By Mike Steffanos
It struck me yesterday when I was looking through some of the news items that caught my eye that there was a common theme running through all of them -- simple arrogance.
Nice suit, Mr. Schuerholz...
The papers and online sports sites have been chock full of stories that ask what has happened to the Braves. They offer many different theories. Many people close to the Braves and the players themselves feel that all they need is an owner that is willing to spend a few more bucks. Forget the fact that at the start of the season that the difference between the Mets payroll and Atlanta's was less than Kaz Matsui's salary for the year. Conveniently ignore that Atlanta spent more money on players this year than all but four National League teams. Add the Nats and Marlins payrolls together and they still come up far short of the Braves, yet Atlanta trails both teams in the standings.
For all of those "what's wrong with the Braves" stories I've been reading, I haven't found one that has what is to me the common sense answer to this question. Simple arrogance, on the part of GM John Schuerholz and the entire organization, has led to their downfall. They started buying into the media hype that they could put any combination of clowns on the field and win the NL east, because they've done it for so long and everyone in the media completely bought into it. I thought that the Mets would finish ahead of the Braves this year as long as they played up to their potential, but I felt sure Atlanta would acquire someone like Danys Baez to bolster their shockingly weak bullpen. When they didn't, I thought the Braves were terribly vulnerable. Since they've blown just about as many saves as they've amassed, that seems to have played out as I expected.
The Braves liked to point out that they've never had a strong bullpen, but they've always been able to depend on two things -- the cooperation of the other teams in the division who abetted Atlanta's run by their own mismanagement, and the fact that for years the Braves had a rotation that fielded three hall of famers and Steve Avery, who a very good pitcher in his own right. To equate Jorge Sosa, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez and even the inconsistent Tim Hudson with those guys was just blind foolishness. It's a simple truth that the weaker your rotation is, the more you need your bullpen.
This horrible bullpen was there for all to see heading into the season -- Bobby Cox, Schuerholz and all the wise pundits who picked the Braves to finish first anyway. Like Schuerholz, they just assumed it would all work out. If you are familiar with the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes, I think there is an interesting parallel here -- any child could see the Braves were naked in the bullpen, but Cox, Schuerholz and the pundits saw a beautiful suit of clothes there. Arrogance.
My spreadsheet tells me all I need to know...
The second piece of arrogance was evidenced by ESPN's Rob Neyer, who in a May 2005 chat characterized Jose Reyes as "one of the very worst everyday players in the majors". Rob based this unwarranted trashing of a then 21-year-old kid who had yet to put one single healthy major league season together on statistical analysis. The irony of this is that for years, proponents of using statistics to better understand past performance and predict future performance were stymied by the arrogance of baseball's old guard that refused to take them seriously. Now that they have achieved widespread acceptance, it is their own arrogance that amazes and entertains.
Now, there is little doubt that Reyes is a tremendous natural talent looking to harness his potential and turn it into performance. His struggles are familiar to Mets fans, but to all but those of us who share a blind addiction to cold numbers, the joy he brings to the game and the way he dominates when he gets it together combine to make it worthwhile to live through the growing pains. Reyes is lucky to have Willie Randolph as a manger, a man who believes in him and understands the need to help Jose to grow as a player without taking away from what he brings to the game with his natural gifts and enthusiasm. Randolph has referred to Reyes as a young Colt so many times we're all sick of the analogy -- but it really is right on the money. Willie wants to harness all that energy, not break his spirit.
People that are the most shrewishly harsh in their criticism of Reyes don't care about the kid's love for the game, the way he inspires and energizes his teammates, and the intelligence and desire to get better that will make him a legitimate star some day, maybe even this year. They look at statistical comparisons to players who have gone before and feel they can predict what Reyes will do based on what these players have done. You can compare numbers, but you can't compare what's in the head and heart of a ballplayer. Sure, perhaps to some extent Reyes will always be a somewhat flawed player, but most have flaws. As for me, I am very thankful that Omar Minaya isn't a slave to the numbers. I don't need to see Reyes traded for some average athlete that draws more walks, thank you very much. As for Neyer and crew, please accept this virtual raspberry for your arrogance.
No Garden party...
Finally, and since this is a baseball blog we will not spend a lot of time on this one, we bring you the king of arrogance in New York, Mr. James Dolan. You've taken the greatest sports arena in the world, Madison Square Garden, and turned it into a virtual morgue -- the land the playoffs forgot. Sure, the Rangers got back in this year, but that was stupid luck. The strike that almost killed hockey actually breathed some life back into the Blueshirts.
Mr. Dolan, everything you do smacks of arrogance and stupidity. Cablevision could sell the whole operation now and it might take 5 years to even begin to recover, especially the Knicks. Sadly, you seem to be committed to keeping everything and running it all into the ground. The Knicks are the laughingstock of sport, and that's looks to only get uglier. You throw money at the team, yes, but you're making plenty of it. New York is about championships, and you're about striving for mediocrity to keep the turnstiles turning. The sad thing is that you can't even accomplish that. Your reward for your arrogance will be the way that your name will be reviled in New York sporting circles long after you're gone. You truly suck.
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