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On Diamondbacks Fandom: Passion Vs. Objectivity

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May 13, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; A fan in the crowd catches a foul ball during the game between the Arizona Diamondbacks against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
May 13, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; A fan in the crowd catches a foul ball during the game between the Arizona Diamondbacks against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

It has been a tough season for Diamondbacks fandom, with two of the most popular players over the past couple of years, Barry Enright and Ryan Roberts, heading for new pastures in Anaheim and Tampa respectively. Both will be missed by fans, on a level that likely surpasses the value shown by any cold, impartial analysis. It got me thinking about the line I'm treading here at the SnakePit. In particular the tension which results from being a passionate Diamondbacks fan - which is why we're all here - while also trying to maintain a degree of objectivity with regard to our players.

Illustrating the dilemma nicely is the following tweet from one of the now ex-Diamondbacks:

I think it's probably no coincidence that the Dread Pirate tweeted the above less than an hour after his agency at the Beverly Hills Sports Council had used their Twitter, to send out a link to Dan's analysis of Ryan Roberts' 2011, asking whether he could reproduce it in 2012. The conclusion was basically, "Probably not," and that proved to be more or less the case, with Roberts regressing sharply from last season. However, I'm not interested in saying, "Haha!" on behalf of Dan, so much as making the following counterpoints.

  1. No-one was pulling harder than all the SnakePit writers for RyRo to succeed in 2012.
  2. Well, except Rockkstarr12. :)
  3. I'm pretty confident no-one in the Diamondbacks gave 110% this season, more than Roberts. I think his history - being a major-leaguer, losing that (to the extent of living in the Reno clubhouse), then clawing his way back - pretty much guaranteed that. Call it the Sean Burroughs effect, if you wish.
  4. To sincerely echo shoewizard's sig: "The worst major leaguer is better at baseball than I'll ever be at anything I ever do in my life." There is something fundamentally wrong about any criticism we might make, given this.

It's a lot easier to be objective about another team's players, to whom you don't have that emotional attachment. Fans of said team are not necessarily enamored by this, tending to treat such a reality check with the affection reserved for a Borg invasion. This is especially true with younger players and prospects, who can be elevated to near mythic-levels, especially if they happen to fill a painfully-obvious need for a team. And yet, it's likely a team's fans who will be best informed, generally, about their young prospects and would thus be best-able to analyze and rate them.

The tension between these two opposing forces heavily informs sites like the SnakePit, and is a contrast to the situation with traditional media. We're supposed to be "just fans", but aren't always. They're supposed to be entirely objective - but I suspect, aren't always either. I've little doubt that reporters who follow the team every day, end up building relationships with those they cover. And this rapport - or, possibly, lack thereof - will filter through in to what appears in the media. I think 100% objectivity is almost impossible. Reporters are only human after all, not story-writing automatons.

From the SnakePit perspective, the forces sometimes pull in opposite directions. There is our fandom, which tells us, more or less, that every player on the Diamondbacks team is wonderful, and should be on the All-Star team. But the reality, of course, is that simply isn't the case. Does acknowledging this openly makes me less of a fan? I feel like a deeply-religious scientist, who wants fervently to believe that there is a God, but who keeps coming across experimental evidence that suggests otherwise. I think everyone here has to find a comfort point balancing the two: some are more faith-based, others logic-based. Neither is intrinsically "better".

It does lead to feelings of guilt that are almost Catholic - or Jewish, if you prefer. Take the start of last season. Enright had a great 2010, and was universally agreed to be an all-around good guy. However, the peripherals from his 2010 pitching performance were concerning: not enough strikeouts, freakishly-low BABIP, and 85% of the base-runners he allowed were stranded, the most in the majors for anyone with 80+ innings. Omens for 2011 were not good, but I felt genuinely bad writing such thing, or reading them from other people. I didn't feel any better when the pessimistic predictions turned out to be painfully accurate.

I do tend, generally, to be a pessimist in real life. The way I see it, I figure that if things go well, then we get to be pleasantly surprised, and if they go badly, we get to say, "Told you so." However, that doesn't hold true for my sports fandom. Oh, I still tend to expect the worst, but I have an innate optimism that those in charge of the team know what they are doing, and make decisions based on this. I tend at least to try and see the upside in every decision, e.g. the signing of Kubel. Of course, this lasts only as long as the executive in question is with the team. Soon as they leave? Worst coach/manager/GM ever. I'm quite good at such Orwellian doublethink.

Which is odd, because it was the logical, statistical side of the game that first drew met in to baseball. It's a game where numbers define almost every aspect - and, generally, there's a lot of truth to be found in them. But fandom tends not to be driven by sabermetric considerations. What I'll miss about Roberts isn't his OPS or UZR, it's his tattoos, and the Gibby impression he did after his walk-off grand-slam against Los Angeles, or the sense that he'd be a guy you could have a beer with - or who could be the guy throwing you out of the same bar. Logic doesn't factor into fandom, and I'm down with that. If it did, we'd all be Yankees fans.

"Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city, you're actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You know what I mean? You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt! They hate him now! Boo! Different shirt!! Boo!"
-- Jerry Seinfeld

Can kinda see where Seinfeld is going, but I'm not sure there's much truth in the assertion, particularly the last part. I doubt most D-backs fans "hate" Enright or Roberts now: indeed, I suspect will be quite happy for them to do well with their new teams, except if that's directly at the cost of the Diamondbacks. But there's no doubt that the likes of Chipper Jones - superstars who play their entire career for one team - are probably all but past. Maybe the big-market teams can afford to keep a player their entire career, but outside of NY, LA and CHI, that's going to be an absolute rarity.

I don't actually have too much of a problem with that, because my support is for the organization as a whole, and not any particular player or players on it. That's an approach which probably does save me from the emotional roller-coaster of seeing a favorite player dealt elsewhere., and may be tied to my desire to try and maintain objectivity - though which came first (whether my team-oriented approach is a cause or a symptom), I'm not sure.. I certainly can't imagine a scenario which would cause me to stop being a fan of the Diamondbacks as a whole, even if I moved across to the other side of the country.

One final thing I want to stress there is no "right" or "wrong" fandom, and more than there is a right or wrong religion. Everyone has to find their own comfort level. and should respect those who may be located somewhere else on the spectrum. That works both ways. Sabermetric devotees need to understand that not everyone sees players in terms of WAR and xFIP; on the other hand, those who prefer the personalities to the peripherals should learn not to take criticism personally, separating the players from their performance.