The Long Con

in Sports

All good things must come to an end. Bad things, too. For about a decade, I’ve been throwing my words into the wind here, but the time has come to move on, to get a fresh start. And that brings me to the topic of this farewell.

I love sports. I think I’ve made that clear enough over the years. And I’m not one of those guys that picks a favorite sport and laughs at the people that prefer another. No, I don’t play favorites. I’ve seen at least some good in every sport I’ve ever watched (except cricket, which is the only one to completely baffle me). But you never forget your first, and for me, that was baseball. Specifically, the closest thing I have to a hometown team: the Braves.

When I started this little rant section, they were in the last year of an epic run, a generation-long dynasty. Fourteen times in 15 years they’d won their division. (There were only 14 division winners in that span, as nobody counts the strike-shortened 1994 season.) So, since 1991, the Braves were winners. But I started watching them in 1990, when they were, to put it bluntly, awful. I didn’t care, then, because I was 6, and I saw the magic of watching grown men play the same game I had just started playing. They lost about two out of every three games they played that season, and I don’t think my Little League team was much better, but the hook was there.

Fast forward twenty-five years (has it really been that long?) and things are much different. The game of baseball, at the major-league level, is totally different, and that brings me to the problem. Not too long ago, a new movement started in baseball: Moneyball. The culprits were economists, who, not content with ruining the nation’s economy, turned their sights on its pastime. Starting in Oakland, this cancer has now spread to most of the country. The basic idea of Moneyball, from what I can tell, is to use analytics (of the same kind that caused the Great Recession in 2008) to make up nonsense statistics to justify trades and acquisitions.

Now, I have no problem with stats in baseball. Historically, it’s one of the few sports that welcomes them. But, before Moneyball, stats directly reflected performance. Batting average is a simple ratio of hits to at-bats. Earned run average? Nothing more than the runs a pitcher gives up every 9 innings. Even holds, which were created by “setup” pitchers to justify higher contracts, at least have some real-world explanation.

Moneyball stats, though, are different, almost ethereal in their nature. It takes a computer to figure out WAR and FIP and UZR. These stats aren’t intuitive. For anyone other than a GM, they’re not even useful. What’s worse, they’re taking away the magic of baseball. A couple of years ago, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, RBI, and home runs. Nobody had done that in half a century. But all we heard from the pundits was how he didn’t deserve to be named MVP! Why? Because Mike Trout had a better WAR rating.

A few teams remained immune to the Moneyball scourge even after this, and the Braves were one. That ended last year. After a terrible season (that started with great promise), the GM was ousted, and a new front office was installed, full of Moneyballers. That, in and of itself, is not the problem. What the replacement, John Hart, has done since then…well, I wouldn’t be writing this if he hadn’t screwed up.

I’ll be the first to admit the Braves of 2014 needed a few adjustments to be better in 2015. But Hart has decided that, apparently, winning games in 2015 is a silly idea. Teams have rebuilt before, but this is a case of tearing down the building, setting fire to the remains, then salting the earth, just to make sure. Every player with any kind of talent is now gone. Jason Heyward: traded. Justin Upton: gone. Kris Medlin, Evan Gattis, Tommy La Stella? All out. And yesterday was the deepest cut of all: Craig Kimbrel, the best closer in the game traded just to get rid of the overpaid and underperforming B.J. (now calling himself Melvin) Upton. The last remaining “names”, like Freddie Freeman, will likely be gone before the trade deadline in July. (If they’re not asking for trades by then, I’ll be amazed.)

What did the team get in exchange? Mostly older players coming off of injuries, minor leaguers that probably won’t ever see the bigs–and will never match up to who’s been lost–and a few guys (like Carlos Quentin) who have already been released. Extreme Makeover doesn’t do this kind of rebuilding.

But this is all part of “the plan”, according to John Hart. And that plan is sinister indeed. The lease on Turner Field runs out after next year. Despite the fan-favorite ballpark being only 20 years old at that point, the team wanted a new one, and, as is common today, wanted the city of Atlanta to pay for it. The city, wisely, said no. So, instead of making a slight (and cheap) renovation to “the Ted”, the Braves instead decided they would move to somewhere near Marietta, who would be happy to put up hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a new stadium.

Now, I can’t prove this, but my suspicion is that the so-called rebuild is related to this. Since Hart started his mad demolition project, he’s said all along that the plan is “to be competitive when the new ballpark opens in 2017.” (That was entirely possible building off the old team, especially as the NL East was fast becoming a three-team division, but I digress.) The faithful Atlanta fans have essentially been thrown under the bus, and my theory is that this is intentional. A rebuilding period coinciding with the two lame-duck years left at Turner Field? It might even make good business sense, but, as a fan, I can’t help but see this as a big middle finger extended in the general direction of downtown Atlanta. It’s just too convenient, especially given the way the MLB has tried to destroy the Braves since the days when they were owned by Ted Turner. (John Hart, by the way, was in the commissioner’s office not too long ago.) As a side benefit, manager Fredi Gonzalez, utterly despised by the Moneyball-loving pundits, will be sacked by the end of this season, if not sooner, shedding the last connection to the dynasty of my youth.

So, today’s Opening Day for baseball. But I won’t be watching. For the first time since 1990, I won’t even try to watch. It hurts to say it, but it’s the truth. It’s kind of poignant that this last betrayal of the Braves fan base happened on Easter Sunday, but I think I’d rather have thirty pieces of silver than Cameron Maybin in the outfield.

Atlanta’s Judas says it’s all part of the plan. But that plan has no room for the traditional fan, whether of the Braves or of baseball in general. He says his team will be bad this year and next, but that it’ll be worth it in the end. Looking at the roster, I don’t see how that’s possible. No, this is a return to the Braves of the 80s, even the 70s, when losing 100 games was a step up. And it’ll be like that for a long time. The plan is a failure from the beginning. There’s no way it couldn’t be. It comes from the same flawed thinking that destroyed our economy seven years ago. And look at last year’s World Series. The Giants and the Royals are two of the last teams to avoid the Moneyball plague, and they put on a great show.

“Don’t like it? Don’t watch it,” is what the pundits will say. Well, I won’t. Anyone that loves baseball should do the same. Don’t watch. Don’t go to the games, because John Hart has already said he doesn’t want you there. At least the Predators are making the playoffs, because the Braves won’t be anytime this decade, except by sheer luck.

Opening Day. And it’s Closing Day for On The Contrary. I’m not losing the contrarian spirit, but I want to channel my creative energies into something a bit more substantial. Prose Poetry Code is my new place. It’ll have fewer rants and more useful information, I promise. I hope to see you there, and under better circumstances.