Tuesday, July 2, 2002

The Collective Wisdom of Individual Ignorance

Mencken’s All-Stars

H.L. Mencken once said that democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the starting lineups of the 2002 All-Star teams, as voted by the unwashed masses:

National League: 1B Todd Helton; 2B Jose Vidro; 3B Scott Rolen; SS Jimmy
Rollins; C
Mike Piazza; OF Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero

American League: 1B Jason Giambi; 2B Alfonso Soriano; 3B Shea Hillenbrand; SS Alex Rodriguez; C Jorge Posada; OF, Ichiro, Manny Ramirez, Torii Hunter

Mencken might have been surprised. The fans did a pretty good job, picking the best player at just about every position. Ok, they probably blew it at third base -- Shea Hillenbrand and Rolen are maybe the fourth-best third basemen in their respective leagues this season -- but overall, those appear to be the only dud choices in the democratic portion of the All-Star roster.

How did the so-called experts do? Not so good. All-Star managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly each used their dictatorial powers to fill out the roster with their cronies. In addition to the three Yankees voted in by the fans, Torre took shortstop Derek Jeter, third baseman Robin Ventura, and closer Mariano Rivera. No Diamondbacks were voted in, but Brenly selected six pitchers and reserves from his own team: Catcher Damian Miller, second baseman Junior Spivey, outfielder Luis Gonzalez, and pitchers Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Byung-Hyun Kim.

Rivera, Johnson, Schilling, Spivey and Kim all deserve to be there, but the other choices are less compelling. Adding Derek Jeter means that the AL will have five shortstops on the thirty-man roster. If Torre took only four shortstops (which is still probably one too many), he could have selected Toronto’s deserving rookie third baseman Eric Hinske, the guy who should have gotten Hillenbrand’s slot. But instead of using his individual wisdom to correct the lone error of collective ignorance, Torre chose to play politics and mollify the big star with whom he has to share a clubhouse all season. Cowardly move, Joe.

Brenly’s roster choices are even worse than Torre’s. Luis Gonzalez (OPS .916) over Larry Walker (1.050) Jim Edmonds (1.045) and Brian Giles (1.031)? Benito Santiago (.776) over Michael Barrett (.824) and Paul Lo Duca (.823)? Sure, the managers’ hands are tied somewhat on account of the stupid rule that requires them to take at least one player from every team (What is this, tee ball? Does everyone get a trophy too?), but that consideration didn’t come into play with either Gonzalez (teammate of Randy Johnson) or Santiago (teammate of Barry Bonds). Brenly actually thought those guys were deserving on merit. Yikes.

So, as always, there are errors and omissions on the All-Star rosters. This time, however, it isn’t the fault of the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Unless of course we’re talking about Bob Brenly’s individual ignorance.

M. Colon est un Expo!

Up is down. Black is white. Israelis and Palestinians are walking arm in arm singing a peace ballad by Limp Bizkit. Impossible you say? Well, no more unlikely than last week’s trade that sent Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos.

It was a deal riddled with seeming impossibilities. For starters, it marked the first time in, well, ever, that the sad-sack Expos acquired a star player in midseason to assist them in a playoff run. Usually its Montreal that gives up its good players in exchange for prospects, not vice-versa. The other improbable -- and far more shocking -- aspect to all of this is that it means that (gasp!) I was wrong about something.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: "But Craig, didn’t you say that the Indians would start selling off their big names a mere two weeks ago?" Well, yes and no. I did predict that the Indians would start shedding payroll and stars fairly soon, which they are certainly doing. On the other hand, I characterized the predicted purge as a fire sale, and no matter how loudly Indians’ players and fans bitch and moan about losing Colon, this trade was anything but a mere salary dump.

A fire sale is when a team gets rid of productive but expensive players for no real competitive reason and receives little more than reduced salary obligations in return. The Indians, however, have established by now that they’re going nowhere this year (though, admittedly, this was partly because they consciously avoided acquiring decent players to replace the ones they lost in the off-season). More importantly, as ESPN’s Peter Gammons correctly notes (another impossibility, I know), the players Cleveland received in return from Montreal -- Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore -- are all legitimate prospects who have an excellent chance of making the Indians competitive again fairly soon. This is especially true of Phillips, who could find himself Cleveland’s starting shortstop as early as next year.

