Braves general manager John Coppolella gave an interview to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. It was due given all of the moves the Braves have made lately. And, insofar as Coppolella definitively shot down the notion that the Braves will trade Freddie Freeman, it was was useful and newsworthy. Really: he is so adamant that Freeman isn’t going anyplace that, if they do end up trading him somehow, the only real option for Coppolella is seppuku.
But the most notable aspect of the interview was not the information conveyed. Rather, it was Coppolella’s defensiveness and tone deafness. He bristles at criticism from Braves fans and accusations that the Braves are somehow “tanking.” Listen to him roar:
“I’m getting so tired of this. If guys want to take shots, or (degrade) us, fine. But let’s let it play out for a few years before we start branding our pitchforks and torches. I feel in my heart this is the best for the Braves . . . “Trust me. We are not tanking . . . There is a method to this madness. Judge our trades in two to three years. Not now . . . If we truly were going to tank, we wouldn’t have had Aybar come back in the trade. If we were trying to tank, we wouldn’t have signed (catcher) A.J. Pierzynski. If we were trying to tank, we would have traded Maybin at the deadline last year, and we had plenty of offers . . . We’re not afraid of the criticism and taking the risk,” Coppolella said, “but we’re tired of it.”
At the outset, let’s deal with the notion of “tanking” in baseball. It’s become popular to accuse teams of it, but there is not a ton new going on here. Since the last CBA there are draft pool money concerns that make losing more attractive than it used to be and that’s a problem, but teams have, for decades, unloaded veterans, cut payroll and rebuilt. Unless you’re a super high revenue team with very indulgent owners, it’s simply part of the game. Simply because agents like Scott Boras have taken fresh aim at the practice in recent years and put a sexier, imported-from-the-NBA name on the phenomenon does not make it any more offensive than fire sales and rebuilds from years past. Turning a thing all teams have done at one time or another into some ethical dilemma or accusation of malfeasance by front offices is disingenuous and unfair.
But that’s the only bone I’m going to throw Coppolella here, because the rest of his tirade is ridiculous.
The shots I and others are taking at the Braves are not because we don’t think they’re doing the best they can with the trades they’ve been making. They’re not because we think Coppolella and John Hart are lying when they say that the team will be better in several years. Indeed, if we set aside the motivation for the moves — I and many are on record thinking a total rebuild wasn’t necessary but we get that, in a lot of ways, ownership forced Hart and Coppolella’s hands — it’s hard to take issue with any of the moves they’ve made. They’ve gotten good talent back. They’ve shed bad contracts. There is always uncertainty when it comes to prospects, especially pitchers, but no one can deny that the Braves have begun to stockpile a lot of talent and, if things break right, it’s not hard to see them being competitive again in a few years.
No, the shots I and others are taking are because in the meantime we’re forced to deal with a profoundly miserable baseball team, Braves ownership and management does not seem to care that this bothers us, and now, with this interview, they have even begun to insult our intelligence and feelings about it in as dismissive a manner imaginable.
Perhaps, Mr. Coppolella, you might acknowledge that most of us don’t watch baseball in order to get sporadic updates about prospects who are several years away. Rather, we watch it for entertainment and, if possible, to see our team win sometimes. That’s clearly not happening now, that sucks and that’s on you. Is that the end of it? Of course not because, as I just said, rebuilds are part of the game. But you have a choice here: (a) acknowledge that the team sucks, own it and appreciate that fans have and will continue to put up with garbage for several hundred nights in a row; or (b) lash out at fans in the most condescending manner possible for allegedly not getting it. You’ve chosen (b). Not the choice I would’ve made, but maybe I just don’t understand all of the complicated things your sports team is really supposed to be doing.
Moreover, if you’re going to condescend to us, at least do so in a somewhat plausible manner. Maybe acknowledge that A.J. Pierzynski and Erik Aybar are not the sorts of players which excite a fan base, let alone provide any guarantee — as you make in the interview — that the 2016 Braves will win more games than the 2015 Braves. Indeed, that’s not a smart bet at all based on where the team stands at the moment.
Here’s another suggestion: don’t think we’re idiots who don’t understand the current union-league-club politics surrounding rebuilds. We fully know that the MLBPA and the league will not tolerate a team cutting completely to the bone and will, as they did in Miami a couple of years ago, force ownership to the negotiating table and require them to add some payroll for the purposes of good optics and labor relations. Especially when they just asked taxpayers for half a billion dollars for an unnecessary new ballpark. I’m not saying the Braves are actually doing that here — I have no idea — but I will observe that employing A.J. Pierzynksi, Erik Aybar, Nick Markakis and Nick Swisher on a roster in 2016 better serves the ends of making payroll look more respectable than it serves the ends of winning a ton of baseball games.
I’m sorry you’re tired of taking criticism, John. Really I am. But Braves fans are tired of seeing our favorite players — most still in their prime — leave town. We’re tired of watching profoundly bad baseball. We’re tired of ownership treating a team we have loved our whole lives no differently than any other subsidiary in any other faceless corporate conglomerate. We’re tired of decisions by both current and past ownership which have made it harder to see the Braves both on television and in person. Put simply: the decisions you and your bosses have made have turned being a Braves fan into a pretty miserable friggin’ slog over the past few years, and y’all don’t seem to care.
Yet we are here. And we will still watch. And we will still buy merchandise and tickets and everything else. Why? Because that’s how sports work. Because, objectively speaking, the relationship between sports team and fan is an irrational and possibly unhealthy one in which we tacitly accept that we have no real say in what you do because the payoff — entertainment and, if things break just right, a championship — is ultimately worth our investment.
Perhaps, John, when you’re done being hurt and angry, you might acknowledge that. Perhaps you might muster an ounce of humility about and responsibility for the undeniably ugly product you and your bosses have created and muster some awareness that even if your long term plan is a good one, your short term product is substandard. Appreciate that the people who support your product have some feelings about that and, when we voice our displeasure about it, that something other than insulting our intelligence would be a more decent response.
Or don’t. What do we know? Word on the street is that we’re just cynical, unappreciative dummies who don’t understand the complicated business of team building, so maybe we’re not worth the effort.