Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fan Democracy?
As my hopes dim for public life in America, at least for the 2008 election cycle, I'm starting to think about power in other avenues. Maybe it's inspired by The Power Broker, the classic critical biography of Robert Moses, which I'm about 430 pages into; Moses began his long public career as an idealist, a man admirable in every way, but soon embraced dark means to achieve worthy ends, and later the means justified themselves as he became a sort of J. Edgar Hoover of public works. The author, Robert Caro, condemns Moses' sins and transgressions, but the point to me is how this man in the second stage of his career--when he'd abandoned procedural idealism but was still acting for goals any person of good faith would support--educated himself as to the tools of power and their uses.

I'm not really thinking about parks and bridges and roadways, though; I'm thinking about baseball, as usual.

The emergence of the internet hasn't revolutionalized baseball, but it's certainly revolutionized fandom. I remember in April 1993, as a sophomore in college, receiving an e-mail about a new listserv (I didn't know what that word meant) devoted to the Philadelphia Phillies, inviting me to join. For the next eight years or so, this was the primary vehicle of my fandom; with no internet at that point, I had the listserv and the AP wire, which featured game stories and was accessible through the university network, to keep me informed. (It's amazing to me now that I used to routinely go to sleep not knowing whether the Phils had won or lost; this happened, I think, exactly once in the 2007 season, the September game at St. Louis when Rod Barajas came off the bench to get the game-winning hit in the 13th inning. I'd pooped out around the 10th, after driving all day from a conference in upstate NY and maybe four hours' sleep the night before.) Over that period, the listserv evolved from fanboy basics to a fairly sophisticated news relay service, publishing (probably illegally) the game stories and other pieces from the Philly papers, trade rumors, and for awhile the contributions of Phils ace Curt Schilling. (Sideline: there's a terrific piece about Schilling, who's always been both huckster and hero, on the NYT site today.)

As the internet emerged and grew and added functionality, the listserv started to feel needlessly constraining, and when I became aware of Philliesphans in late 2002 I switched my time and mindshare there. During the next four years I made over 10,000 posts there--I'm not particularly proud of this, especially considering that a good chunk of that was squandered on idiotic political fights, with idiots--and a bit more than halfway through that time, I started The Good Phight with a few friends from that community. In December of '06 BackSheGoes emerged from a schism within Philliesphans, and I joined that community as a moderator. (The host/founder was one of the right-wingers I'd argued with on the former site, and reactionary politics notwithstanding he turned out to be a pretty good guy, so that at least represented some value from my time.) It's been a great not-quite year over there, and we've integrated it with TGP to the extent practically feasible.

The point of all this isn't to recap how much time I've wasted on online fandom, but that these evolving forums (fora?) represent a formalizing of community that was well-nigh impossible twenty years ago, and difficult ten years ago. Through the early '90s, the fans you knew were family and friends, and those you were aware of were the other 20-40,000 people in the park, people who called into the sports radio shows, and so on. You couldn't really coordinate anything with them, and you couldn't plausibly claim to have a particularly informed opinion because the data--the statistics, the game records, video, et cetera--weren't readily available to anyone but the insiders. None of this is true anymore. One of the primary functions of The Good Phight is to debunk the moronic "conventional wisdom" frequently espoused by the Phillies and and their guild of stenographers in the Philly media. And on both that site and BackSheGoes, we argue every day about possible courses of action for the team as well as what they actually do.

This is all a lot of fun, of course, but it hasn't meant anything--at least not yet. There are no real-world consequences to our theoretical power gain by virtue of having the data to form independent conclusions and coordinate with potentially many thousands of other fans. At times over the last two years (most prominently right after the Abreu trade/heist of 2006), a few of us have raised the quixotic notion of trying to force the sale of the team. But a few hundred signatures on an internet petition is unlikely even to register public notice, and to my knowledge the next canceled season ticket plan from this mini-movement will be the first.

The specific issue on which I'd like to test this nascent fan power is the possible elevation of assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to the GM chair, probably after the 2008 season. Amaro is universally considered the heir apparent, and many of us believe the only reason he didn't get the job after Ed Wade's firing at the end of the 2005 season is that the PR-conscious Phillies knew there would be outraged reaction. With the division title this year, they have some credibility to make an in-house replacement when current GM Pat Gillick retires... but Amaro seems no more qualified for the job now than he was then.

Amaro is a second-generation Phillie, a former bat boy for the 1980 world champs and a (lousy) bench player for the club during the '90s. He has a degree from Stanford University, and he would in some sense fulfill the mandate for greater diversity in front offices announced (but rarely followed up upon) by the Commissioner's office. But unlike Gillick, fellow AGM Mike Arbuckle, or even newly hired top scout Chuck Lamar, Amaro has no tangible organizational accomplishments he can tout. HIs current responsibilities include "negotiating contracts and handling medical issues"; I would characterize the team's work in those two areas as, respectively, a mild plus and a big minus. The Brett Myers deal last off-season was okay, the Chase Utley deal looks pretty good. On the other hand, it doesn't feel like the Ryan Howard situation was handled well, though that tale will be told in earnest this winter with Howard eligible for arbitration. The "medical issues," though, is tough to see as anything but a complete meltdown: in short, the Phillies traded for Freddy Garcia and his shredded arm without getting assurances, and they didn't sign Joe Borowski who went on to save 40 games for Cleveland (albeit with a high ERA and mediocre secondary numbers--but he still would have been no worse than the second-best full-year reliever on the roster).

More worrisome is that I've heard, second-hand but from multiple sources, that Amaro's both an asshole and a fool. He's reputed to be entirely dismissive of performance analysis; even Gillick, the epitome of old school, has expressed an appreciation for statistical metrics. The potential for a GM who's invincible in his arrogance to get fleeced in trade is almost incalculable. It's always worth repeating that "Moneyball," the best written account of the performance analysis revolution, isn't about "stats" per se but rather finding and exploiting irrational valuations in the market of baseball talent. If this characterization is correct, Amaro is a walking irrationality--and thus ripe for exploitation.

I don't know what's to be done here, but at least a little more scrutiny as to the succession for Phils GM, and laying the groundwork for fan reaction if our worst fears are realized, seem like possibly attainable outcomes.

3 comments:

The Navigator said...

I'm genuinely shocked.

You? Dajafi?

You've never read The Power Broker?

I just took it for granted that you'd read that. Haven't gotten to it myself (though I'd like to), but it just seemed like the quintessential "of course Dave's read that" book.

The Navigator said...

Having now read the whole post, I think I see where you're going: you'd like Phillies fans to be able to ram public works projects down the throats of working class Brooklyn neighborhoods....well, some well-placed phans did ram a giant bank-sponsored park down the taxpayer's throats a few years ago. The GM is probably a harder nut to crack. (If we spread the word that Amaro speaks mostly Spanish, maybe we can get Joey Vento of Geno's on our side.)

David said...

I know, I know. It always intimidated me. I once took it out of the library, read the first four pages, loved it, and realized that there was no way in hell I was getting through this in three or even six weeks along with the fiction I'd borrowed.

It really is awesome, though.

Do Vento and Tom Tancredo belong in any kind of Ironic Bigots club together?