Trope-A-Dope: ‘Don’t Get Fired’ Edition

By: Dan Grant

The 24/7 sports media landscape in which we currently reside, is a place of groundbreaking intensity and scope. We pan the depths of each and every sports story like never before, searching for the tiny differences that make each narrative unique. Unfortunately, sometimes these differences are few and far between, or so minute as to make no difference. Overworked and under-qualified sports media members sometimes panic in these moments. They reach for a crutch. They reach for a trope. 

We are here to slap their hand.

Welcome to the first installment of the Trope-A-Dope!

First, some housekeeping. A trope, in the modern sense (despite what formal definitions will tell you!) is an overused plot device, or argument. This ‘new’ use of the word was born from modern Hollywood, from recycled script writing, in which the same jokes/problems/situations were used over and over again. It’s become especially prevalent in modern sports journalism, where broadcasters and writers are now constantly searching for content. It’s why much of the time, stories feel familiar; it’s because they are. We are always looking for touchstones. We are constantly comparing- be it the greats, the disasters or all the weird and wonderful stuff in between. And that’s fine! That’s part of the fun of it all.

The danger, however, is when the tropes become lazy. They become such an ingrained part of what we talk about each time a major sports story breaks, that nobody stops to question the ‘Why?’ of it all. And really, ‘Why?’ is the most important question. It dictates all else.

That leads us to our first sports trope, a pet peeve of mine and one that is especially relevant given the bevy of movement last week in Major League Baseball:

(Insert General Manager) made that move to save his job’

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard it before. I know you have. Whether it’s when speculation first ramps up about potential trades or after they’re made, pundits and talking heads are constantly trying to link the moves a general manager makes to his job security.

Hey, It’s an easy connection to make! If the team is successful, then the GM will surely be retained; if they’re not, then he most likely won’t.

The Toronto Blue Jays just went through one of the most extreme trade deadlines in the history of North American sports. They added franchise cornerstone Troy Tulowitzki, relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe, outfielder Ben Revere and the crowning jewel, staff ace David Price. To do so, they surrendered starting shortstop Jose Reyes and a staggering 11 minor league players. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has been lauded by fans and pundits alike for pushing his chips to the middle and truly going for it, whatever that means. And we’ve seen the trope rolled out. Articles and talking pieces popped up everywhere. Things in the vein of:

‘Has AA done enough to save his job?’

‘Did Anthopoulos break from his philosophy to save himself?’

‘If the Jays don’t make the playoffs or lose in the Wild Card, should we still fire AA?’

And look, all of these are legitimate questions. It’s perfectly normal to think about the future of your franchise and to wonder if the front office might be in line for a radical overhaul. As much as I like him, if you look at AA’s resume- 6 seasons as GM, zero playoff appearances (so far!) and a sub .500 record- suggest that further failure might warrant trying something new.

That is not what is being questioned here.

What I have a real issue with, a really hard time believing, is that any professional general manager makes last minute moves simply in their own self-interest, to save themselves, at a cost to the franchise. That is where this trope becomes lazy and ugly. These guys are not sitting by the phone like this guy:

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‘But Dan, you gullible fool!’ you cry ‘Of course they would do that! If they lose their GM job, they’re screwed! They’ve reached the top of the mountain and they’ll do anything to stay there! It’s like Eminem said, you only get one shot! They don’t care about the fans or the organization. It’s a me first world! Grow up, Peter Pan!’

Allow me to retort.

We generally hear this trope during ‘the silly season’ or close to a given sports trade deadline. Media are desperate for a GM to make a move that’s so obviously a blatant play for the NOW, so obviously short-sighted and ill-advised, that they talk about these moves like they actually happen.

But they don’t.

Below, I’ve compiled a chart that shows all 30 Major League Baseball teams. It shows not their current GM, but the previous one. It also illustrates the moves they made in the last two years of their tenure, when, presumably they were on the hot seat, and whether they made the playoffs in either of these seasons. It also shows what exactly happened to them once they left that role.

