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Braves think their fans are idiots

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I’ve been a Braves fan for nearly 35 years. Most of those years were really good ones, so I’m certainly not going to complain about the investment of time and emotion I’ve put into the team. I’ve gotten to watch Dale Murphy, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña and scores of other amazing players and amazing baseball feats in that time. I watched my team win a World Series and play in many more. While there were a lot of lows at the beginning of that stretch, and a few at the end, being a Braves fan from 1985-2019 has given me way more good baseball memories than bad ones. And heck, even the bad ones have been fun sometimes.

At the moment I should be enjoying some of those good times. The Braves unexpectedly won the NL East last year and they did so with a bunch of exciting young players that should be around for a good while. That’s the stuff that sustains you as a fan: winning baseball and guys you want to root for. But I’m having a really, really hard time enjoying the Braves at the moment because, quite simply, the team’s front office thinks I’m a friggin’ moron.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw from this interview of Braves team president Terry McGuirk and general manager Alex Anthopoulos, conducted by David O’Brein and Jeff Schultz of The Athletic. It’s a masterwork of condescension, dishonesty and, at the end of the day, constitutes a clear signal that the Braves care about profits, first, second, third and foremost. “Sure, winning baseball is pretty spiffy, but let’s not keep our eyes off the prize, which is ‘financial flexibility,'” the Braves brass seems to be telling us.

Don’t just take my word for it. Let’s get all 2004 here and fisk this bad boy, shall we?

As Schultz notes in the introduction to the interview, last March, McGuirk said this about the Braves’ financial future:

“There will be very few teams that have as much to spend in the marketplace next winter as the Atlanta Braves.”

Except they haven’t spent more money. While they signed free agent Josh Donaldson to an unusual one-year, $23 million deal, the fact of the matter is that payroll has remained completely flat. Money came off the books in the form of Matt Kemp‘s contract and other “dead money,” to use McGuirk’s term, and Donaldson merely brought them back to even. McGuirk does not say what the payroll is at the moment, but eyeballing it, it seems to be, more or less, the same as it was last year. Which was, more or less, the same as it was the year before.

Which is fine until you realize a couple of things. The first thing being that the Braves moved into a lavish taxpayer-funded stadium a couple of years ago that, in addition to representing a new revenue source of its own, is surrounded by a massive commercial development in which the Braves have a stake. Last year, it was reported, the Braves’ revenue increased by $124 million. Just as an increase. The entire runup to the new ballpark was filled with both explicit and implicit statements from team officials that it would allow the Braves to be more competitive and spend more, but they haven’t. They have pocketed the revenue rather than spend it to improve the baseball team.

But it’s not as if Braves fans aren’t getting anything, mind you. Listen to what Anthopoulos says when he’s asked why the new revenue hasn’t been spent on players:

Did we promise we were going to spend more money, or did we promise we were going to have more flexibility? Nobody is ever going to say, “We have to spend ‘X’ amount.”

References to flexibility are always — always — used to suggest to fans that “hey, we’ll be able to spend money.” By citing “flexibility” as an end in and of itself, Anthopoulos gives the game away and does so pretty condescendingly to boot. “Oh, you silly people, we never said that!”

Dude, fans don’t root for “flexibility.” “Flexibility” flags don’t fly forever. The alpha and omega of fans’ concern about “financial flexibility” — the only reason any of us care about payroll and budgets and stuff — is the degree to which those things make it more or less likely for the team we root for to acquire good players and win consistently. We’re not rooting for your bottom line or your ability to go into a meeting with your bosses and say that you still have some budget left over for fiscal 2020.

I wish that were the end of the idiocy in this interview, but it is not. Here McGuirk is asked where he sees payroll going in the future:

Spending now is about winning. It’s not about building as much. Alex’s mandate is to advance the ball from where we were last year in the playoffs. I read where all of the prognosticators have us winning 82 or 84 games. I love being the underdog. The fact that we can take that $126 million and put it on the field, plus an appreciable move beyond that, is unprecedented for us. We’ve been a bottom-10 payroll team for a couple of years. We’ve messaged that we want to get to the middle, and I think this year begins to get us to that neighborhood. I expect that we push beyond that in the coming five years.

The only reason he cites that 82-84 win prediction from “prognosticators” is so he can dial the Braves’ competitive clock back a year and, with it, expectations about payroll. Indeed, I can’t see any other way to read this than, “you spend to put you over the top, but pundits think we’re not likely to win, so we’re gonna show them, we’re gonna win, and then when we do we’ll spend more.” Which is all great as long as you forget that the Braves are, you know, the defending division champs and that, under that model, they should be spending more NOW in order to consolidate last year’s gains and to try to push deeper into the playoffs.

The interview is filled with that kind of sleight of hand. One minute McGuirk crows about what the team spent last year — “We had a $126 million payroll! We spent money!” — and then the next minute he discounts $30 million of that as “dead money,” and wants credit for fielding a division champ that really only had $96 million on the field. If he were honest he’d admit that a team is more than capable of winning when it carries even some bad contracts, which he and Anthopoulos adamantly claim they cannot, thus their wariness of signing a big free agent. Or, at the very least, he’d admit that what he really wants is to win as cheaply as possible.

