Crash Bag, Vol. 85: The Duck Blind

Bill told me, when this post was in draft mode, that I’d turned off comments. I have no idea how I did this, so I don’t know how to turn them back on, and while Bill apparently edited the post while I wasn’t looking, he might not have reenabled the comments. We’ll see how this goes.

@jenningsjt: “If RAJ was fired and the city decided Hinkie should run both the Sixers and the Phillies, what would be his first few moves?”

I think the first thing he’d do is try to trade for draft picks, maybe take on a couple bad contracts to do so, figuring he’s got the cap space…then come hurtling back to the ground when he realizes you can’t trade draft picks and baseball doesn’t have a salary cap.

Truth be told, you’ve got a pretty good proxy for this question in Houston, where a guy with money and patience bought a team about to hit rock bottom fall from its only title challenge since the early 1980s from an owner who just aggressively did not give a shit. The new ownership, struggling to reinvigorate interest in a franchise that hadn’t competed or drawn well since the departure of its franchise cornerstone (Allen Iverson or Jeff Bagwell, depending on your narrative), brought in the top lieutenant to the smartest GM in the game (Sam Hinkie or Jeff Luhnow) and gave him carte blanche to rebuild the team in his own image.

So just as Hinkie realizes that you need to be at least a 50-win team to have even a remote chance at a title, Luhnow only kind of cares whether his Astros win 75 games or 55 until Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Mark Appel, Rio Ruiz and, one presumes, the fabled Carlos Rodon, are ready. (Everyone, including me, has written about this, but if you want more on the subject, see Rany Jazayerli’s piece for Grantland) Until then, Luhnow is taking a flyer on flawed, cheap and young players, figuring if he brings in 20 former prospects and buy-low types, one or two will turn into real contributors. Matt Dominguez is his Tony Wroten, Robbie Grossman his Daniel Orton. The parallels really are kind of creepy.

@mdschaeff: “Name one thing that we can actually look forward to next year.”

I’m looking forward to the NBA draft and the college baseball season, which I’ve missed desperately. I’m going to try (and most likely fail, but still) to make it to both the College World Series and the SABR convention, either one of I’ve been meaning to do for years. I’m going to seek out new professional challenges and try to write more and better, and about different things.

I don’t know if any of that interests you, but there’s precious little to look forward to when it comes to the Phillies. Maybe we’ll see if Cody Asche turns into a 3-win player or if he’s only a 1-win player.

@AlexRemington: “If the Phillies platooned Jimmy Rollins with John Mayberry Jr. at shortstop, would the team be appreciably worse?”

Yes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that things can always get worse. For all his newfound oldness, Rollins is at least still a serviceable defensive shortstop, and he posted an OPS+ of 85 last year to JMJ’s 86. And Rollins was still at about league average for batting average and OBP, even if his power’s gone. Can you imagine John Mayberry at shortstop? It’d be like watching a horse try to buckle its own saddle. Normally I think weirdness and incompetence are funny, but this would just start being sad in a hurry.

@Matt_Winkelman: “You are in charge of creating a minor league promotion, what team is it for and what is your promotion?”

The Duck Blind. This is going to get a little long-winded, but bear with me.

Madison, somewhat oddly for a city of a quarter million with a major university in town and four MLB teams within four hours’ drive, has no real college or pro baseball to speak of. Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team that doesn’t do baseball, and near as I can tell the closest minor league team is in Beloit, a hamlet halfway to Chicago that makes Delaware look like Xanadu.

What we do have is the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League. The Northwoods League is a wood bat league for college kids over the summer, glorified in such cinematic classics as Hall Pass and Summer Catch. The play in the Cape Cod League, by far the most prestigious of the several such leagues that crop up every summer, is probably almost on par with ACC or SEC baseball, with the Coastal Plains League below that and the Northwoods League even lower. My only experience with summer baseball before this year was one game of the Peninsula Pilots, a CPL team in Hampton, Virginia that, near as I could tell, played in a 75-year-old stadium built from driftwood.

Despite the low quality of play–in three Mallards games, I recognized one name from major college baseball–the Mallards play in a palace, a bazaar of amusements, oddities, food and drink the likes of which I’d never seen. For your dollar, it’s every bit as entertaining as an MLB game, and if you’re ever in Madison in the summer (and I’m glaring hard at you, Matty Winks), you should take in a game.

