Before Sam Holbrook, before the 20-minute garbage protest, before the 225-foot infield fly, there was the guy I saw at the 2012 NL Wild Card Game who I was thinking about off and on for most of the game. He was a middle-aged Cardinals fan wearing a customized Cardinals jersey, #5, “PUJOL$”.
PUJOL$, #5, worn at such time as Albert Pujols-with-a-proper-S had finished his first year of playing for the Angels on a brand-new, 10-year, $240 million contract. A bunch of parties had made a business decision the prior winter. Albert Pujols decided his skills were in such demand that he’d solicit the highest bid for employment. The Cardinals declined to offer him much more than the $14 million annually they were accustomed to paying him. The Angels decided, essentially, YOLO.
Ultimately it was a sensible business decision for all parties involved, except probably the Angels. But Mr. Cardinals Guy, looking through Cardinals-organization-tinted lenses, saw an act of disloyalty to “his team,” and he wanted the world to know that rat Pujols was just about the money — as opposed to the Cardinals, whose front-of-jersey logo was not pluralized with a $.
The Braves are a baseball team. They are, by the rules I established for myself at the age of 14, “my” baseball team. They are a corporation — Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc. They are a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty Media, Inc., a bigger corporation with a bunch of random media interests, whose stock price has gone up about 50% just in the past year.
This entity — “the Braves,” Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc., Liberty Media’s new cash cow — by any name, this entity ditched its traditional geography for a better offer last week. Can’t argue with the business logic, either. That logic isn’t in the “heat map” that really only shows that the park is moving from geographic six o’clock vs. the fan base’s center to something more like geographic eight o’clock — the logic is in the $300 million, or 45%, or whatever it is in outside funding the Cobb County deal calls for, and the various revenue streams the new location has promised to open to the team/corporation/subsidiary. They wouldn’t pass that up if the new stadium were in Cobb County, or Lumpkin County, or Boston, or Milwaukee, the latter two of which are places the longest continually operating franchise in MLB has been before.
This whole saga is an object lesson in something I wish more fans would remember as they complain about Overpriced Free Agent X, or Disloyal Sellout Pitcher Y, or Free-Agent-To-Be Z who won’t take a hometown discount. The suits who run the organization would sell you out and move just as quickly as the player will seek the best contract and move.
It’s either one of the best or one of the worst things that ever happened to baseball fandom. Committed, mathematically inclined fans figured out better metrics for how to value players before the traditionalists and ex-players populating actual MLB front offices ever did. This opened up a level of engagement beyond just gasping at Andrelton Simmons’ superhuman defense. It’s impossible for the average guy working a desk job to put himself in Andrelton’s shoes. But he could put himself in the GM’s shoes, and there’s evidence to suggest he has a shot at being better than some of the yutzes who have occupied that seat.
The exponential-growth areas in the last twenty years, fan-wise, have been in the armchair-GM sector. Fantasy baseball went from a niche hobby of Strat-O-Matic enthusiasts and sportswriters meeting at La Rotisserie to a mainstream game for 11 million and counting. Baseball blogs such as yrs. truly pass the interstitial time with “rosterbation,” attempting to construct a next-season’s roster for the home team given existing contracts, payroll constraints, trade bait, and knowledge of the broader market for ballplayers. It’s a natural pastime for fans who will in a few months sit down with $260 in ESPN auction play money and attempt to allocate it optimally among the universe of MLB players.
I play these games, of course. I contribute to a place called “Braves Journal” and I chop away for whoever’s wearing a tomahawk across his chest on a given day. I run a fantasy team; sometimes two or three. But I worry that all of this organization-identifying and armchair-GMing skews the average fan a bit too far in the direction of identifying with management, even when it’s obvious that management views its customers as fungibly as it views its labor force.
