As we all know, there are still plenty of reasons to keep watching baseball even after your team has been all but eliminated from playoff contention. After all, it is, empirically speaking, the best sport ever invented. And of course, to be invested in the Diamondbacks is to be invested in their future, and to be invested in their future is to be very interested in a number of players who are going to be on display for the rest of the month.
However, the flip side of this is that team matchups stop mattering as much. Where once you all lined up to see whether the Diamondbacks had a better wRC+ than their opponents, now it really doesn't matter. I get that. So, for at least a few of the final previews, I might be going in a more..."artistic" direction
as a desperate ploy to stimulate page hits because AZSnakepit cares about its readers. So rather than giving you yet another write-up on Clayton Kershaw (he's good) and Aaron Harang (he's less good), here's the first chapter of my totally real and completely true account of the Dodgers' decision to dramatically raise payroll in 2012.
Ned Colletti shivered as he walked past ESPN's iconic sign toward the squat, brown building that it designated. It was still July, yes, but Bristol had gotten a rain squall on that particular afternoon, and with the sun already below the horizon, the temperature was dropping rapidly. In many ways, it felt more like October than July.
Ned thought briefly of home, seemingly half a world away on the other side of the continent. It was surely still in the eighties in Los Angeles, and the sun would be shining as it so often was. It was dark already in Bristol, and the Dodgers' game hadn't even begun yet. And therein lies the problem, Ned thought bitterly to himself. He couldn't leave now, though. He had come too far.
The party was already in full force as Ned made his way to the entrance. Limousines packed the courtyard, and several of their patrons stood around them in small groups, each dressed in Armani and Versace, each with a beautiful woman on his arm. Some laughed and smoked cigars, while others simply soaked up the atmosphere. Ned hated them all.
These "Big Market Galas" were nothing new for ESPN. After the network closed up shop every day at 5 o'clock sharp, they would leave only a skeleton crew to cover the occasional Brett Favre trade rumor or Tim Tebow sighting. But every so often, the company would replace the cameras with chandeliers, the studio desks with dining room tables, and the talking heads with string quartets. These galas were the premier "see and be seen" events on the baseball calandar, though the guest list was strict, and only the appropriate ESPN-sanctioned markets were allowed to attend.
Ned could feel the warmth from inside as he approached the front door. From there, he saw Hank Steinbrenner waltzing with Erin Andrews on the makeshift dance floor, and he could hear audible "oooohs" and "awws" coming from one of the long tables, as Derek Jeter regaled junior ESPN reporters with tales of grit and intangibles. But before he could enjoy the proceedings within, one of the door guards stopped him.
"Please state your name and team affiliation.," Chris Berman said.
"Uhh...Colletti. Ned Colletti. And I work for, uh, I work for the Los Angeles Dodgers."
Berman waddled over to his partner, Skip Bayless, and whispered something in his ear. Bayless chuckled, and Ned's heart sank. Bayless made a major theatrical show of flipping through the roster of names, before the inevitable:
"Your name isn't on the list. I'm afraid we can't admit you to ESPN's Gala."
And there it was. Ned swallowed hard, trying not sound desperate as he pleaded, "Look, I've come such a long way, if you could let me in, just for a few minutes, it would be really--"
Berman cut him off. "Sorry, we can't afford to make exceptions. First we let you in, and then we'll have to let in every Pittsburgh and Cincinnati player who asks. And then, why, we'd be no better than MLB Network." Berman and Bayless laughed heartily and clinked glasses filled to the brim with Chateau Margaux.
Ned tried a different tack.
"C'mon guys, what more do you want us to do? The Dodgers are in playoff contention, we've pledged to spend a lot more money, we're gonna be back to prominence soon. You'll all be sorry if you don't get on the bandwagon now."
This time Bayless answered. "We'll take our chances. The Dodgers have been bankrupt for too long. ESPN doesn't forget, Mr. Colletti. If you don't like it, go sit with the rest of the...undesirables."
He pointed, and for the first time Ned saw the mass of people on the far side of the courtyard. Thanks to the dim light outside, he couldn't see how many people populated this impromptu shantytown. But there were at least 20 tents, varying in size and quality, but each bearing the logo of a small to mid-market baseball team. Players and executives from undesirable teams huddled together around large bonfires. Every once in a while, one of the undesirables would get too close to the party, and Chris Berman would run over, brandishing a stun baton and shouting "BACK BACK BACK!!!" (TM).
"I don't belong here!" Ned shouted, more to himself than anyone in particular. Someone nearby heard him, however.
"It's useless to resist, son. Believe me, I've tried."
Ned looked down. A small man in beggar's rags was sitting at his feet, wearing a blatantly fake beard, holding out an unlabelled soup can with "taxpayer money" scribbled on the side with a magic marker.
"Jeffrey Loria?" Ned asked, looking closer. The man nodded sadly.
