See now the Reds, the people's ball club, changing their roster as if by talk show referendum. Next time Carl Lindner decides to save money on a general manager, the Reds would be a natural for Internet polling. The Reds will never win that way, but they might change the self-image of an impotent public.
Management frustration when three good pitchers go into the can is understandable. Eric Milton, Paul Wilson and Danny Graves were supposed to anchor this staff. They've anchored it all right — straight to the bottom of the well.
What's not understandable is scapegoating players you need when they've fallen on hard times simply to calm the rabble. The execution of Graves is an especially convenient episode, evidently calculated to satiate blood-thirsty fans who want to see immediate carnage without considering the long-term implications.
Actions of the impulsive sort have been known to occur in the super markets like New York and Los Angeles, where two ball clubs compete with a half-dozen other sports franchises for the top headlines. But the Reds' about-face on one of their best long-term performers is incomparably brusque.
Even the Cubs gave Sammy Sosa a couple of seasons to find his sunny side and, when he didn't, they at least brought back some jock straps in return. If the Reds really want to give us big city baseball, they're advised to take a more serious route and spend like it, which they can't or won't. That failing, they might stop playing politics with their biggest clubhouse personalities. By the way, where's Barry Larkin when the club needs leadership?
Marge Schott reigned by terror and her antics could be annoying, but her moods turned out petty dramas in a baseball sense — conflict with her limited partners, the general manager cleaning up after her dog, the sales of stale donuts, expulsions of writers from the press dining room, capricious firings of office workers and austerity measures requiring one-page press notes.
Jim Bowden might not have been the perfect general manager for all seasons, but he knew how to navigate Schott and they maintained decent ball clubs while they were at each other's disposal. Bowden and Schott were screwy, dynamic and interesting. In their wake, Reds management is dull, panic stricken and sometimes petty.
The Reds signed Graves in 2003 to a three-year deal worth $17.25 million, a legitimate market price for a closer who had proven for three years to be solid if not spectacular. Graves isn't Mariano Rivera ($10.5 million this year), Billy Wagner ($9 million) or Jason Isringhausen ($8.25 million) and, at $6.5 million this year, he's not paid like them either.
Well, other clubs have found pitchers who can do that job for less, but they've also found starting pitchers who can win for less. But as if to not feign any feel for baseball, the Reds turned Graves into a starter that year. They just expected it to work because they wanted it to work — the magical management imperative.
Did Graves kill the Reds this year? He didn't pitch his best. He couldn't touch 90 on the radar gun, and his sinking fastball lost its weight. Something's wrong with him.
If you're just looking at a ratio of poor outings, Graves is the best of the three key pitchers. He took the ball 20 times and converted 10 of 12 save opportunities, which is right in the neighborhood with Keith Foulke, Brad Lidge, Rivera and Wagner. And it's consistent with how he's performed from 2000 on — 147 saves, 30 blown, 83 percent.
But Graves didn't do himself or the Reds many favors this year, giving up runs nine times and earned runs eight times. He complained bitterly about fans booing after an ugly blown save against St. Louis on May 2. He offered his finger for a fan after another poor outing on May 22.
The Reds designated Graves for assignment on May 23, turning their back on a pitcher who gave them eight years of solid citizenship over three weeks of tumult. They'll probably wind up eating his salary, which is every bit as dumb as Graves' war with the fans. Reds management decided to side with the fans instead of their guy. A very bad sign in the clubhouse.
Only the luckiest haven't witnessed in our own workplaces the machinations of weak middle managers who are less interested in succeeding than preserving their jobs. When it appears some goal won't be met, they'll either amplify existing distractions or create distractions so they can evade responsibility — the fortuitous distraction.
Graves played straight into those hands with his antics. But the very fact that those hands were waiting tips off a poisonous environment. The move rightly stunned Reds players.
Demonstrating a handy twist of perspective, some of the sports intelligentsia in Cincinnati played along with Reds management. You always see these guys jump on the soapbox for players who play hurt — "Oh, he's a working class hero, a virtuous ordinary man who shows up every day through aches and pains like the rest of us, blah, blah, blah" — but only when the player still succeeds. When he fails, they turn on him, which demonstrates they don't really value the ethos so much as the easy hagiography of a day's work.
Tear-jerking Reds fans obviously lack perspective about the club's difficult start and, worse, management takes cues from them. One wishes the front office would make rational decisions and leave the knee-jerk reactions to the fans.
The fan's role is to buy tickets, cheer and boo. They aren't paid to understand the game. Blind consultation with fans suggests Reds management doesn't understand it either.