If you’re like most healthy people, you watched the Giants-Mets game last night, saw Madison Bumgarner mow down Mets hitters like a John Deere mows grass and said “welp, what are ya gonna do?” Bumgarner had his best stuff last night. God Almighty could fill up a lineup card with Avenging Angels and they’d probably wind up with the same four hits the Mets got. He’s Madison Bumgarner, it’s October and that’s just how things go.
But you can’t think that way if you’re a certain sort of sports writer. No, if you’re a certain sort of sports writer, you can’t simply accept that Madison Bumgarner was gonna get his last night. You have to find someone to blame. Kevin Kernan of the New York Post blames Yoenis Cespedes.
Kernan mocks Cespedes’ dyed hair and makes mention of his salary and his opt-out clause. He makes a special point to say that Cespedes didn’t talk to the media (likely the genesis of Kernan’s derision). He implies, via use of the “he didn’t show up” construction, that Cespedes wasn’t just overmatched by the best postseason pitcher of our era, but that he somehow didn’t give his best effort:
When the Mets needed him most, Cespedes didn’t show up. Sure he had a new look with the new dye job. But at the plate, it has been a much different die job for Cespedes, who made $27.5 million this season.
Will he come back? And if he does will he be a postseason presence in the middle of the Mets’ lineup?
As Collins said, the Mets desperately needed him. He never showed up.
Cespedes, by the way, has been playing hurt for months and saw more pitches from Madison Bumgarner last night than all but one of the other Mets. He showed up just fine, thanks, but we’ll leave that go for now.
In all other respects, it’s a standard hit piece. The search for a goat is one of sports writing’s most venerable tropes. But no matter how established a trope it is, it’s the product of a supreme negativity. It’s a reflexive blame game that we would never accept from someone in real life but which is wholly accepted in sports and sports media because we allow sports and sports media figures to pretend that sports are somehow separate from real life and subject to different rules.
To be clear, sometimes blame is appropriate. Sometimes someone truly and clearly messes up and makes a mistake. Sometimes an event — in sports or in everyday life — is clearly and directly attributable to an act or an omission. In such instances it is, of course, appropriate to lay blame. When we do it we should do it appropriately with as little bile and personal judgment as possible and, hopefully, in a constructive fashion, but sure, it’s OK to say “Dude, you messed up.” Go ask Buck Showalter how that works.
But sometimes stuff just happens. The guy who gave you that big account decides to switch agencies for reasons that have nothing to do with you. The dinner doesn’t come out like it was supposed to because the recipe was difficult. A hitter goes 0-for-4 because he’s facing Madison Freakin’ Bumgarner.
If we try hard enough we can always find a goat in such situations, but doing so is just a means of making ourselves feel less responsible and someone else more responsible. Or it’s a means of denying that, in a lot of cases, random events just happen, the world is not always fair and not everything happens for a reason. In those cases we’re not engaging in analysis in search of a responsible party. We’re just playing the blame game.
There are consequences to the blame game. It serves to disrespect or dehumanize the person being blamed. To conflate the outcome with the actor and to declare that, because the outcome was bad, the actor must be bad too. It’s not enough for Kernan to point out Cespedes’ bad night, his bad night must be attributable to him “not showing up” or him dying his hair or thinking about his opt-out or his next contract, and doesn’t that make him the worst kind of person? That, in turn, gives Kernan’s thousands of readers permission to think less of Cespedes too, which adds additional negativity to the situation. An argument can be made that such a dynamic is the primary means by which sports fans form opinions about athletes.
I’m not sure why Kernan thinks it’s necessary. Maybe he’s been doing this so long that he’s simply incapable of talking about a game without a hero/goat narrative. Maybe he’s not creative or imaginative enough to describe Madison Bumgarner’s night without a goat. Maybe his editors at the New York Post demand that he couch his column in Mets terms rather than Giants terms, thereby preventing him from doing so. Maybe the idea that sports can be random and that things can sometimes just happen — like Madison Bumgarner turning into Superman every other October — is anathema to a person whose entire career is premised on explaining why things happen to his readers. If you consider yourself an authority and stuff just happens that all of us can see with our own eyes, it probably makes you feel a bit insecure.
But whatever the reason is, that sort of act is tired. In life there are very rarely clear heroes and villains. Sports are no different. People succeed and people fail for a host of reasons, but most of them are not because they are personal failures or slackers with their minds on their next task rather than their current one. Yoenis Cespedes had a bad night last night. So did the ten other Mets who made plate appearances. Madison Bumgarner had a great night. It’s enough to say that happened. Crapping on Yoenis Cespedes says way more about the person doing the crapping than it says about the 2016 NL Wild Card Game.