Confessions of an armchair GM

Ben: “…Every year during Easter vacation, me and my friends go down to Florida.”

Lindsey: “You and your buddies go down to Florida for spring break? At your age?”

Ben: “No, no, no. Not spring break. Spring training, with the Red Sox.”

Lindsey: “Oh, you get to train with the Red Sox? Are you allowed to do that?”

Ben: “Well, we don’t actually – we watch the games.”

Lindsey: “Aren’t those just practice games?”

Ben: “Yeah, yeah, but there’s more to it than that. We scout the players. We say which players they should keep, which they should get rid of.”

Lindsey: “And the Red Sox ask your opinion?”

Ben: “Well, not yet. But if they ever do…”

- Fever Pitch, 2005

As a passionate baseball fan, December saw me consumed by the MLB winter meetings, that annual jamboree of insanity where executives from all 30 teams gather in a plush hotel to thrash out trades and free agent signings. Based in the UK, I typically follow the carnage via Twitter, enjoying the intrigue of deals reported in real-time. This time, though, as franchises spent $1.6 billion on player contracts in four days, I felt different about the entire debacle. A little queasy, perhaps. A little exhausted. It all seemed so unrealistic. 

More than the actual expenditure, I was annoyed by the elaborate charade of modern negotiations. The baseball hot stove now has its own vernacular, with teams ‘discussing’ players, ‘showing interest’ in others, and going ‘in on’ a select few targets. Any perceptible movement along this spectrum is gleefully tweeted by a horde of thirsty journalists, to a point where the vaguest ‘updates’ pass as monumental developments. Meanwhile, millions of fans await these nuggets of supposed information, ready to forensically dissect each transaction. The entire concept is absurd.

Why do we put such stock in these unfinished, unsubstantiated scraps of hot stove flotsam? Quite frankly, it would be malpractice if every front office in the game did not discuss every available player. If general managers do not ‘check in’ on a broad range of options, what else are they doing all day? Baseball executives are paid to complete these very tasks – obtaining information on players and signing the best ones – so why do we sensationalise their due diligence? Why do we live and die with every rumour, allowing our moods to fluctuate so wildly with the transient, capricious, ephemeral news cycle?

Take the free agency of Aaron Judge, which dominated the winter meetings. Everyone wanted to know where Judge would sign – back with the Yankees, or out west with the Giants, his boyhood team. Such was the critical mass of attention and interest, one reporter, Jon Heyman of the New York Post, infamously jumped the gun by tweeting a deal with San Francisco had been completed. Delirium and devastation flooded baseball Twitter – Giants fans gloating, Yankees fans threatening murder – only for Heyman to delete the post and apologise pre-empting the move. When Judge actually returned to the Yankees on a nine-year, $360 million deal, a similar torrent of emotion poured forth in reverse.

It seems somehow pathetic that our fandom has been reduced to this – refreshing bits of data on a screen to see which players land where, joy and agony distilled into 280 characters. Is this what sports has become? Is this the true crux of our interest? Are we fans of baseball, football, hockey and basketball, or are we fans of trades, transactions, tweets and press conferences? In the age of information overload, the latter may outshine the former, and we just cannot get enough of the endless speculation.

Indeed, scrolling Twitter these days, sports fans and journalists seem to spend more time hyperventilating over phantom roster construction quandaries than actually enjoying the games. If a player has a bad year, they should be excommunicated. If a coach makes a bad decision, they should receive death threats via direct message. If a team finishes below .500, everyone should be fired and the owner should sell the team. There is a lack of reality to modern sports fandom, like we are all stuck in a giant simulation. That these are real people, with real families and real emotions, barely seems to matter. Every happening creates volcanic upheaval.

Why are we like this? Why are we so obsessed with transfers, free agents and prospect rankings? Why do we smash things up due to the Rule 5 draft? Well, pure escapism is the simplest answer. Sports offer a convenient distraction from normal, everyday life. Disappearing down a Baseball-Reference rabbit hole allows us to let off steam – even if we are trying to conceive an idiotic trade that lands Shohei Ohtani on the Milwaukee Brewers. Sports give us something to think about when our real worries – bills, appointments, cholesterol – are too demanding. Fandom is pure procrastination bedecked in rally towels.