Particularly because of the Duck Blind. The Duck Blind runs from right center down the first base line. Admission to this section is $33, and in addition to some good clean baseballing fun, you get all the food and drink you can consume. Good food–sausages, potato salad, chicken, cole slaw–and not just Bud Light, but beers from Goose Island, New Glarus and Great Dane. All of it you can consume. It’s wonderful–the summer evenings in Wisconsin are mild, the atmosphere electric and the baseball good enough to hold your interest. And if you spend eight innings drinking beer, cabs from the stadium to downtown can be had for the change in your pocket. I’d actually answer your question seriously, but I can’t imagine beating the Duck Blind as a promotion.

Another question.

@Matt_Winkelman: “What prospects/young players were you sure were not going to miss?”

A propos of recent news, I would’ve bet the farm on Jason Knapp turning into a stud. He was the reason it took me forever to get on board with the Cliff Lee trade, because 6-foot-5 18-year-olds who throw 100 miles an hour with curveballs that make you feel like you’re on the slo-mo drug from Dredd make my prospect veins swell. But in the spirit of the age-old proverb, There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, Knapp’s arm came detached at he threw his last professional pitch before he turned 19.

And I wouldn’t say that he’s missed, but I expected more from Domonic Brown. The same with Matt Dominguez. My massive South Carolina homerism caused me to misjudge Justin Smoak, whose career is turning into an epic poem on the concept of being born under a bad sign. I’m also shocked at the bad fortune that’s befallen Danny Hultzen, who was as sure a thing as you could have asked for coming out of UVA, but who can’t stay on the field anymore and hasn’t come close to making the Mariners’ big league team yet.

Paul Wilson, Gookie Dawkins, Alex Cintron, Phillippe Aumont, Andrew Miller, and if it’s not too early to give up on him, Trevor Bauer. The modal outcome is failure.

@GlennQSpoonerSt: “Do the Phils have an organizational aversion to bringing up players before 22 or do all their players take longer to develop? It’s odd since they love taking HS players high in the draft when they know they won’t bring them up for at least 5 years.”

I used to grow tomatoes. South Jersey has that horrible, sandy, acidic soil, but it’s great for growing tomatoes, so I had a plant in a pot one summer when I was a kid. I nursed it from a seedling, watered it every day, repotted it when it needed to be–I’m pretty sure I even named it, but I can’t remember what I named it. Anyway, that sonofabitch grew to be about three or four feet tall, and it produced as many big, juicy baseball-sized beefsteak tomatoes as I could eat.

But it took a few weeks to get there. Baseball players very seldom turn into major league contributors until they’re in their mid-20s. By the time a player’s 22, he’s usually either still in college or still learning to hit in the upper minors. Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels, who might be the Phillies’ two best high school draftees ever, weren’t major league regulars until 22. Brett Myers came up at 21, but it took him three years to hit his stride.

It’s even more extreme for college players. Chase Utley debuted at 24, won a full-time job at 26. Ryan Howard took over for Jim Thome at age 25 and Pat Burrell broke in at 23. I’ll grant you that the Phillies seem to be a little conservative with bringing their prospects along, but that’s largely because very few prospects are ready by 22.

The players who play at an All-Star level at 21 or younger: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez, and going back, Jeter, A-Rod, Griffey…those are Hall of Fame talents, many of whom got an extra year of professional coaching through having a late birthday anyway.

For mere mortals, even getting to the majors by 22 is a huge triumph. Even Trout struggled as a teenager. So it’s frustrating, but if you draft a high schooler, more often than not it’s going to take him at least five years to reach the majors, if he ever gets there at all. You don’t want to eat your tomatoes before they’re ripe.

@KevinBors23: “is it ever acceptable, in any situation, to root for your team to lose? (I say no)”

I say you used “ever” and “any” and I have a hard time getting comfortable with absolutes. I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to write a Treatise on the Ethics of Tanking at some point and discuss this at length, so I don’t want to ruin that. I’ll say this: there’s a difference between taking the long view, recognizing that it’s better in the scenarios I described above and recognizing that it’s better to win 16 games and get Andrew Wiggins than it is to win 30 and get Mitch McGary, and rooting for your team to lose full stop.