Editors Note: ‘Prospects’ or ‘Minor Prospects’ is used a catch-all. Rather than typing 456,765 (estimated) names, it refers to any player that never made it to the Major Leagues, or hasn’t yet’.

Have a look.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

GM Trope trade chart

Ok, so there’s a lot of information to parse through there. But let me turn your attention to a few key facts.

  1. Of the 30 GM’s on the list, 15 were fired outright. Their Wikipedia pages are littered with quotes like ‘We needed stronger leadership’, ‘Failed to reach the post-season’ and ‘Struggled to find success’. Except for Dave Dombrowski, who got the axe last week and Jerry DiPoto who resigned at the beginning of July, every one of these fired GM’s is or was working somewhere in baseball (some are retired).
  2. For the most part, the players traded are just guys. Bench bats, decent fill-ins, bullpen arms. Impending free agents were sometimes sold or acquired for Minor Prospects or cash. There isn’t one deal in the vein of the Reyes plus prospects for Tulowitzki trade. Why? Because GM’s who make those kind of moves don’t get fired soon after.
  3. Only four outgoing General Managers traded players who were All-Stars the following season- Sandy Alderson, who dealt Mark McGwire to St Louis, Mark Shapiro, who dealt Victor Martinez to Boston, Ed Wade, who traded Michael Bourn to Atlanta and Andrew Friedman, who dealt David Price to Detroit. On the other side of the spectrum, 10 players who were All-Stars at least two seasons after the trade were acquired by 8 different teams on the list. Players like Jose Bautista, Corey Kluber, Chris Davis, Carlos Carrasco and Edwin Encarnacion. No schlubs on that list.
  4. For the most part, the fired GM’s acted in a business-as-usual manner, trying to deal salary for controllable contracts and/or prospects. The only GM who acted at all recklessly was the White Sox Kenny Williams, and he got promoted!

austinpowerwhoop

‘Ok,’ you’re thinking ‘There must be some explanation for this. Baseball is a tight-knit community! These men are all surely capable!’

Please click on the following two links. They take you to the information pages from Dave Littlefield and Jim Bowden. Have a glance: Littlefield was a laughing stock! Bowden was investigated by the goddamn FBI for stealing money from Latin American Players! These guys both still have jobs in the baseball industry! The point is, something tells me that these guys aren’t too worried about finding work. Do they want to be fired? Of course not. But desperate, they are not.

I’m not here to defend the track record of all GM’s, though it must seem like that. There are, of course, terrible front office executives out there, and the fact that a shitty guy gets given a second chance in a much lesser role is not an indication he wasn’t garbage when he held the big job. Most of the guys on the list met with very little success, hence why they no longer hold their roles. There are other horrendous ways to influence your team, like leaving Rule 5 players unprotected while having spots open on his 40 man roster, and losing Jose Bautista (Dave Littlefield) or signed BJ Melvin Upton Jr. to a professional baseball contract (Frank Wren) or giving Vernon Wells 127 million dollars (JP Ricciardi). All of these missteps are reasons why these men lost their jobs.

The reality is, GM’s are aware of their own short shelf lives when they take the job. Of course they are. 22 of the 30 General Managers were hired within the last 8 years- 12 within the last five. But they can’t make the kind of short-sighted and horrendous deadline deals we seek to condemn, because at any given time they’re auditioning for their next role and they have to be able to defend their record. Despite everyone being employed, I can guarantee you that Andrew Friedman was a lot happier with his move from GM of the Rays to President of the Dodgers, than Kevin Towers was in being twice fired by the Padres and Diamondbacks and now scouting for the Reds. There are always levels of success.

But we can find other ways to criticize, rather than seeking to impinge the credibility of executives based on a fictional trend that has literally NEVER existed.

Don’t lean on the trope, dope. You’re better than that.

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