Teachable Moments 2012: Money Will Change Your Life

The playoffs are in high gear, but those who cling to hope for the underdogs might be forgiven for tuning out early this year. The league championship series featured the past three champions (Cardinals, Giants and Yankees) and a preseason favorite (the Detroit Tigers). Gone are the plucky upstarts: the Nationals, the A's, the O's, the Reds. In short all the teams who haven't sniffed the World Series in over 20 years, and in their place, much more of the same.

Baseball's competitive balance is still a little better than you might think, but that's not the point of my writing. My point is that there's a certain something missing from this years playoffs; that plucky scrapper mentality that many mid-market fans cling to as superpowers get richer each year.

Once upon a time, in the good ol' days of five years ago, the Twins were one of those scrappy franchises. Mixing and matching spare parts and raw newcomers to find startling success; while we often wished ol' Carl Pohlad would loosen his purse strings a little more often, we now know that big spending won't solve our problems.

After two years of 90+ losses and nearly $200 million dollars in payroll, frustration is mounting. At the center of all of this frustration isn't the ownership (no longer Carl, just his sons), or the management (penny-pinching Terry Ryan in his 2nd non-consecutive turn as GM), the frustration falls squarely on Joseph P. Mauer. The 23 Million Dollar Man.

We all know the story. Mauer was the scion, the natural, the local kid who was destined to return the Twins to greatness. So, we made sure to give him a contract that would keep him in town for a solid decade. We rejoiced when he signed, and while the price-tag was eye-popping, if anyone was worth it, it was our boy Joe.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story too. In the three years since Mauer signed the uber-deal, his production has vacillated from solid to injury-riddled to elite-catcher level again. At the same time, Mauer has remained the stoic, humble, home-grown star who endeared himself to Twins fans as Minnesota's own throw-back to the crew-cut, mashed-potato-munching stars of yester-year. He's got a house in Florida, but another up north, with a St. Paul-bred wife and a consistent relationship with his St. Paul loving family.

He plays the same. He acts the same. He is the same. Clearly, money did not change Joe Mauer.

And clearly it did change us.

Somewhere along the way, the promise and the paeans to Joe Mauer morphed into demands. Our affection didn't come easily anymore, he wasn't the adorable kid playing stickball on Summit Avenue, he was "the franchise," and he had better play like it! He wasn't a local boy made good, he was a local boy made off with our hard-earned money. He wasn't a great player, he was a shampoo-hawking, prima-donna who let "leg-weakness" get in the way of the game.

Before, we had loved Joe Mauer simply and purely because he was our own and he was awesome. Suddenly, we begrudged Joe Mauer some undefinable something simply and purely because he was our own and he was only "pretty good"...and, oh yeah, he was getting paid a large sum of money (much of which came from our own tickets).

Chances are, if you find your way to this page, this blog, and my style of writing, you have a more complex view of Mauer than simply "the-golden-boy" or "the-sissy-punk". Chances are you've heard plenty of this before. Chances are I'm not saying anything that you haven't thought yourself a time or dozen.

But one thing to bear in mind, as we enter a season of acrimonious bickering over cries of "super rich one-percent-ers" and "the welfare class of entitled moochers" is just how we use these words and why. It's easy to tune out the tit-for-tat argument and snark as irrelevant or impossible, but that avoids the core of the discussion. Does Joe Mauer earn the enmity of disappointed hordes in Target Field because he doesn't perform his job, because he abuses his wealth and privilege, or because class and money affect us in ways we don't feel comfortable talking about. Is it pure jealousy, the shriveled raisin of a dream deferred, the genuine disdain for misappropriated money at a time of fiscal uncertainty?

There's no clear answer to those questions, and that's as it should be. The teachable moments of our year in fandom aren't just moments where a lesson is learned and we move on with life. Teachable moments are the somethings, the anythings, that encourage us to look at things again, to consider and reflect.

I'm a homer, and I'll always love Joe Mauer for how he hits and plays. But after this year, I also have to appreciate how he offers all kinds of teachable moments


Teachable Moments 2012: The Value of Consistent Casting

I could apologize for the delay between posts, but if you read this blog at all, you know full well why the delay is here (it starts with a "w" and ends with an "orking my a$$ off").

It's the postseason now, you all remember that right, the thing the Twins used to do every October before the current unpleasantness began? And while we're all plotting out our offseason blue prints for returning the Twins to relevancy, there are other things to think about, the kinds of things that may not result in wins or losses but do relate to the business of being a fan. Those are the kinds of things that I'm taking on as subjects of these "Teachable Moment" blogs.

There was a moment near the end of the season where my wife, my father and a colleague at my high school all said the same thing while we watched a game. Namely: "Who the hell is that guy?"

Every one of those three people are serious Twins fans, not bandwagon, casual afternoon channel surfer fans. They watch most games (either out of personal interest or because they married a die-hard), and could easily rattle off the owners of retired numbers, the holders of franchise records, and where they were for big moments (World Championships) and little ones (Kubel's cycle, Baker's near perfecto).

Yet each one of them was befuddled by something, or rather someone in the Twins uniform. Samuel DeWho? Matt CarWhat?
 Chances are if you are reading my writing, then you, like me, are still deeply interested in the Twins despite another 90 loss season. You clearly care more than most average fans, even most serious fans. Maybe even enough to distinguish Pedro Florimon from Eduardo Escobar.

But this isn't about shaking our heads at people who lose track of the Chris Hermanns and Kyle Waldrops of the franchise. It's about what it means to have those serious fans fade away from their old commitment to the team.