"It was not so long ago that I, too, thought I could spend my way into ESPN's favor, with a new stadium. I spent wildly on all sorts of players. And where did it get me? Money can't get you into that room, only a mix of winning and East Coast big-market gravitas can do that."
"No, this is unacceptable! We're the Dodgers. We had Koufax, Drysdale, Valenzuela and Lasorda! We broke Major League Baseball's color boundary, and we have 21 NL Pennants to go along with it all. We aren't just going to sit back and get treated like some pissant team from flyover country just because we've been too poor to get rid of James Loney for the past ever. I WANT RESPECT!"
Loria shrugged, "Best just to give it up. Accept the 30 seconds of footage at the end of Baseball Tonight like the rest of us do, get some prospects, and try to compete in 3-5 years."
Prospects...Loria had given him an idea. Ned turned back to the New-York-art-dealer-turned-shantytown-beggar.
"How much do you want for him?" Ned pointed to the large man sleeping placidly behind Loria.
"Hanley? Well, that depends, what can you offer?"
Ned thought about it. "I have this pitcher, Eovaldi. He's not great, but he's cheap, and--"
And just like that, Ned had himself a famous shortstop. If I get enough players they've heard of, ESPN will have to let me in. But he couldn't stop there. Careful to avoid detection from Berman or Bayless, he snuck back over to the gala and propped open a window. He tried to get the attention of the forlorn-looking man standing by the punch-bowl, getting steadily drunker.
"Psst, Ruben. You wanna talk about a Shane Victorino deal?"
Ruben Amaro Jr. looked up in surprise, "Wha...wha' d'you want, Nate? Was jus' abouta get Zack Grienke from the Orioles."
There were several things wrong with that statement, since Amaro had been talking to an increasingly frightened John Clayton the whole time, but Ned didn't have the time to set him straight.
"Listen Ruben, everyone knows the Phillies are toast. Why not just give me Shane Victorino, and rebuild for next year?"
Amaro burst into fat, sloppy, drunken tears, "It's true! It's all true! Just take him! He's yours!"
You've almost done it, Ned. But they'll never take you seriously with James Loney on the roster. No, you need a real first baseman. One that can be a factor back or whatever the hell they call it. And he knew only one place to get one of those.
Ben Cherington sat in the corner of the party and wondered where it all went wrong. Hadn't they done all the research on Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford? Hadn't they needed a strong authoritarian manager like Bobby Valentine after what happened at the end of last year? Cherington had been on those staffs. He had signed off on all the decisions at the time. But man, wouldn't it be great if it had all gone differently...
So when he found a note in the bottom of his punch glass, saying to meet him in the courtyard and to bringhis wallet with him, of course he went. He was curious, and besides, no one could rob him worse than Matsuzaka had.
Ned was waiting for him there, and didn't mince words: "I want Adrian Gonzalez."
Cherington chuckled bitterly, "And I want my payroll back, but we can't hope for miracles, can we?"
Ned smiled, "Actually, that's a miracle I can grant. See, Mr. Johnson doesn't believe in putting a cap on spending. So we'll take his whole contract. And you'll get some prospects out of it."
Cherington wanted to. He hesitated for a split second before saying, "That's no good. You've never been to Boston. Dan Shaughnessy is already preparing an article on how the Boston Red Sox don't care about winning if they trade Gonzalez. You would have to take Beckett for me to even consider it."
Ned frowned. Taking Josh Beckett would go against everything he had ever learned as a general manager. But he looked back into ESPN's headquarters, where executives were drunkenly pointing to random spots on the map and proposing that the Rays should move there. There is no spending limit. Ned knew what he had to do.
"We'll take Gonzalez and Beckett and Carl Crawford. And Nick Punto, for some reason."
After the deal was completed, Ned marched back up to up to the front door, star players firmly in hand. He stopped in front of Bayless and Berman. "You still think we aren't a big enough market for you?"
Whispers. Ned heard only snippets of their conversation: "...comes up big in the clutch..." "...could really be an x factor..." "...massive ratings..."
"Wait here," Bayless said, as Berman ran off.
15 short minutes later, Berman came back with John Skipper, President of ESPN. He smiled broadly and disingenuously. "On behalf of my company, I'd like to apologize for our behavior earlier tonight. This card certifies that you are and forever will be, a big-market franchise worthy of incessant, obnoxious coverage in all ESPN affiliates." He held up a freshly laminated piece of paper with the word "BIG" typed on it in Comic Sans.
Ned could hear the outrage of the small-market clubs, who had been listening intently from a safe distance. He didn't care. He finally felt validated. Ned reached for the card, but Skipper snapped it away. "I forgot to mention," he smirked, "You shall receive this card if and only if your team makes the playoffs. After all, there's nothing less clutch than not making the playoffs."
Ned looked back into the darkness where the small-market teams he had shunned waited. He thought he saw Kevin Towers' and Brian Sabean's eyes meet. Though it was dark and he couldn't tell for sure, Ned could have sworn that they each nodded very slightly at one another, each with a knowing smile on their face.
~To Be Continued~