hellevator conducting postgame interviews with Buck Showalter and Jim Tracy. Instead of going by leagues or divisions, I've reverted to the most objective arrangement available, the alphabet.
Arizona Diamondbacks: A 1998 expansion team, they began life wearing the most garish color combination in the game, a purple-and-teal-with-gold-accent nightmare ensemble. They quickly bought their way to respectability, making the playoffs in 1999 thanks to instantaneous free agency fixes, and snatching a world championship from the Yankees in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, at a time when national sentiment for once lay with the pinstripes in the aftermath of 9/11. Hell, the Diamondbacks beat the virtually unbeatable Mariano Rivera, the greatest reliever of all time and the guardian of all that is good, and made gasbag Curt Schilling a World Series co-MVP despite an inferior performance to that of Randy Johnson. Tony Womack, Tim McCarver talking about broken bats… and the purple and the teal. Seventy-grade bad memories at the very least.
Even so, nothing the Diamondbacks have done got under my skin in the way that Ryan Roberts' walk-off grand slam against the Dodgers did on the penultimate day of the 2011 regular season. The D-bags (of course) were pursuing home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Dodgers had nothing but self-respect on the line, and they gave their NL West rivals a run for their money. The two teams took a 1-1 game into the 10th inning before the Dodgers broke it open with five runs in the top half. Alas, after getting two quick outs in the bottom of the inning, Blake Hawksworth coughed up a run via two singles, a walk, and an error, and then Javy Guerra came on and walked in another run before serving up a game-ending granny to the game's leading neck-tattoo billboard. Rounding the bases, an exuberant Roberts performed an homage to Kirk Gibson's fist-pump upon hitting his game-winning pinch-homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series; Gibson, of course, is now the Arizona manager. For a Dodger fan, this was a flagrant knee to the groin of an all-time favorite memory, and every night since then, I have prayed for someone to erase Roberts' tattoos, preferably by removing his neck. P.S.: the Diamondbacks didn't win home field, and they lost Game Five of the Division Series to the Brewers in Milwaukee anyway.
Atlanta Braves: It's not hard to be uncomfortable with a team that still uses a Native American mascot in an age where many high schools and colleges have retired theirs. The Braves long ago put Chief Noc-A-Homa out to pasture; the last man to wear his costume was let go in 1986, though that was due to a salary dispute rather than a sudden urge to eliminate a negative stereotype. Yet crowds at the team's home games still persist with the "Tomahawk Chop," which originated at Florida State University and followed former Seminole Deion Sanders to Atlanta, where it was denounced by Native American groups just as the team kicked off its streak of 14 consecutive post-season appearances. Every year it grows more uncool.
In their dynasty days, the Braves helped drive me to root for the Yankees. Circa the 1996 World Series, the Time Warner-owned team pissed me off to no end because from elsewhere within their vertically-integrated monolith, they raised my cable bill exorbitantly; thus I had no choice but to root for the hometown nine. A decade later, Time Warner and Liberty Media pulled off the most disquietingly convoluted franchise sale in recent history via a complicated tax dodge. Liberty has since gone on to become the most faceless corporate ownership group in the game, more focused upon bean counting than on winning. After missing out of a playoff spot on the final day of last season, they did little to upgrade over the winter, particularly when it came to their unproductive outfield. Here's hoping that leaves them with fewer reasons to Chop going forward.
Baltimore Orioles: While maintaining sympathy for their downtrodden fans—poor Jon Bernhardt personifies their plight in surreal fashion on Twitter—it's not hard to loathe what owner Peter Angelos has done to the once-proud franchise that brought us the Oriole Way, Earl Weaver (whose Weaver on Strategy remains a sabermetric touchstone), Boog Powell, the Lowenstein/Roenicke platoon, Cal Ripken, that Billy Ripken baseball card, and even Camden Yards. From Rafael Palmeiro's steroid bust shortly after reaching 3,000 hits to the thousand-yard stare of Miguel Tejada to their ongoing futility of turning promising young pitching prospects into America's Most Hittable Hamburger-Armed Hurlers to Showalter's humorless approach to the game, they remain one of the bummest trips around. Authors of 14 straight losing seasons (and let's face it, 15 looks likely), they've threatened .500 at times, only to stagger home with some of the most lifeless finishes in recent memory. Adapted from a table I compiled for Baseball Prospectus 2009:
To hell with that sort of thing.