Cobb County’s not where I’d choose to live, but it’s not the hellscape its fiercest intown detractors make it out to be, either. It’s got a vibrant adult soccer scene and a bar where you can play almost any imaginable video game over pitchers of craft beer and a steakhouse where you can watch planes take off and a local brewery and I’m sure a lengthy list of things that aren’t the endless Applebee’s of intown fever dreams. It might very well be a nice place to watch a game, and it will certainly have more nearby places to have a meal or a beer than Turner Field. But traffic is indeed terrible there, and it will be so long as its citizenry holds out for the proposition that MARTA is just a way for someone from Atlanta to ride a train up to rob you with a gun in one hand and a Breeze Card in the other.
I think it’s that attitude — Cobb’s desire to be around Atlanta but not of it, to drive to work intown but pull up a drawbridge over the Hooch at night — that has so many intown Braves fans so incensed about a move that is, objectively, just up the road in the same metro area from one congested corridor without any direct rail access to another. It’s always been Cobb that wanted to maintain a safe distance from Atlanta while enjoying the externalities of having Atlanta nearby, and now it’s Cobb that wants to take the Braves with it. That’s a slap in the face around here.
The Atlanta National League Baseball Club, as previously mentioned, cares not a whiff about this. Their business is business, and if Cobb County comes at them with the sort of contract the Rangers threw at A-Rod in 2001, who are they to say no? This is a pretty bad moment to be a sports franchise in search of a municipal benefactor, and here comes Cobb County, probably bidding against itself twice over. You’d take the suckers’ money too. Business is business.
There are all kinds of baseball fandoms in this age, and for those whose connection is virtual — essentially a serialized TV reality-drama called “The Atlanta Braves Attempt to Win a World Series!” — this move is just a bit of internecine turmoil for the greater good. I don’t blame you if you’re from Chattanooga or Huntsville and you think “nothing to see here.”
But for those of us who experience the Braves tangibly — tailgating in a parking lot, walk-up tickets at the window, a wager on the pitching simulator radar gun or the between-innings tool race, standing up for Kimbrel closing out the ninth — it’s a brick-to-the-face reminder that the organization views you through the same actuarial prism through which we catch ourselves evaluating Freddie Freeman (whee surplus value!) or Dan Uggla (boo deadweight tyin’ up mah payroll!). You, intown fan: you can be replaced with 1.05 more suburban fans and the organization wins that trade every time. And don’t get too comfy, suburban fan: when a new city comes calling with a better offer, you’re on the block next.
That’s the lie in rosterbation, and the lie in Moneyball-as-a-fan’s-fetish: the idea that it’s good for anyone but the actual ownership of the team to construct the roster with the highest ROI, the best players for the least money; the idea that players are just instrumentalities to be moved when it’s financially convenient for ownership: ultimately, the lie that ownership’s finances are somehow our own.
It’s the lie in the misplaced moral superiority people get about being anti-Dodgers or anti-Yankees when those teams’ ownerships are simply willing to enrich themselves a bit less to win a bit more. You, Braves fan: your interest is in the team not only keeping Brian McCann but also acquiring Joey Votto and Robinson Cano and David Wright and Giancarlo Stanton along the way, and in paying out the nose for them, even if Liberty’s stock price slips.
I see all the questions this move raises about the nature of baseball fandom. I’m less sure about the answers. The most cynical take would be to admit you’re being hustled by people capitalizing on a one-way emotional connection, and end the relationship. But I don’t think that’s right either — MLB wouldn’t have this sort of leverage if it weren’t for the fact that major-league level baseball is a thing you and I like and enjoy. To have a shared interest is a foundation for a community, and the community of Braves fans — on this site, in the parking lot, at bars, creating and selling me “Barves” shirts that I still find funny — is a good one. If the ostensible foundation of that community would sell me out in a second, that’s a problem, but maybe more one I have to correct for than go nuclear on.
Perhaps what I’m after is a realization that everyone — the rookie playing his ass off on a cheap contract and hoping for more later, the veteran past his prime but still paid free-agent dollars, the hometown icon who finds work elsewhere, the GM juggling contracts, the ownership that goes municipality-shopping — everyone is part of the same hustle and while the game is fun, it’s business for everyone. Have fun with it, but keep an arm’s length of your own. A baseball game affords its fans the opportunity to express vocal skepticism about the motives and attitudes of its players; it seems the least we can do to turn that skepticism in equal shares on its management.