What (if anything) do the Giants “owe” their fans?

by DrLefty

A few years ago, Mr Lefty and I took Lefty Jr. and her boyfriend to a fundraising event in Rohnert Park (where they were Sonoma State students) at which the guest speaker was recently retired Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. We were there early and actually got to meet and chat with Jeremy extensively and get a photo of our group with him. It was fun and he was quite charming.

Jeremy Affeldt, Rohnert Park, CA, Nov. 5, 2016

 

But there was one thing from his speech that I’ve always remembered, and it was an ad lib, not scripted. Affeldt was talking about how rough fans could be on players sometimes. He quoted a “typical fan” saying something like “Hey, I pay your salary!” Affeldt’s response (and this was the unscripted part) was “TV rights pay my salary, not you.”

This is to say that we as fans may overthink and overestimate how much players and front offices actually care about their fanbases. That is not entirely our fault, though. Think about World Series parade speeches and heartfelt goodbye tributes made by players, managers, and announcers, about the “greatest fans in baseball” and how “we did it all for you.” It’s traditional to credit a team’s fans as the inspiration behind the performance.

Meanwhile, Larry Baer and his team are building Mission Rock so that there can be an income stream for the Giants that is not entirely or even primarily dependent on you and me buying tickets, jerseys, craft beer, garlic fries, or crab sandwiches.

“This property is of great strategic importance to the Giants, and its successful development will enhance and diversify the economic position of the team, creating new revenue streams that will help us compete at the highest level.”–Larry Baer, 2012

All that said, a team’s revenues do matter, at least somewhat. These include not only direct purchases (tickets, etc.) but also revenue from TV deals, which in turn are sensitive to viewer ratings. Remember back when the Astros were tanking for draft picks so that they could become a juggernaut? Back in 2013, some of their games drew a 0.0 Nielsen rating.

So happy/unhappy fans do matter–but maybe not as much as some of us think we do, or should. With that in mind, let’s take a look at several related questions. I’m not necessarily taking a strong stance on any of these questions but rather opening them up for discussion.

 

Should the Giants take fans’ feelings into account when making major decisions?

Farhan Zaidi and the Giants have made several extremely unpopular decisions since the season ended, and it would appear that they did so knowing full well that they would frustrate and anger at least some of the fans. I’m talking specifically about the decisions to hire Gabe Kapler to replace Bruce Bochy, to non-tender Kevin Pillar, and to not make a competitive offer to retain Madison Bumgarner.

I think in general, the answer to this question is “no.” Obviously the front office is paid to make those decisions, and they know more than we do about what the best baseball, not PR, decision should be. But–as with most things, it depends. Rather than talking about the decisions already made, which have been discussed to death, let’s talk about two hypothetical ones–signing either Yasiel Puig or Addison Russell as free agents. Puig has been a controversial player even on his own original team (the Dodgers) and has been despised by many Giants fans because he was (a) a Dodger (b) a disrespectful hot dog and (c) an irritant to our beloved MadBum. Russell is or should be radioactive to any fanbase because of his horrifying history of domestic abuse, which is not “alleged” or in dispute.

While some Giants fans would see it as insult-to-injury to sign Puig after letting Bumgarner walk, there are some sound baseball reasons to consider bringing him on board if a reasonable deal can be made–even Mike Krukow thinks so. And he’d be entertaining, anyway, on a team that is very short on entertainment value at the moment (more on this in a minute). If I were making the decisions, I’d consider taking the PR hit to sign Puig if the deal was good. (MLB Trade Rumors is currently predicting one year/$8 mil. for Puig.)

 

On the other hand, signing Russell would likely be the last straw for some Giants fans, especially given recent history with Larry Baer and the furor over Kapler’s poor past history in handling assault allegations by Dodgers minor leaguers. While Russell might serve at a position of need–Brandon Crawford appears to be on thin ice and/or his last legs–in my opinion, this is a step the Giants shouldn’t take under any circumstances. Fans can get past a player’s showboating style when he’s our showboat. They shouldn’t have to choose between their loyalty to their beloved team and their moral repugnance to cheering for a guy who systematically abused his wife.