Boston Red Sox: The first year that I really followed baseball was 1978, and as my father had warned me about those undesirable Bronx Bombers, to the extent that I cared about the AL East race, my 8-year-old sympathies lay with the Red Sox, whose stars—Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice (yes), and especially Carl Yastrzemski—I quite liked, particularly in their bubblegum-scented cardboard god form. I watched the famous Game 163 play-in and saw Bucky Dent's three-run homer off Mike Torrez. I remember my friend, Martin, whose first-generation Swiss and German immigrant parents left him woefully without guidance as to the intricacies of baseball, asking if the fans in the outfield bleachers could give the ball back to negate Reggie Jackson's eighth-inning solo home run. That was that moment I discovered how to facepalm, an important rite of passage in any sports fan's life, and one I would spend hours perfecting over the ensuing decades.
I remained ambivalent about the Sox throughout childhood and adolescence, pulling for them in the 1986 playoffs and World Series, yet recoiling when I discovered the existential horror produced by their inability to close the deal. Which is to say that while I was frustrated enough by seeing Mookie Wilson's ground ball roll between Bill Buckner's legs, by the time Game Seven rolled around two days later, my heart had hardened to the Sox’ plight, and I understood that I was under no obligation to get sucked in.
Yet still it called to me. During my freshman year at Brown University in Providence, I attended my first major-league game at Fenway Park in May 1989, lucking into a Nolan Ryan-Roger Clemens pairing that alas did not produce the promised pitchers' duel. The city of Boston beckoned after graduation, as my girlfriend moved into a Brookline sublet, while I found an internship at Boston Rock and commuted from Providence. In addition to transcribing handwritten letters from an incarcerated G.G. Allin and filling my CD collection with promo copies of the latest indie rock heroes' wares, I somehow veered into a decade-and-a-half-long detour into the world of graphic design. I thought long and hard about moving up to the city, whose record stores and music scene I dug even as I largely ignored their baseball team and the sport in general, save for the postseason.
Then in the span of nine months, my beat-up 1986 Toyota Camry, which spent its 100,000-plus mile career in the Jaffe family as a magnet for violence, was stolen twice for its crappy aftermarket stereos, once from Kenmore Square, practically in the shadow of Fenway. I slammed the door on the thought of ever moving to Boston; at that point, I would have paid good money to see the city razed, its blue laws (arcane even to someone who grew up in Utah) and insufficient mass transit (which shut down shortly after midnight) swept into the dustbin of history. The car was recovered on the same day the insurance company offered me a settlement, but I was done with New England, understanding that I had no future in a city where I needed my own wheels. I sold the violated vehicle, netting about half of what I would have gotten had the insurance offer remained valid, moved to New York City's East Village, and took the 4 train to the Bronx. Soon enough, I lucked into a dynasty, and a team that had the upper hand in a blood rivalry… at least until that goddamned 2004, with Jason Varitek's mask, Schilling's bloody sock, Kevin Millar's frosted tips, and all of that idiocy. Still, je ne regrette rien.
Nobody else brings that particular array of baggage to their relationship with the Sox, but if you ever want to get worked up about past slights with regards to the franchise, a good place to start is Glenn Stout's Red Sox Century and Howard Bryant's Shut Out, which offer infuriating looks at the franchise's shameful history of racism during the Tom Yawkey era. Not only were the Sox the last team to integrate via Pumpsie Green in 1959—12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier—but they had first cracks at both Robinson and Willie Mays, and yet judged them not to be of major-league caliber, at least according Yawkey, general manager Eddie Collins, and manager Joe Cronin, all with long histories of intolerance. Their 86-year curse had less to do with Babe Ruth than with an organization that failed to adapt with the times, so a Nelson Muntzian, "Ha-ha!" to that.
Chicago Cubs: In writing this entry, I realized that I've spent three-and-a-half decades showering the Cubs with the opposite of love, which in the words of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, is not hate but indifference. Other than a there-but-for-the-(Mark)-Grace-of-etc. relief about not being saddled with rooting for franchise that hasn't won a World Series in 103 seasons, I've never been able to muster a whole lot of emotion one way or the other over the Cubs. Sure, Wrigley Field is crumbling, Dusty Baker may have broken Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Andre Dawson shouldn't have won that MVP award, and the team's decades-long inability to take a damn walk grates on anybody who understands sabermetrics, but… I've got nothing stronger than a cup of Old Style here. Which ain't a compliment.
To be continued…