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Bird Food: Measuring What "Matters"

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What good are these thoughts that I'm thinking. It must be better not to be thinking at all. A styrofoam lover with emotions of concrete. No not much, not much at all. Lou Reed.

Max Weber, a German sociologist from the 19th century, once lamented that the greatest tragedy of industrialized societies is the loss in the belief in magic. The increasing rationalization of society through quantitative driven, rule based bureaucracies, while incredibly efficient, ruined the mysticism found in pre-industrial societies. When a timely rainstorm saved malnourished crops, people could explain this event in ways that go beyond a scientific dissection of the atmosphere's level of precipitation and temperature. Not only could this explanation find a wide audience, but it provided value because it allowed people to believe in something beyond what could be explained by facts and figures. When trying to understand what matters to people, a strictly rational approach can only go so far. Tom Scocca from Deadspin though writes an essay where he often dissects the question, why the Baltimore Orioles matter, in an analytical way which I think misses something important.

In trying to explain why the O's matter, Scocca lays out a number of facts along the way. These facts are nothing surprising in themselves but they contextualize emotional core of Orioles fans. In brief, he mentions that the O's haven't had a winning season since 1997. As a result, the fans have suffered through numerous failed rebuilding plans. Each rebuilding plan has brought in some talented players only to see them traded away including a rather dubious analysis of the Bedard/Jones trade. And to top it off, Scocca mentions that even blue chip front office talent have stayed away from Baltimore. A lot of sorry players and front office talent leads to a lot of losing. Nothing surprising.

Now what?

A friend of mine she cries at night, and she calls me on the phone. Sees babies everywhere she goes and she wants one of her own. She's waited long enough she says. And still she can't decide Pretty soon she'll have to choose and it tears her up inside... She's scared...scared she'll run out of time. Bonnie Raitt

This knowledge is corrosive. Tomorrow and next year and the long-term plan—these are a script to fetch the suckers off the midway. The people who talk about "rebuilding," who discuss a baseball roster as a portfolio of assets to be managed for future value, won't admit this. Teams and fans are supposed to recognize that a season, or two or three seasons, is a lost cause, and embrace that. Be smart, give up. You lose today so that tomorrow you can win. (Might win.) (Might have a chance at possibly winning.) (Might potentially, theoretically, have a chance at possibly coming closer to winning.)

Well, we're told to wait because proper rebuilding requires it. But after 15 years of losing, the fans have waited long enough. No more theories of how to win. We want actual winning. And I think this captures the feelings and frustration of O's fans perfectly circa 2012. We're sick of tomorrow. What about TODAY? As Scocca points out, the O's lack the financial resources of the Red Sox and Yankees. Imitating the Rays is easier said than done. And for all of the talk about the Blue Jays, they still haven't won a playoff spot yet.

It's a long way from Albert Pujols. But it's a big step up from Derrek Lee, too. Maybe the real undervalued asset was in hiring an unwanted veteran general manager, rather than the sixth- or eighth-best whiz kid on the whiz-kid market. Duquette seems to be trying to get ahead however he can, not angling to position himself to implement a long-range plan to create a future window of opportunity. The long view doesn't require you to grab Zelous Wheeler off waivers at the last minute.

Scocca expresses some approval for the work done under Dan Duquette. While he couldn't transform the team overnight, he did make changes around the margins that could be enormously helpful (e.g., improving the bench and the team's OBP). While we could dissect Scocca's understanding of rebuilding and whether that means it giving up on today completely, the point is that these little things matter when it comes to the 27th out in game 162. And for that reason, the Orioles matter.

But notice that Scocca frames the Orioles importance only in relevance to another team's destiny. The Orioles matter because of the damage they can do to another team, not what they can do for themselves. In essence, the Orioles matter because they can play the spoiler. And here lies the limits of what a long winded, rational explanation can accomplish. I don't need an explanation for why the Orioles matter that is set up in a logical way moving from historical context, roster construction and to current management practices to understand the significance of Robert Andino. The Orioles matter for no other reason because people care about the Orioles. And I think the reason why the fans care about the Orioles is because they want them to be in playoffs rather than playing the spoiler. In the meantime, the Andino moments are magical in itself and don't require a historical exegesis involving WAR, OBP, or player acquisition philosophy to appreciate and understand. But everything the Orioles do from front office moves to roster construction shouldn't be done because the O's might again find themselves in the position to knock another team out of the playoffs. It should be in hopes of creating a moment where the Red Sox are fighting to knock the Orioles out of the playoffs. I hope that the O's matters in that way. I hope to see a parade down Eutaw Street. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope to see these things soon. Hopefully in the nick of time.