Still, why are we so preoccupied with the minutiae of roster construction? Why are we scanning the waiver wire at three in the morning? Why do we have the Tampa Bay Rays’ depth chart bookmarked on Chrome? One logical argument is that, to enjoy happy moments in June, we must obsess over minor details in November – that, to have a better experiences watching the actual games, we need better players on our teams. And how do teams assemble the best players? By drafting or trading for them, or by giving them a boatload of money. That is why this matters to us.

Nevertheless, our obsession with sporting transactions is paradoxical. The interest is born of emotion – we quickly become attached to certain players and want them to stay with our favourite teams – but its intensity leads us to see athletes as inanimate pieces on a chessboard. If we can just dump that guy, or designate that chump for assignment, there will be enough room under the luxury tax threshold to keep our beloved veteran. If we can just add another ace, or trade for a different cleanup hitter, we can give the hometown hero another shot at winning a ring. This instrumentalisation of sports distorts our understanding and appreciation of humanity.

Moreover, sports fans are simply never content. Ever. As soon as the real news of Judge’s deal dropped, Yankees fans demanded more. Not happy with ownership spending $360 million, New Yorkers demanded Carlos Rodón or Andrew Benintendi or one of those obscure Japanese guys nobody has ever seen play. Is this really what things have come to? Are we really that vain and superficial? Sure, MLB owners command exorbitant revenues, and they should be obliged to reinvest chunks of that into their teams, but when do we stop and actually enjoy things? Real things, in the real world. We are all just one Ken Rosenthal tweet away from cataclysmic meltdown, and that is an unhinged way to live.

The captivation is nothing new, of course. Since time immemorial, baseball fans have debated the comparative virtues of different players – Cobb vs Ruth, DiMaggio vs Williams, A-Rod vs Jeter. Gradually, the facilitating medium of those discussions has evolved – from trading cards and Strat-O-Matic boards to video games and fantasy leagues – but their contents have remained remarkably consistent. Evidently, there is just something so appealing – so stimulating and intellectually nourishing – about the science of building baseball teams, and the discipline titillates fans like a hallucinogenic drug.

I have imbibed the hot stove Kool-Aid more than most, of course. As a kid, I refreshed MLB Trade Rumors every minute on trade deadline day. I have occasionally turned on notifications for Rosenthal tweets, hoping to keep abreast of league-wide whispers. I have rebuilt lowly teams into perennial winners on MLB The Show. And yes, I have wasted countless hours of my life poring over Spotrac and Fangraphs, scribbling idealistic lineups, creating spreadsheets of preferred free agent targets and constructing utopian six-team trade proposals devoid of rationality. There is something so addicting about piecing the puzzle together – dopamine delivered by vicarious negotiations. I know you do it, too, so turn that judgemental frown upside down.

Our ceaseless fascination is symptomatic of a broader illness: taking sports too seriously. I, like you, adore sports. Baseball and football have been constants in my life, like an old reliable pair of jeans. However, even I struggle with sports overload and burnout nowadays. There is just so much of it, and the life-and-death nature of contemporary fandom can be overwhelming. There is now a cult-like hierarchy to sports fandom moderated by narcissistic diehards who believe their devotion and knowledge is unsurpassed. There are in groups and out – the enlightened few sneering at the illiterate many, and a baying mob waits online, ready to smother anybody who shares an unquantified thought. Simple opinions are not allowed anymore; only objective statistical extrapolations can be judged by a jury of your sporting superiors.

Even as a veteran blogger, occasional podcaster and recovering journalist, I’m routinely bewildered by the proliferation of sports media, which – through magnification and exaggeration – monetises our interest in such minuscule tchotchke. Every minute of every day, injuries are investigated on talk radio. Plays are discussed on podcasts. Rumours are spread on YouTube. During the winter meetings, we even had hardball stans tracking radar as Judge’s private jet flew from Tampa to San Diego. Every twitch warrants an avalanche of digital hot takes – always extreme and rarely positive – from an army of professional prognosticators. Enjoying the actual prowess of athletes – the leaping catch, the long home run, the fine double-steal – is secondary to exploring their flaws.