As far as I can figure, losing once-serious fans to an abyss of indifference is accepting that you're going to have fewer return customers to Twins Brand Family Entertainment next year leading to a dip in revenues (and by association payroll budget). I'm sure the Pohlads and the other front office people know that and are ready to compensate with more attractive group ticket packages, more food/beverage discounts and generally more ways to bring in casual fans. But as the losing becomes more and more habitual, fewer and fewer casual fans will see a (still pricey) trip to the ballpark (or to the team merchandising store) as a worthwhile expense.

Suddenly that "dip" in revenues becomes a "crater" and that return to respectability that we die-hards crave gets pushed farther and farther into the background. So, losing "once-serious" fans is a bit of a dilemma. But there is a solution.

And that's just 3 seasons
of dead people!
 As my wife pointed out, it's not the current Twins are terrible that stops her from watching, it's that she knows the team won't be back for a little while, and doesn't want to get too attached only to see one of them leave. That goes for the talented like Ben Revere, Josh Willingham, Jared Burton and Ryan Doumit (couldn't they all get traded?). And that goes for the not-so talented (witness my love for the probably doomed Luis Perdomo). For my father, loving a current Twin is like trying to adopt a pet lobster from a seafood restaurant, it makes you happy but you just know that something bad's going to happen. My wife likened it instead to the days of our courtship (when we'd mix baseball talk with Lost episodes). Sure there are some interesting new characters, but given how easy it is for the writers to kill off old characters, do you really want to get burned again?

So, while the "throw out the bums!" shouts get louder, remember that there's something to be said for consistency. There's something to be said for building around a few key parts and encouraging fans to learn to love a new face. If we subscribe to a model of constant turnover we may start slipping into oblivion as a modern day Toronto, or Pittsburgh or [shudder] Kansas City.

I know we can't (and shouldn't) keep everybody. But when in doubt, remember that glorious summer when the Twins returned to relevancy over a decade ago, when after years of turnover the Twins committed to a group of young players (who were admittedly more talented than the current bunch), and invited fans to just "Get to Know 'Em".

 Maybe it won't be next year, or even the year after, but when the time comes it will fall on the diehards to answer "Who the Hell is that" with "Miguel Sano," or "Aaron Hicks" or "Byron Buxton...you should really get to know 'em."


Teachable Moments 2012: Ragequitting

Some know this, others don't. I'm secretly a teacher at a public high school that shall remain nameless. (If only to protect myself from principals who wonder why they hired a guy who thinks that beards are sentient.)

 My job is great actually. When the baseball season starts it's a sign that the school year is rapidly winding down. As the battle for first place intensifies, I have many opportunities to watch and revel in exciting games. And by the time I get back to work I know whether or not I should assign essays early in the year, or if I should go easy on students so I can watch the games.*

 This year, with the Twins out of contention, I don't need to worry about missing critical late season games. But as one season winds down and another warms up, I've started thinking about valuable lessons from baseball for fans, and for life. Starting with the consequences of rage quitting.

 One Friday night, Stinky and I went to the game with her parents and watched as the Twins squandered an early lead as only they have been able to do this year. Liam Hendricks looked good just long enough to surprise us all when he imploded in 5th. Our solid offensive outburst seemed flukish when David Huff shut down the bats for three innings. And then Alex Burnett struggled and struggled and finally stunk fumbling a weak comebacker with the bases loaded to let in the 6th run of the game.  

Disappointing as that was, it was the fans reaction that I found noteworthy. We didn't boo. We didn't jeer. But a solid 10-20% of fans that I could see stood and left (either for beer or for good). Dispirited, dejected and otherwise done with watching the debacle on the field. It wasn't any kind of organized protest, or meaningful event, it was just a clear sign that fans were tired of wasting their time and ready to move on with life.

 The internet (which you may have heard of) might refer to this as an act of "RageQuitting, meaning simply: "To quit because you are losing, failing or just plain suck" Sure enough the Twins were losing, the players were failing to make an easy play and all season long they have seemed to just plain suck. There are many ways to ragequit, standing up and walking out of a bad game (despite your expensive tickets), clicking off the tv in disgust, avoiding most ESPN/FOX related content because you think they'll glorify the Yankees/Red Sox and denigrate "those hapless Twins" comment, posting "if-they-don't-fix-this-#%@#ing-team-I'm-done" posts in the forum section, even deleting a Twins Daily account...just because you can't take it any more.

This season has taught us all about ragequitting, as even the most ardent supporters may have at least considered the possibility once or twice. So, what happens when you do ragequit? Let's explore: The benefits of the "ragequit" are simple: you don't have to deal with the source of your frustration any more. You can move on to other things, happier things, better things.

Meanwhile the costs of the "ragequit" are less apparent: you lose credibility with fellow fans, and appear petulant in the eyes of those around you (fans and others alike) for letting a group of 25 guys in blue uniforms affect your whole emotional welfare. Most of all, should you choose to return when the team begins to succeed again you risk that most hated of labels "fair weather fan".

 Clearly, I'm not going to ragequit any time soon. Frustrated though I might be, I enjoy little parts of the game and the team too much to be put off by simple bad play. But that's not to say that you can't ragequit if you want to. You, gentle reader are an independent human being capable of free will (or a super-smart extra-terrestrial monitoring electronic blather about Earth sports for signs of intelligent life in our galaxy...in which case better luck next time). You can do what you like, throw down the remote, slam your lap top shut, call Burnett a loser and Plouffe a hack and Gardy a has been.

 But whatever you choose, understand the consequences. If you ragequit, you gain freedom, but risk social-stigma. If you don't...well...you writhe in agony when Alex Burnett boots a slow roller to the mound. The choice is yours. 

 *Note: I don't really alter assignments based on baseball standings. I'm too scrupulous for that...stupid scruples.