Later in the interview we get what is now a well-worn cliche among front office types. The “sure, we’d like to have good players, but . . .” comment, which is really aimed at making fans and inquisitors feel dumb. It leverages the credentials of the speaker and his authority as a front office genius to explain why it’s better to have a three sub-par corner outfielders than one great one or whatever. Sure, one can make that argument given a certain set of players, but these days the argument is rarely attempted with any sort of specificity. The “oh, we’d love to have ____” quote is now left to stand alone, sometimes followed up with references to how high the team is on a young player or three who has no shot at ever being as good as the big name player being dismissed.

In this instance O’Brein and Schultz press Anthopoulos about why the Braves have not addressed their quite pressing need for a starting pitcher and when, if ever, they plan to acquire one. There is some back and forth about whether it’s better to do that at the deadline or in the offseason, but Anthopoulos seems to talk in circles, to the point where it seems like he may not even think the Braves need a starter. So he’s asked that directly:

Q: Do you agree acquiring a No. 1 or 2 starter would elevate you to that next level?

Anthopoulos: No doubt. But what I’d say is we were (fourth) in starters’ ERA (3.50) last year; we are really bullish on some of these young kids.

He goes on to talk about how Luiz Gohara just didn’t put it together last year and what a shame that was, as if citing Luiz friggin’ Gohara is at all responsive to a question about a number one or number two starter for a defending division champion. It’s a subject-change to the matter of potential back-end help or a guy who may possibly be good in the future, not an answer to the Braves’ need for a frontline starter.

In doing so, Anthopoulos, like McGuirk before him, is consciously trying to tamp down fan expectation. To make them think that the Braves are in rebuilding mode instead of winning mode. To make them think that the most important question about the rotation is whether the no doubt potential-filled Gohara can turn a corner rather than who is going to take the ball in Game 2 of the NLDS should the Braves make it that far. “Sure, we’d love to have a great player,” the cliche goes, “but we’d much rather you all think more about the cheap young players who might be good if everything breaks right” it may as well finish.

Back to money.

Q: Liberty reported significant revenue increases for 2018. Fans see that and expectedly want you to invest in players.

McGuirk: The last thing you can do is follow our bouncing ball of economics, with debt. It costs a lot to build this edifice.

I have no idea what this means other than front offices think of all player salaries as pure liability and that the end game of a baseball team is profit, not winning baseball games.

Wait, I don’t need to infer that. McGuirk says so explicitly in his next answer, when asked about the interplay between team revenues and the product on the field:

It’s all designed to produce profitability that will go into our team, over and above, as we pay off the debt and pay off the principal. I wouldn’t be doing it unless I thought it was going to jettison us from that small middle-market team to high middle-market team to even potentially something bigger. I think it’s terrific for the Atlanta Braves. I couldn’t be more optimistic.

Except it does not “go into our team,” as the numbers and as McGuirk’s and Anthopoulos’ own answers demonstrate. Well, at least not into the baseball playing part of the team. It certainly goes into the team as a whole, which is both a sports-playing enterprise and a business enterprise in and of itself.  Indeed, as team president, when McGuirk talks about what’s good for the Atlanta Braves, it should be read as him talking about the business enterprise more than the sports-playing enterprise. After all, that’s his job, right? At the end of the day, he is fired by his bosses at Liberty Media if the Braves lose money but he is not fired if they merely lose baseball games. Brian Snitker is fired if the team loses baseball games. Maybe, eventually, Alex Anthopoulos is. But McGurik is not.

The savvy among us know that team brass — certainly team ownership — has viewed things like that forever. That they’re a business first and that it’s better to make money while losing baseball games than to lose money under any circumstances. Books have been written about that and the business of baseball is best understood if you view it through that lens as well. There have been some crazy, loose cannon owners who seem to not care about how much money a team makes as long as the team wins — the Braves, actually, used to have one — but they are exceptions to the rule, historically, and as of now none seem to exist.

Modern team brass depend on most fans not realizing that, though. They depend on fans believing that we’re all in this together for the glory of baseball and victory and all of that stuff. That is why they craft their euphemisms they way they do. That is why, when they do not appear to be doing things that will help the team win in the short term, they couch the moves in terms of “sustained success,” with the implicit promise that more winning will come later even if it doesn’t come now. That is why they explain seemingly cheap moves as moves that “maintain financial flexibility,” with the implicit promise that while money is not being spent now, it will be spent later. That is why, when they pass on a seemingly fantastic free agent, they focus attention to the potentially bad final years of a contract rather than focus on the early years in which a championship might be won, implicitly casting the free agent as sour grapes best not eaten.

If front office brass were honest about that stuff — if they talked about how they care more about profit than winning — the relationship between teams and fans would look very different than it does. It would make leveraging the passion of fans into revenue much, much harder because, let’s face it, we buy merchandise and tickets and vote to increase our taxes to subsidize their stadiums because we think it’s about winning, not because we think about how we’re increasing the revenue of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate like Liberty Media.

But in this interview, Terry McGuirk and Alex Anthopoulos barely even attempt to hide what it’s really all about. They barely try to sell the line all front offices try to sell when making excuses for their behavior. They all but flat out admit that profit is what matters, barely attempting to offer plausible cover stories about how it’s really about winning baseball games.

Why aren’t they trying harder here? All I can conclude is that they think you’re too stupid to know any better.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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UPDATE: Major League Baseball has released the following statement in the wake of Jeff Passan’s ESPN report overnight, discussed in more detail below:

MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so.  While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.  While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.  The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.

9:04 AM: Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.