There’s nothing reassuring about the offseason. Despite the countdown clock trending toward zero on Pitchers and Catchers Report Day, the hot stove season is fraught with tension that is diametrically opposed to the fun and good tension of the actual season. Will my team trade its only fun player? Will they get a good return? Will I have to be Mad Online for a few days about 20-year-olds who may or may not ever play in the majors? Will there even be baseball or will a labor conflict rob me of my sweet, sweet reward (update: we’re okay on this score at least)?
While the hot stove can be fun and I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for refreshing Twitter every three seconds to see if your team landed a top free agent. But the agita and heartbreak the hot stove season provides is not exactly constructive: it’s like rooting for the stock market without even the pittance of a payout. And so we’re left to try to find substantive material to draw from the detritus of minor-league free agent signings, prospect lists, and days-long arguments over the wisdom of signing Zach Duke or whoever else to a three-year deal.
This is of course why and where narratives come in. Narratives, for anyone who hasn’t followed sports for more than three minutes, are these grand arcs that every team seemingly is forced into occupying by the writers who cover them, whether nationally, locally, or in-between.
For example: is your team a championship contender? Are they a sleeper team? Does your management get it? Does your management even know what IT is? How many stats are you using? Are you using enough? When do your good players get to come up to the majors? When are your good players going to leave your team for the Red Sox? Are the Yankees back? Does baseball need the Yankees to be back? Is tanking un-American? Are YOU un-American? What does Donald Trump mean for baseball? Is baseball the anti-Trump? What would the 30 teams’ logos look like as Donald Trump?
You get the idea. We write these overarching ideas as a media base for a fairly mundane reason: there’s simply nothing much to say during the offseason. You’ll notice this if you watch for how many Yoenis Cespedes reaction pieces came out within hours of him signing back with the Mets the other day. People are starved for real, honest-to-god baseball content, and the instant any move, trade, or injury happens, content bursts from our collective media unconscious so quickly that every angle, second angle, contrarian angle, and meta-angle is covered within 24 hours. I dare you to find a new way to say that Yoenis Cespedes signed a four-year deal with the Mets: you can’t.
And so we’re left with these larger stories that we ourselves get to shape, build, and develop. This is awfully convenient, since they’ll never run to a clear conclusion or leave us without something to write on. A player can only re-sign with their team so many times; the Yankees can be ascendant or in decline forever, in any number of different permutations and variations. We get content, you get something to read during the offseason to distract from the painful business-ness of the whole affair. Seems fair, right?
Well, yes and no. The yes part I’ve detailed as thoughtfully as I can above, but the no is also kind of on the tip of all of our tongues, namely: why should any reader care about some writer’s weird narrative about their team? The easy answers are clear enough–we care because the narratives make us mad or proud or concerned or otherwise make us feel something that we have to express on Twitter or at the bar or in the cab going to work. And all of that is perfectly reasonable. What is baseball if not something to talk about when we get sick of commenting on the weather?
But we still haven’t really answered what narratives are good for, other than easy writing crutches for people like me. And that’s because, well, they aren’t really good for anything else. Narratives are, like so many speculative efforts in baseball, just meant to pass the time. There’s no truth to them or accurate description of the world required. Every so often, we’ll hit on something new, but for the most part, we’re parroting back what you already know.
Like, for instance, did you know the Phillies and the Braves are rebuilding? And the Twins might be a little nervous about their rebuild? And the Indians have something to prove? And the Angels are worried about squandering Mike Trout’s prime? And the Orioles need to get over the hump? And the Blue Jays have free agent woes? I can go on, but you get the point: these narratives are the baseball equivalent of “rainy this week … rainy last week too.” Harmless, but not helpful at the same time.
So what’s the moral here? The moral is to take these narratives for what they’re worth and recognize them for the ephemeral non-entities they are. They can be fun, and maybe they help you pass the time. But the instant you start getting mad about them or defensive of your favorite team, just disengage. There’s no need to speak truth to power, because even if you think the reporter you’re arguing with really and truly believes that your Milwaukee Brewers are a literal ponzi scheme, there’s no good reason for you to buy into that too.
Nod, smile, understand that they’re telling a story to get through the offseason, and recognize a potentially deluded fellow traveler through November to April. Because we all need to get through these months, writer and reader alike, and we may as well do it with as few casualties as possible.