Think you could do a better job than the GM of your favorite professional sports team? Oliver Lee Bateman has his doubts.
Now that Opening Day has come and gone, the time has come to address a burning question: What the heck are my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates doing? Am I supposed to be excited about the fact that washed-up, replacement-level players like Rod Barajas, Nate McLouth, Clint Barmes and Jo-Jo Reyes have joined the team?
This, in turn, raises a bigger question: How should we feel about any free agent signing that doesn’t involve the likes of baller nonpareil LeBron James or beer-barrel-shaped first baseman Prince Fielder? Should you care, even a teensy weensy bit, that the Carolina Panthers might add veteran wide receiver and noted malcontent Braylon Edwards to their roster? Or that lumbering center Chris Kaman could wind up playing for the Charlotte Bobcats?
The free agency period — which was always a big deal for fans of Major League Baseball, at least during the era when many of those superannuated players were allegedly visiting “anti-aging” clinics in the offseason — provides excellent filler for sports pages around the country. And sometimes, as in the case of last year’s ludicrously overhyped “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles, it allows writers to let their imaginations run wild, believing that adding a bunch of thirty-something athletes will enable their teams to beat up on the likes of perpetual bottom-feeders like the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Yet the majority of free agent signings amount to very little, and for good reason: Most players who reach free agency are old, weren’t that good to begin with and probably won’t be getting much better. This is especially true in the case of sports like basketball and football, where nearly every participant winds up suffering catastrophic knee injuries, and the ones who don’t eventually develop debilitative arthritis. Don’t believe us? Just listen to the chatter around the preacher curl bench at the local L.A. Fitness, where on any given day you’re bound to encounter a dozen or more bros waxing nostalgic about their short-circuited football careers.
Eating at the local McDonald’s is a fine way to visualize the process of acquiring free agents. Pretend for a moment that you’re Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington, and it’s been 24 hours since you’ve had your last meal. You’ve got five bucks in your wallet, which means that the better, healthier options are out. But you do need to fill your stomach — and keep it filled — over the course of the next 48 hours. So you wind up selecting four McDoubles from the Dollar Menu.
But here’s the thing: Having selected those McDoubles, you’re now required to promote the heck out of them. This entails hanging banners from the sides of your stadium touting the appearance of the McDoubles. It means taking the McDoubles to local sporting goods stores and having them sign autographs for the 20 or so tee-ball players who were dragged to the event by their jock-sniffing parents. It consists of going on a local sports-radio talk show and lying through your teeth as you tell the blowhard host that these McDoubles are the missing piece of a championship puzzle.
And you, in the role of GM Huntington, will have to do this over and over again. Sometimes you’ll even come into possession of a Fruit ‘N Yogurt parfait filled with under-ripe fruit, whereupon you’ll find yourself responsible for assuring the faithful that, yes, one day the fruit in this parfait will ripen, and the results will be delicious. But not this year, people. That under-ripe fruit might be batting below the Mendoza Line and playing a mediocre third base, but he’s our power hitter of the future. Have a little patience, would you?
Whenever our hometown teams fail to win, we hurry to assign all of the blame to management. Why on earth did the Browns sign Jake Delhomme to a multiyear deal? What were they thinking? Yet consider this: Why on earth did you eat those McDoubles? Granted, the dollar amounts involved in purchasing those burgers were much lower, but the fact remains that we all make a host of instantly regrettable decisions on a daily basis. We make these decisions because, try as we might, we can’t do absolutely nothing (and goodness knows the Pirates, among others, have tried).
It is in this respect that famed point guard and erstwhile New York Knicks President Isiah Thomas had perhaps the greatest run as a sports executive in history. Although reviled by Knicks fans for transforming a scrappy, defense-first team into a bunch of brick-shooting ball-hogs, Thomas deserves praise for doing exactly what I did when I used to play NBA Live 97: He tried to get all of the top scorers traded onto his team. If you have three guys on your team scoring 18 points per game and you add two more players who are also scoring at that level, won’t overall scoring go up? More advanced metrics like usage, points per possession and efficiency surely won’t provide any clues about the outcome. Just put five Allen Iverson epigones on the floor at once and pay each of them $20 million a year. There’s no way you can lose, right?
Of course, Thomas’ Knicks lost a lot — nearly 65 percent of the games he coached from 2006 to 2008, in fact. But hey, you’re probably not feeling so good about that hot dog-stuffed crust pizza you just scarfed down, either.