As one of my side projects, I write about movies. Movies always transport me to a different place, a place outside of myself, a place where the person I am every other hour of the day is gone. For two hours, the world as I know it peels away, and I get to live somewhere else. If someone stealthily took a video of my face while I was watching a great movie, it'd just be me, with my head facing up, mouth wide open, agape, awed, lost, probably drooling a little. It is blissfully passive entertainment. You stand outside it all.
People often equate pop culture entertainment and sports, but watching them prompts two entirely different sensations. There is nothing passive about watching an important, taut sporting event. If you were to stealthily take a video of me while I watching a great October postseason game involving my team, I would look like I was being Tased, or maybe just being rapidly devoured from the inside by a ravenous parasite. Technically, watching an October baseball game is entertainment, diversion, an escape from the regular world. But nothing about the experience of watching an elimination game could realy be classified as fun. October baseball is about stress, about garment-rending, about enamel-eroding, about pain. It is about unbearable tension. At the end, even a loss is a relief; there is at last a release.
Of course, the similarity between watching movies and watching sports is that no matter what you do, you can't affect what's happening. Whether you sit there passively or pace around the room punching yourself in the face, what is going to happen on the screen or on the field is going to happen, on its own, without any input from you. In movies, this is fine: We accept this as part of the agreement. But in sports, we feel like we have some control, or at least should. We don't pretend we'd have any idea how to direct the movie. But we imagine we could be in charge of the game. We could change what's going on, for the better.
All this tension has to go somewhere. We put it on the middle-aged men, sitting in the dugout, wearing uniforms that don't fit anymore, spitting occasionally. We are watching the best baseball players in the world playing the game at its highest level, but our focus, in the postseason, is on the manager.
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"Managing is getting paid for home runs someone else hits," Casey Stengel famously said, but he wasn't giving himself enough credit. Managing is also -- I'd argue primarily -- about getting yelled at for outs your team doesn't get. When the players perform, and your team wins, whoever had the big hit gets all the glory, has the Gatorade dumped on them. (Nobody interviews the manager directly after a walkoff hit.) When the players don't perform, and your team loses, it's your fault. This is the job.
The Atlanta Braves lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday night 4-3, and were eliminated from the playoffs. This is old hat for the Braves: The Braves have now been eliminated from the playoffs 16 times in the last 23 years, a stat that should be impressive but absolutely isn't. But the talk this morning isn't of the Braves' history, or the fact that three of the Braves' best pitchers (Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen and David Carpenter) gave up 13 runs in 7 2/3 innings. The talk is of manager Fredi Gonzalez. This is his fault.
What did Fredi do? Well, it's more about what he didn't do. In the eighth inning on Monday, with the Braves holding a 3-2 lead, Gonzalez brought in Carpenter, with all-world closer Craig Kimbrel warming in the bullpen. Yaisel Puig doubled, and then Juan Uribe tried to bunt twice, failing each time. Now, this is a terrific position for Carpenter to succeed. He's had an outstanding year, with a 1.48 ERA and a 10.1 K/9 ratio. One of the main reasons the Braves made it to the playoffs in the first place was because Carpenter was so good. Now, Kimbrel has been better this year, but one of the main reasons he has been better may well be because he's almost never asked to throw more than one inning.
We can argue whether or not we are using our closers correctly -- or using our bullpens most efficiently, in general -- but this is how Kimbrel has been used all year, and it's not like Carpenter is some washout bargain bin replacement like Freddy Garcia or something. (Ahem.) It's not like he was facing the meat of the Dodgers' order, either. Get past Uribe, who had 12 homers this year, and you're home free, with Kimbrel around just in case. Carpenter is good. You trust him. You can argue that Kimbrel should have been in there, sure. But it was hardly managerial malpractice.
But it didn't work. So:
• "This should be covered in Managing 101. You can't lose a game without getting your best reliever in there, especially one with Kimbrel's credentials, at some point."
• "It's puzzling in the extreme that Gonzalez -- in an elimination game, with an off day on Tuesday and with Kimbrel's not having pitched since Friday and having thrown just 25 pitches since Sept. 29 -- did not call upon his shutdown closer for the final six outs."
"Craig Kimbrel standing around in a bullpen, realizing his season was probably over. Figuring out how not to have that happen in a one-run game is probably a manager's biggest priority. Gonzalez had a chance. Now he has an offseason."
(No manager should ever go on the internet, ever.)
Look, on the other hand, at Rays manager Joe Maddon. As Deadspin's Barry Petchesky pointed out this morning, Maddon managed the end of the Rays-Red Sox game on Monday night like he had just been bonked on the head with something heavy. Through a series of bewildering moves -- including getting rid of his DH -- that make less sense the more you look at them, Maddon, as Petchesky put it, "was prepared to go into extra innings without his DH and without his starting catcher." It was bizarre and confused.
And, of course, it worked. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton, who has hit nine career homers, ended up in the fourth spot, and somehow homered, and now the Rays are alive and no one's talking about Maddon. Lobaton is the hero: How he got there and became is beside the point, because the Rays won.
Now, an argument could be made that Joe Maddon has built up enough goodwill to be given the benefit of the doubt, and Fredi Gonzalez hasn't. But all that really matters is that Jose Lobaton and Juan Uribe homered. We all watched those things happen. We could not control them. But we can react to them. And our reaction is not "Joe Maddon made that happen." It is: "Fredi Gonzalez could have stopped it."
We do not watch a movie that disappoints us and get angry at the director, at least not usually. But we have such rancor for a manager, who has far less control over what we see. Perhaps it's because we can't imagine ourselves directing a film, but managing a game? That doesn't seem so hard. We could do that. And we'd do it right.
We're wrong, obviously, but hey, this is all baked into the job. Our energy and our frustration must go somewhere. The job of a baseball manager is mostly to just sit there. To sit there, and to take it.
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