So I think in the long term, it’s okay to root for your team to be bad for a while to facilitate a rebuild in pursuit of deferred happiness. But it takes a special set of circumstances to root against your team on a game-to-game level. I hope the Sixers lose 65 games this year, but when I’m watching any individual game, I’d feel dirty if I rooted for them to lose in the moment.

@PeterAlexLyon: “How do we as Phillies fans cope with the hopelessness of RAJ’s inevitably lengthy remaining tenure?”

I think that recognizing he’s not going to get fired just because the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd instead of Jacoby Ellsbury is a good first step. These processes take time. On the Will Leitch Experience podcast, the eponymous Will Leitch was talking to Sam Miller about GM hirings and firings and they said that no GM had been fired in the past 24 months, which seems like a wild enough claim that I should verify it, but I’m not going to.

Anyway, I’ve been dealing with it quite well. It wasn’t until this year that things got truly hopeless, and that coincided nicely with my getting a national writing gig, which, let me tell you, has been a boon for my sanity. Because after the trade deadline, when the Phillies were clearly moribund and Uncle Cholly got fired and the team was both awful and directionless, I had a built-in excuse to go watch Yasiel Puig instead of slogging through Ethan Martin indulging his inner Passion Pit and John Mayberry consuming outs the way I consume cheese curds.

So I think that’s part of the solution–it’s more fun to pay close attention to a good or interesting team than a bad and boring one, so if your team is bad and boring, now might be the time to maybe only watch three games a week instead of six. Go learn the guitar. Read poetry. Cycle to other channels on your MLB.tv. Go get caught up on the Sixers and Eagles news you’ve been missing since 2007. Being a baseball fan is supposed to be fun, so if it becomes less fun, nobody’s holding a monkfish to your head demanding that you keep paying strict attention. This is not the Ludovico Technique. And if your interest comes back more fully the next time the Phillies are good (say, 2027 or so), you have my permission to go up to anyone who calls you a bandwagon fan and sneers at you and hit him across the face with that monkfish. There’s an idea going around that all fan/team relationships are the same and can be measured one one axis–devotion. People who think this have no life, no perspective and no creativity. I’d kill myself if I had to watch every Phillies game every year, and this is why beat writers tend to be such raisins of men–bitter, shriveled and entirely inside the box.

Here’s the short answer: life sucks. I’ve got a pocketful of axioms about this. The modal outcome is failure. Ecclesiastes 2:11. We will all die alone, unhappy and not nearly soon enough. The Phillies are going to suck for a while, and there’s no end in sight and there’s nothing you’re going to be able to do about it. And they’re not going to fun suck, either. It’s going to be a chore. So you can either sit back and enjoy the Hamels or ask for the serenity to accept the things you can’t change or some combination of the two. I have no silver lining for you. You will find no salvation here.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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4 comments

  1. Paul

    December 20, 2013 10:15 AM

    “I have no silver lining for you. You will find no salvation here.”

    Jeez, as if the holidays weren’t already suicide-prone as it was…

  2. JM

    December 20, 2013 10:53 AM

    I didn’t watch nearly as many games last year, I just couldn’t stomach it, but I never stopped sporting my Phillies gear while contemplating other activities. Life is short. Love your team, but don’t let it drag you down….

  3. Just Bob

    December 20, 2013 02:59 PM

    Don’t worry about RAJ’s tenure being much more lengthy.

    The Phils had their scapegoat in ’11 (injuries), ’12 (Cholly & coaching staff), and in ’13 it will RAJ especially if this team is an embarrassment again by mid-summer and wins 75 or less games again with another tumble down in attendance.

    Problem is that the organizational rot at the top (Montgomery) will remain along too that they have ties to.

    My bet is that this season plays out what happened with Minaya in NY. RAJ gets fired after this offseason (>.500) and the Phils bring in another well-seasoned GM who will have some degree if respectability due to past success but fit in with their organizational mindset.

    Mets did it with Alderson. I would have to look at what GMs are available and who might be available after this offseason.

  4. hk

    December 21, 2013 09:05 AM

    If losing is in your team’s best interests, of course it is okay to root for them to lose.

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