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Sports, Politics, and an Apologia of the Reds

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Ever think about how Eugenio Suarez is a lot like public education policy?

MLB: Spring Training-Texas Rangers at Cincinnati Reds Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When I think about it, there are a lot of things in my life that I have done and, either immediately or eventually, I have regretted. I got married way too young (it has actually worked out but damn that was dangerous), I spent my 20s in a shit job making shit money instead of doing anything else, I never punched my step-dad. This isn’t intended to be a therapy session (that’s next week because she’s on vacation right now), but to preface by saying that I have done the requisite self-reflection. That’s important to note for later.

One of these numerous regrets is the courses of study to which I have dedicated my life. So much as I can call myself an expert on anything, I’m most confident in my understandings of two fields of knowledge; baseball and social and political philosophy. I got an advanced degree in one and a blog in the other. Neither make me much money. I regret that.

Despite their seeming disparate natures, these two fields of knowledge, broadly speaking, share a deep foundational element. Both are stridently egalitarian pursuits. That is, basically everyone is entitled to an opinion on them. There is no real admission fee or literacy test or entrance exam to join in the conversation (ideally, anyway). They aren’t restricted to the hallowed cloisters of elite ivory towers. You are just as likely to talk about them over boilermakers at the local dive. They each have their reasons for this populist bent, but nevertheless (again, ideally) nobody is really going to openly question your legitimacy when you speak about them. This isn’t true for many other fields of knowledge, like medicine or auto repair or discrete mathematics. Common folks generally don’t openly engage in debate over the proper treatment of glaucoma or how to replace the carburetor on a Chevy 350 big block or the utility of descriptive set theory. The experts in these areas are given their proper deference.

This is, on the whole, probably a good thing. Politics is just so because we think (near-) universal suffrage is important. Sports is such for an entirely different set of reasons, but this preface is already longer than I want it to be.

All of this is to say that I regret all the work to make myself an expert in fields in which expertise is flatly dismissed. I coulda been a lawyer or a preacher or even a damn vacuum salesman, but nah. I know a hell of a lot more about politics and sociology and all that crap than most folks but it doesn’t get me anywhere. Same goes for baseball.

This all occurred to me while reading Jon Tayler’s offseason grades at SI from last week. I don’t know Jon Tayler and I’m not all that familiar with his work, so I googled him. He went to Columbia J school and has been with SI for five years or so. Thems decent creds. But regardless, he’s a schmuck. Or at least, this piece is trash and he sounds like a schmuck.

Here’s the relevant bits:

CINCINNATI REDS

2017 Record: 68­–94, fifth place in NL Central

Key Additions: RHP David Hernandez, RHP Jared Hughes, LHP Oliver Perez, OF Ben Revere

Key Departures: SS Zack Cozart, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Drew Storen

PRESENTER: And the award for Least Interesting 2018 Offseason goes to… [drum roll] …the Cincinnati Reds!

[REDS leap up from seat, pumping fists, as crowd applauds and music swells]

ANNOUNCER: This is the Reds’ first win in this category, and the natural result of constantly ditching veterans and not signing players as part of a seemingly never-ending rebuild.

REDS: Wow, this is such an honor, and there are so many people to thank. First off, Major League Baseball, for letting teams stay in a rebuilding hole for as long as they want and allowing us to reap the financial rewards of running out cheap rosters on the regular. Also, the other tanking teams—because of them, we had an offseason where all we did was sign some fungible relievers but no one cared because everyone else is doing it now too. Oh, big thanks to Commissioner Rob Manfred, who isn’t on our backs about the fact that this season will mark a third straight year of us not even trying to field a competitive team.

[music starts to play]

Okay, okay, we’re almost done. And let this award be an inspiration to so many other rebuilding clubs: You, too, can do this for what feels like forever and have no one care or call you out. Thank you!

Now, I’m compelled to mention that Tayler is certainly not alone in this opinion. For as long as I can remember, folks have decried the Reds lot as perpetual farm system for real teams like the Yankees. Just a few weeks ago when I was in Arizona, the proprietor of a local establishment noticed my Reds cap and struck up a conversation. He is a transplant from Cincinnati and it is his confident opinion as well. I’m sure you know at least a few folks of this persuasion yourself. Hell, it’s probably a majority opinion across the entire Reds fanbase. Even across the entirety of baseball in general, I’d dare to say.

