P&P Conversation: Location, Dislocation, and A.J. Burnett

Ted: Well, Eric, we are in the dregs of the offseason, after all of the big free agents have signed with their new teams, but before Spring Training begins in earnest. It’s the time of year when, for example, we learn that A.J. Burnett’s no-trade list of teams does include the Los Angeles Angels but does not include the Pittsburgh Pirates. That explains his “Winners are for Losers” tattoo, but does it tell us anything about anything else?

Eric: Has a single top free agent landed at his expected destination this year? Jose Reyes maybe? Nobody saw Pujols to Anaheim or Fielder to Detroit. Yu Darvish had no choice in the matter of which team bid up for his services. What I’m getting at is that for all of our projecting, we have no idea what a given player is thinking at a given time. Maybe A.J. Burnett is a really big fan of the Steelers. Or maybe he’s saying “I’ve had enough with all these high-pressure pennant races and playoff starts and I just want to play baseball.” This brings me to a broader question: If a player is effective — not to say that Burnett is effective — can we begrudge him for choosing to pass up winning and instead being content to swaddle himself in pleasant, low-pressure mediocrity? Baseball players can have different motivations; to reduce them to mercenaries out for fat Borasian paychecks and late-career World Series rings seems silly.

For instance, maybe Albert Pujols didn’t leave St. Louis because of a lack of perceived “respect.” Maybe he left because he was tired of all the obligations and stresses that went along with being ALBERT PUJOLS CIVIC ICON AND HEIR TO STAN MUSIAL. Maybe he just wanted to live in a nice subdivision with his family and have nothing more expected of him than dingers.

Ted: FYI, I have reported your last question to the House of Unamerican Activities, so please ignore the funny buzzing in your smartphone every time you answer a call from one of your commie friends. You see, Eric, professional baseball is about winning. The money, the swag, the buzz; it’s all about winning. I won’t accept any arguments that winning and losing are really just feeble constructs derived to delineate other statistically insignificant entities from one another for the sake of gambling or self-congratulation. I’ll leave that to This American Life.

Really, though, the insanity of this offseason proves that players’ decisions are driven by unseen forces like everything else in this Gladwellian world. A lot of it is about money, but there are subtle changes afoot. For example, Jered Weaver took a pay cut to play in Anaheim, and players now go on the DL for psychological issues. Those are but small fissures in the monolith of money and winning.

That said, isn’t every baseball player an itinerant worker spending half his days in hotels no matter where he signs? Does geography even matter?

Eric: Let’s never use the term Gladwellian ever again. (Talk about Tipping Points, if ya know what I mean). Despite the fact that players spend half of their time in-season on the road, and the fact that they often live elsewhere during the winter months, I do think geography matters. Geography is part of brand. The charm of the Cardinals is not just the pretty birds on the uniform or the history of winning or the echoes of Jack Buck, but the fact that once upon a time they were this frontier team whose radio broadcasts reached entire swaths of America that no other team was reaching. The very location of St. Louis matters. The same goes for the Dodgers moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the Giants moving from Harlem to San Francisco.

I think players are aware of brand and what it means to be a member of a certain franchise. A.J. Burnett might not have okayed the Pirates specifically because he likes rivers or wants to play in the city of Roberto Clemente, but Hiroki Kuroda certainly chose to sign with the Yankees because they are the Yankees. And the Yankees are the Yankees in part because they play in New York City. We’ve talked before about Pujols’ suburban nature and how well that fits in with the Angels brand and the Angels locale. Here in Seattle, you can’t go a week in the offseason without some story breaking about how Free Agent X doesn’t want to play in the Pacific Northwest.

Location matters. But so does dislocation. Maybe geography in baseball is best understood as negative space. The map remains still while the baseball professional (player, coach, scout, journalist) moves from his offseason home to his Spring Training home to his in-season home, and then criscrosses the country on a jet for six months only to return again to his offseason home.

Besides being hell on relationships, all that moving around has to have some kind of grand effect on the collective baseball psyche right?

