Monday, July 07, 2014

Ashes Are Not the Best of Building Materials

The Red Sox aren't doing so well lately, if we define lately as "ever since early April." It's now July, which means that Boston baseball commentators and all too many fans are plunging into their favorite part of the season -- trade deadline time. The blending of the above two sentences makes for considerable entertainment for lovers of dark comedy.

Driving home from vacation this morning, Andy Gresh and Scott Zolak issued a fervent hour-long duet on the need for the Red Sox to give up, blow up the team, and of course, "play the kids." Only in this way, they argued, could the Sox maintain fan interest in a lost season before everybody stops caring in September because it's football season (Class, to what local outdoor franchise does 98.5 hold the radio rights?).

Barring a seven-game win streak prior to the All-Star break, we'll all have to scramble to avoid hearing or reading similar sentiments. There's nothing the commentariat likes better than advising that a sports team be completely deconstructed in pursuit of victory at some unspecified future date. There's no doubt they're talking their book  Discussing the same guys day after day gets boring. New players equal new things to write or say. But I want to be fair, and I believe that the commentators also sincerely believe that "out with the old, in with the new" is actually a sound midseason plan.

Like everything else in sports, it depends. Trade deadline subtractions do work. Aggressive youth movements do succeed. Just not as often as they don't, not nearly as often, in fact.

As the radio kept reminding me, the Red Sox have a relatively large number of young players considered to be bright prospects. Good for them. Mobilizing them en masse as the bulk of a starting lineup for a team going nowhere is about the most efficient way I can think of to dim those prospects.

The most difficult and dangerous stage in major league player development is the period when a player takes his first crack at being an everyday player. For Mike Trout, it was easy, but Top 20 of all time players are by definition rare. For most players, it's a daunting physical and psychological challenge. That goes for Hall of Famers, too. His first year as a starter, Mike Schmidt batted under .200. He subsequently got the hang of things, but for every Schmidt, or even every prospect who goes on to become a steady regular, there are two who fail the test. It's hard to be a major leaguer. That's why we admire them.

So when teams take the plunge of seeing if a prospect can be more than that, they try their best to set up situations which allow the prospect his best chance of success. Being part of four or five guys all undergoing the same traumatic horsehide med school boards almost surely is no prospect's best chance of success, especially if said prospects are being expected to do enough to partially transform a team already set in its losing ways for 2014.

Strikingly, neither Gresh nor Zo stated in my hearing that trading a few vets by July 31 and calling up the youth reserves would help the Sox win some more games. They didn't mention winning or losing at all. No, their contention was that a prospect-laden lineup would keep fans interested. Transposing their own business on the baseball business, they said in essence it'd be good for Red Sox ratings.

I cite the two Boston sports talk hosts not to single them out,  but as examples of a trend. Sports commentary now seems to run on the motto "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how many eyeballs you got while doing it."

In other words, sports is just like the media business. Generate public interest by any means possible, and you're a success. The U.S soccer team was a big story not because it made the elimination rounds of the World Cup, but because it got big TV numbers. The idea that the numbers resulted from the U.S. having a team good enough to care about got lost in the shuffle.

The "admit defeat-blow it up-play the kids" advice given struggling teams is a direct outgrowth of the audience uber alles mindset  It's a mindset that's not a product of foolishness, cynicism or cluelessness, but stems from plain old human nature.

Commentators would have to have rare insight and rarer self-confidence not to have their minds affected by their own professional experiences when discussing professional sports. And the professional experience of the 21st century media racket is not one conducive to taking the long point of view.

Is there a more blow it up and start over business than radio? Two down books in a row, and 98.5 could be broadcasting Korean pop. Is there a business more obsessed with attracting an audience by any means necessary than newspapers? I can testify that play the (cheaper) kids has been a newspaper personnel strategy for many, many years.

Transposing one's own business on the sports business is a major error. Team owners do it all the time, to their enormous regret and substantial revenue loss. I'm not a Red Sox fan, but it's my fervent wish that ownership and the front office don't much care if I watch or not, as long as they believe they're creating a product worth watching.

Because otherwise, they won't. Put the audience first, it usually gets smaller.


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