But it is not a majority opinion for any meritorious reason. It is largely thus because it is an easy opinion for lazy minds to hold and there is virtually no check against it. And it requires no research to justify it or any level of requisite expertise to understand it. That’s how a premiere national sports publication like Sports Illustrated can sanction it with impunity. It is just like red meat to a politically partisan base. It doesn’t matter if it is coherent or even remotely true. It’s what the idiots want to hear because it is what the idiots already think. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.

But even a cursory dive into the organization’s modus operandi would be enough to reveal what is really happening and to dissuade you from this position. See, the Reds didn’t make any more major moves than they did because there wasn’t any real apparent need to, despite their pitiful losing record over the last few years. The starting eight is pretty well set with tons of quality young talent. If they were to pursue a major addition, where would it make sense? The outfield is set with four quality, cheap players and only three regular spots. Same with the infield, where they signed two of those quality, cheap players to major contract extensions (third baseman Eugenio Suarez and catcher Tucker Barnhart). Also, it is worth mentioning that they still have the best hitter in the National League at first base for one of those big expensive contracts this guy seems to think is the mark of a healthy ballclub but also probably the kind of contract that stupid teams overpay to bad players. But whatever.

One could make a reasonable case that shortstop could use a quality upgrade, but there is a reasonable case to stand pat, as well. Jose Peraza is just 23 years old and is clearly an interesting potential starter. He hasn’t performed as such to this point in his career, but it isn’t ridiculous to want to give him a chance. It’s not like there was a ton of alternatives on the market this offseason, anyway (hi Zack Cozart I didn’t forget about you I could never forget you).

There’s a compelling argument that the Reds should add a starting pitcher, and I advocated for just that a few weeks ago. But again, it isn’t unreasonable to sit tight and let a bunch of really talented young pitchers attempt to establish themselves. So if one is just taking a passing glance at the Reds one could come to the lazy stupid idiot conclusion outlined in Tayler’s piece. The truth, however, is far more nuanced and layered than the idiots think.

I think the fundamental sin the idiots make, in both sports and politics, is a lack of imagination. They seem to view the world in very stark contrasts. Everything is binary: you either win or lose, it is either good or bad, either go for it or don’t. But when it comes to generally managing a Major League Baseball organization (or organizing a democratic society, for that matter), there are a number of reasonable, defensible plans to implement. It is more complicated than “are you trying to win the World Series this year?” Back in the day, before free agency, that was closer to the truth. Teams tried to scout amateur talent in the sandlots and backfields, looking for the next Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams. If you got a generational talent like that, you could keep him for the length of his career and make trades and such to try to build a winner every year (that’s how the Yankees won 17 championships between 1932 and 1962).

With the advent of free agency, everything changed (duh). Modern baseball organization management has to navigate the vagaries of international free agency, scouting high school and college talent, managing player contracts through the arbitration process, and so on. A team can no longer keep a Mickey Mantle for the length of his career and pay him shit money. This is a really, really good thing, by the way.

But it seems to me that idiots just don’t get this. The idiot asks “are you trying to win the World Series this year?” and then looks at whether or not a team got better players. That is dumb, you idiot. That’s how an idiot can look at the contract the Padres gave to Eric Hosmer and not dry heave.

Look, I’m getting a bit impatient myself with the Reds rebuild. I have been an ardent and vocal defender of the organization’s master plan from the beginning, but my allegiance is neither blind nor unqualified. But I can see what they are trying to do and I believe that it isn’t unreasonable. But to see the world like that is to see in a way that isn’t exclusive to the binary of “Your trying to win!” and “Your bums!”

But I don’t expect anyone to be persuaded by all this or to even listen to me. Sports, like politics, is not an arena in which the wisdom gained by dedicated study is held in any kind of esteem. So here I will be, at the end of the bar, drinking the daily special, swaying dangerously on my narrow stool, and shouting sober, reasonable, and evidence-based invective. Not that my opinion matters anymore than anyone else’s.