Ted: A baseball fan today can travel at the speed of light to any point on baseball map, via MLB TV. For that and other Gladwellian reasons, geography is less important to the fan than ever. It’s not to say that cities and stadia are unimportant, but there’s not doubt that a dislocated fan has far fewer barriers to his or her community. If St. Louis was a clearinghouse for all points West, today no single place can command its citizens. Note, for example, the number of baseball bloggers who are able to follow their team as well as some journalists…from across the country.

As for the players, there’s little doubt that city and state matters, though I’m sure it’s personal and there are just as many mercenaries that could care less where they play. Seattle may well be the most difficult city in the nation to attract players to with it’s brisk stadium and atropical meteorology.

Is there a difference, then, between the fan who lives near its team, and those who track from far off lands?

Eric: The fan experience is different if you’re in diaspora. People around me in Seattle aren’t talking about the Dodgers. The games aren’t on in the background at bars. I can’t casually flip to them on television. For me to be a Dodger fan I have to go out of my way; I have to be conscientious about it. In diaspora, it’s hard to maintain passive fandom.

But you’re back in Houston now, back with your Astros. If there’s a difference you’ll be the person to discover it in the coming moths.

3 Responses to “P&P Conversation: Location, Dislocation, and A.J. Burnett”

  • As a life-long Pirate fan, my only question about the proposed Burnett trade is, “Why do they want him?” It’s not like he’s the player who will push them over the top. I’d much rather let the young talent in the minors percolate for another year and see how it looks before bringing in a guy with an ERA of 5.00+ over the past two years who has also been known to be a jerk in the clubhouse.

    In fairness to Burnett, I read in the Pittsburgh paper his wife lives in Baltimore and doesn’t like to fly, so he wants to play somewhere relatively close. I can’t fault him for that.

  • I think geography has an influence over the fans as much as the players (if not more). I love Seattle more than any other place I’ve been partly because of its “atropical meteorology”. However, Seattle is not just a place that players don’t want to play baseball but also a place where fans don’t want to watch baseball much.

    I recently entertained the idea of moving to Chicago simply because Chicago is a baseball town. People who know me question my sanity and ask, “what about the weather”. I know that Chicago is hot in the winter and cold in the summer and alternating hot and cold in the spring and fall. I know that it often snows on opening day there. I know about the wind chill and humidity factors. I’ve been in Chicago when 60 degrees felt below freezing and when 80 felt like over 100.

    I was in Chicago for a game in the middle of May two years ago and my fingers and toes were numb by the end but the stands were packed and people stayed until the end (11 innings). That never happens in Seattle. I can barely find people to go to games with me at all (even when I’m buying the tickets). The Cubs aren’t vastly better than the Mariners (generally speaking). They don’t have more star players. They do have Wrigley, which is legitimately spectacular, but I imagine it loses some of its mystique if you visit it several times a year instead of once in your lifetime. So, what makes Chicago a baseball town and Seattle not so much?

    It could be my circle of friends is defective, uninterested in sports at all or only interested in football and/or soccer, but I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, that is the case, but I think it’s also the general tone of the city.

    Seattle, during baseball season, is beautiful and temperate. Safeco is a great place to watch baseball. I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t be a baseball town, but we’re not and I have to wonder if the players don’t want to play in the NW partly (or wholly) because the fans are not here. Chicken or egg?

  • @Dana: I’ve also heard the rumors about Burnett’s travel situation, and I think it informs the conversation directly in terms of the nature of baseball decisions. Burnett’s choice is utterly reasonable, but in the odd world of baseball it’s an already well-traveled interest piece.

    @Beth: if you move to Chicago just for the baseball, you belong in the Hall of Fame. Seattle, in my experience, has many baseball fans, certainly one of the most sabermetrically inclined groups in the country. Safeco Field, however, is a drafty, chilly place for all but a few months in summer. When the sun dips below the horizon, it gets real cold. That fact really held back my desire to watch ball there. As a player, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend those cold summer evenings in the outfield, either.

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