Or later this year, if Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro is smart. Now that he has raised the white flag on the 2002 and 2003 seasons, Shapiro has to follow through on the rebuilding program, which means getting rid of any other high-priced veterans that (a) will still bring value in a trade and (b) will likely not be worth their paychecks come 2004. That means shopping current shortstop Omar Vizquel, who is both aging and having an unusually late career year, and attempting to move Ellis Burks, Jim Thome, and Chuck Finley. If they can get anything close to the talent for those players that they got for Colon (a tall order, I know), the Tribe should be sitting pretty in a couple of years.

Would I have preferred that the Indians have kept Colon? Absolutely. But after five years in which the Tribe got rooked on trade after trade involving their prospects (they have virtually nothing to show for trading away then-future stars like Jeremy Burnitz, Brian Giles, Richie Sexson and Sean Casey), it’s probably for the best that the Indians have started seriously rebuilding now rather than waiting until next year to bottom out.

Now, having said all that, allow me to raise a more cynical point about the Colon trade.

As a result of Major League Baseball’s seemingly doomed contraction gambit, MLB now owns the Montreal Expos. The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the owners originally decided to contract the Expos rather than move them to, say, Washington D.C., so that in a few years a brand spankin’ new expansion team could be started in the nation’s capital. Expansion, you see, is a cash cow. Anyone who wants to start a new team must first pay a gigantic fee to the existing owners.

But now that real and potential legal problems have made contraction (and hence later expansion) unlikely, the Expos have become an albatross around the owners' necks. Consequently, the owners have gone to Plan B, which involves selling the Expos to an investment group in the Washington area. Selling the Expos in their current state would likely bring the owners far less money than an expansion team would, but it would be better than keeping the team in Montreal.

So here's the paranoid scenario: the owners realize they have to sell the team, and likewise realize that they've diminished the value of their asset by poor-mouthing the Expos over the past five years. They know that if this D.C. plan is going to work, they need to boost the value of the Expos, and fast. One way to do that would be to create the illusion of a winning ball club in Montreal -- say, by getting a star like Colon on the team pronto. (I say "illusion" because I still don't think that Colon’s presence will be enough to put Montreal into serious contention this year.) In other words, the owners may be trying to drive the selling price of the Expos up by buying Colon's services -- even if it means buying them at a ludicrous price. If that is indeed the case, it would raise some obvious ethical questions, sticky wickets, and dilemmas of various sorts.

But no matter where the truth of the matter lies, it will be good for the game to have the Expos at least somewhat competitive this season. Baseball has always seemed to do the wrong things for the wrong reasons. If it now ends up doing the right things for the wrong reasons, well, that's a kind of step up.

Darryl Kile

As everybody knows by now, Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile died last Saturday. Kile’s death was both tragic and unexpected, and his passing has no doubt had a major impact on his Cardinal teammates. (They’re 2-5 since Kile’s death, and in the three games of theirs I’ve watched, they’ve all understandably looked like they’d rather be someplace else than on a baseball field.) Unlike most columnists, however, I am having trouble thinking of anything poignant to say.

I suppose I could haul out 400 trusty words to the effect of, "This sure is sad, my thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and kids," but it seems pointless. Kile’s wife and kids probably don’t care a lick about what some obscure columnist in Ohio has to say about the most devastating loss they’ve ever had and likely will ever have to contend with. Saying something like "Wow, this puts things in perspective," is a similarly hollow clichĂ©. Kile’s death didn’t put anything in perspective. People have been dying young since the dawn of time without causing anyone to seriously take stock or lead more fulfilling lives. On the whole, we still work too much and see too little of our families. We still eat poorly. We still seem to have a collective hard-on for violence and negativity of every stripe.

When we wax philosophical or sentimental about the passing of a stranger -- even a celebrity -- we are really only doing it out of a sense of propriety and habit. In reality, we think for a few minutes, "Wow, that was surprising," and then go have a beer, and watch a movie, and generally get on with our lives, as I did when I heard that Kile had died. Maybe that makes us heartless and selfish. Maybe it means that we have serious denial issues for which we should all seek professional help. Then again, maybe it just means that for those of us who aren’t Darryl Kile’s family members, friends or teammates, his death is nothing more than a news item. An unexpected news item that brings fleeting sadness, to be sure, but still just a news item all the same.