Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2019

Titles Don’t Buy Love Like They Used To

More than six months after the A’s and Mariners got things started with a pair of games half a world away at the Tokyo Dome, the regular portion of the longest season has come to an end. In keeping with recent practice, all fifteen games Sunday started at or very close to 3:00 p.m. Eastern time; the idea being to heighten the final day drama of remaining pennant races. It’s a fine concept rendered almost entirely moot this year. All ten playoff teams were already set, with the only outstanding question being whether the NL Central champion would be St. Louis or Milwaukee, with the team that missed out on the title, which turned out to be the Brewers, traveling to Washington for Tuesday’s Wild Card Game against the Nationals.

With many teams having so little at stake not just on the last day but for some time, several franchises had already moved into offseason mode, starting to shape the club that will take the field next spring. As is usually the case, a few didn’t even wait until the final day. The Padres dismissed manager Andy Green with more than a week of games left to play, after a second half collapse that saw San Diego go from exactly .500 at the All-Star break to the NL West cellar. Green’s firing wasn’t even the first anticipatory move of the coming winter. That dubious honor went to the Red Sox, who parted ways with Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations, earlier in the month. Then on Sunday, before either the Cubs or Pirates took the field for their final 2019 contest, those two clubs announced the firings of managers Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle.

Like Green in San Diego, the 62-year-old Hurdle had the misfortune of presiding over an utterly forgettable two-plus months of baseball by the Pirates following the All-Star Game. As with the Padres, Hurdle’s team entered the break still very much part of the postseason conversation in both the NL Central and Wild Card races, only to have a horrid second half. By losing nearly two of every three games since mid-July Pittsburgh is now assured of its worst record since 2010. As with the Padres, that’s the kind of result that tends to get managers fired, if only because, as managerial defenders often point out, it’s not feasible to fire the entire team.

If the dismissals in San Diego and Pittsburgh were unsurprising, the firings of Dombrowski and Maddon were, at first glance, more mystifying. Barely ten months removed from a championship parade through downtown Boston, the Red Sox removed the executive who assembled that 108-win team. On Chicago’s North Side, in addition to winning the 2016 World Series, until the current season the Cubs had never won fewer than 92 games in Maddon’s four previous years at the helm. But a deeper look reveals that each of the two firings, one of an executive and one of a field general, says much about the nature of professional sports in our age of information overload and miniscule attention spans.

Dombrowski’s time in Boston didn’t end abruptly because the Red Sox were arguably the biggest disappointment in the majors this season, or at least not entirely for that reason. In just over four years at Fenway Park, Dombrowski did what he was hired to do, in the exact same manner that he had in Miami and Detroit – quickly deliver a winning franchise by stocking up on proven talent, either through the free agent market or by trading away minor league prospects. In Boston that meant immediately turning a team that had endured back-to-back losing seasons after capturing the 2013 World Series into a division champion with 93 wins in both 2016 and 2017. Then came the 2018 juggernaut, a team that steamrolled all opponents from Opening Day right through the final out of its five-game World Series triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While Dombrowski’s approach works – he also won a title in Miami and his Detroit teams went to the World Series twice – it carries both a high dollar price tag in the short term and a potential long term cost in terms of talent. The Red Sox and their fans used to complain long and loud about the free spending ways of that division rival down in the Bronx. Under Dombrowski Boston quickly became the team with the highest payroll in baseball. In order to procure some of that high-priced talent he also drained the team’s farm system. Now owner John Henry has expressed his wish to bring salaries down so he can escape MLB’s luxury tax. Doing that will require reshaping the roster, but Boston’s limited reserves in its minor league pipeline could mean a few seasons during which contending will be a challenge.

In Chicago team president Theo Epstein ignored Maddon’s body of work and focused instead on the trend line which the Cubs appeared to be following. Maddon was the NL Manager of the Year after leading Chicago to the NLCS in his first season on the North Side, and the almost magical end to a title drought of more than a century followed in 2016. But the following year the Cubs were soundly beaten by the Dodgers in the NLCS. Last season the team didn’t come close to the league series, losing the division in a one game playoff and then losing the Wild Card game at home. This year, a late season losing streak – Chicago lost nine in a row and ten of twelve over the last two weeks – slammed the door on a possible return to the playoffs. That steady regression, which was recently noted in this space, in turn allowed the Cubs’ front office to question Maddon’s easygoing style, which of course was considered his biggest plus when he was hired.

Within a couple days fans should get a break from news of major comings or goings, since MLB discourages teams from doing anything to distract attention from its playoffs. But it’s certain that once a World Series champion is crowned there will be others joining Maddon, Dombrowski, Hurdle and Green on the list of the unemployed. Of course, some will not be there for long. The very attributes that seemed so appealing not that long ago in Chicago and Boston (and Pittsburgh and San Diego as well), only to suddenly become liabilities, will again be viewed as assets by some other owner or front office. But the firings, especially by the Red Sox and Cubs, should remind fans that in our games, as in life, professional worth is all too often measured not by the full list of achievements on one’s resume, but by the answer to the more pointed question, “what have you done lately?”

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