Who do we think we are, as fans? No – seriously. Sure, we each contribute a minute percentage to team revenues, but I fail to see how that warrants total transparency from the ballclubs we second-guess daily. On reflection, is it not a little weird that we know every detail buried in player contracts? Is it not a bit voyeuristic that we can peruse no-trade clauses and awards bonuses at will? When all is said and done, these are private individuals employed by private companies. Should we really be free to viciously dissect their remuneration in angry Reddit threads? Would you like to have your performance scrutinised by millions of people worldwide online, with constant half-baked comparisons to your peers? Probably not. So show a little mercy now and then.

Undoubtedly, there is an egotism to this fanaticism. Football Manager addicts think they know better than elite coaches. Monday morning quarterbacks second-guess every play in slow-motion, despite a complete absence of athletic ability. House-bound bench coaches boo big league sluggers for striking out, despite never progressing beyond whiffle ball. We all think we have the answers, the solutions, the wisdom and intelligence to fashion a winner. We do not. Alex Ferguson lost games. Bill Belichick has had losing seasons. Joe Torre occasionally mismanaged a bullpen containing Mariano Rivera. It happens. We are all human. We are all flawed. But when the greatest, most experienced minds in sports regularly fail, what hope do we have, sat on the couch eating Doritos? Have some respect.

The bygone sports fan had a far more simplistic approach – digesting newspaper box scores, game reports and opinion columns at breakfast, over pancakes and coffee, then going about the day blissfully unperturbed. Sure, there may have been a few baseball conversations around the watercooler at work, but they were typically fit for a generalist. They did not require in-depth knowledge of WAR, FIP and exit velocity. It was enough to just maintain a healthy, positive interest without fretting over every machination. It was enough to actually enjoy baseball without it eating you alive.

Now, though, we have made rooting for teams a stressful full-time job. If we are not scouring Twitter for trade rumours, we are manipulating data to find an optimal lineup. If we are not listening to seven podcasts on the same piece of news, we are daydreaming about the upcoming free agent class – a full year away. If we are not shouldering the anxiety of players and managers, we are carrying the burden of owners and general managers. Heck, we even masquerade as pop psychologists, issuing edicts that particular players are unfit for certain markets – be it Aaron Hicks in New York or Carl Crawford in Boston. This shit is tiring, between bouts of buyers’ remorse and sellers’ regret, analysis paralysis and information overload. We may feel better by dropping the obligation altogether.

To that end, fandom and transaction intrigue seem inseparable, but there are ways of distancing ourselves from the hot take dopamine exchange. After all, we have zero control of these things, so perhaps releasing a bit of the pressure will feel cathartic. Perhaps reconnecting with the physical game, beyond the digitised diamond, will reinvigorate our enthusiasm. Perhaps retiring as armchair GMs will allow us to be humble fans again.

Ultimately, we could all benefit by taking a step back and analysing our sports fandom. Maybe viewing things at a larger scale – months and weeks, not minutes and hours – will provide greater clarity and meaning.  Maybe pausing for breath, maintaining an epistemic distance and respecting those actually making the decisions, will free us from the misery of perpetual dissatisfaction. Maybe rooting for people to succeed, rather than waiting for them to fail, will teach us to appreciate their expertise. Maybe we can return to a simpler age, catching up on the baseball news once a day as opposed to scrolling Jeff Passan’s Twitter feed every time we use the toilet.

Indeed, a case can be made for following and enjoying sports on a purely aesthetic level. We essentially root for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, so leaning into that – making uniforms, logos, ballparks and announcers our primary baseball stimuli – seems appealing. Certainly, it is preferable to grinding your teeth through every pitch of a ballgame then ringing a sports radio hotline to vent about a mediocre reliever. Chill out and relish the ambiance of baseball. It does not have to be so extreme.

I want to rekindle the childlike innocence of baseball, a game capable of thrilling us more than any other. Sure, I will keep abreast of the news and notes, but not in real-time, and not with fanatical devotion. Then, when the snow melts away, and Opening Day dawns on the golden horizon, I will turn on the television and watch the games. I will not watch other people reacting to the games on Twitter. I will watch the games. That way, I might just fall in love with this wonderful sport again. I might just exacerbate the joys of an underdog winning without talking heads telling me it is impossible beforehand. I might just appreciate the startling array of athleticism anew, rather than lambasting the infinite almanac of moves that were simply never made.

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