I grew up watching the San Francisco 49ers and enthusiastically rooted on Montana, Rice, Young et al. in the 80s and 90s. But I didn’t watch a 49ers game for nearly five years this past decade because of their stubbornness in backing bad actors like Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith, and Reuben Foster–and those are just the major ones. At one point in the Baalke/Harbaugh era they had seven different players on the roster with histories of sexual assault, domestic violence, or DUI arrests. Between 2012 and 2018, the 49ers had more players arrested than any other NFL team, and it wasn’t particularly close. They drafted players despite character issues in college and they were slow to cut ties even after multiple arrests. I just didn’t want to spend my time and energy rooting on the NFL’s resident Team of Thugs. I know that there are diehard Cubs fans who were very troubled by the team’s loyalty to Russell and their trading for Aroldis Chapman during the same calendar year he’d been arrested and suspended on domestic violence charges. I do think teams should consider those fan feelings and opinions when making personnel decisions.

 

Do the Giants owe us transparency and explanations?

A lot of fans feel put off by the relatively low-information style of the current regime. For example, the Giants’ front office has never said the word “rebuild,” and on the contrary has expressed its commitment to putting a competitive product on the field every single season.

“We’re still in a mode where we want to compete next year,” Zaidi said. “We want to play meaningful baseball as deep into the season as we can, which was our stated goal in 2019.”–November 14, 2019

So he keeps saying that, but then the Opening Day lineup has Connor Joe and Michael Reed in it. Since the 2019 season ended, we have seen the excellent backup catcher, the All-Star closer, and the rotation ace leave for other teams, and the team home run leader and 2019 Willie Mac winner non-tendered. Meanwhile, the additions to the team so far include Tyler Anderson (injured), Zack Cozart (injured), Tyson Ross (injured), and Kevin Gausman (I’m from Missouri). I know it’s only January 5, but the roster as currently constituted is much, much, much worse than the 2019 squad that overachieved and won 77 games.

I think most fans understand that the team was overdue for some changes, are aware that the Giants have some promising youngsters coming through the farm system, and are willing to be patient. But when the President of Baseball Operations keeps saying “compete” and “meaningful baseball,” it raises expectations, and then people are disappointed when the Joes/Reeds of the world are all we get. It is not the fans’ fault that those expectations were raised–it is Zaidi’s.

On the other hand, I don’t especially think Zaidi owes us the gory details of why every single personnel decision was made. Andrew Baggarly addressed this question in an article this week.

What Giants fans probably wanted was an explanation of what Bumgarner was offered and why they didn’t match Arizona’s offer, etc. I talked to Zaidi about that. He said he didn’t want to publicly spell out negotiations after the fact because he didn’t think that was a professional thing to do. I can understand that.

I agree with Zaidi and Baggarly on this one. I desperately wanted Bumgarner back and I’m crushed that he’s gone and will really, really miss him. But now that the decision is made, why do I need to know the details? It’s not going to change anything. I just have to get over it and move on.

Baggarly went on to say this.

Anyway, that’s just one example of how the Giants have struggled to communicate with their fans this winter. I think you’ll see a greater push in this direction as spring training gets underway. It’s going to be imperative (and probably exhausting), but Kapler and Zaidi are going to be doing a lot of unconventional things with the roster and the game that many of their fans will not understand, and it’s going to require their patience and investment of time to explain their reasoning. That’s going to be ongoing and it pretty much won’t stop.

Some fans think that the fans don’t deserve any explanations–they should just shut up, trust the experts, and root for the team no matter what. Others feel that loyalty is a two-way street: That the fans who gave the team a nearly eight-year sellout streak and vaulted the Giants to a suddenly monied franchise deserve at least some consideration and respect.

 

Do the Giants owe us an appealing entertainment product?

Well, “owe” is a strong word, but as I noted above, Zaidi has only himself to blame for raising expectations rather than tempering them. Baggarly, in the same article, seemed to contradict himself. On the one hand, he said this:

It’s OK to step back and rebuild. It’s not OK to sell an entertainment product that is wholly uninteresting. They still have to make the season fun for folks to follow.

OK, fair enough, and there are different ways “to make the season fun for folks to follow” that don’t have to involve $300+ million for Bryce Harper (for example). Watching exciting young prospects develop can be fun, too.  But then Baggarly goes on later in the piece to this Q & A.

 

Rob (@robweezysc) asks: Why are they not adding talent? Even if they don’t feel like they can contend until next year, it’s almost impossible to address all the holes in an offseason. Castellanos, Ozuna and Puig could all make the present and future bright.

 

Again, this is a very 2012 way to look at the offseason. It’s not about plugging holes anymore. It’s about rebuilding a stronger dam.

 

These two responses seem contradictory to me. One commenter responding to the article said this, and it’s pretty much how I see it, too.

I think everybody gets it that the Giants are not one or two players away from a run at the wild card, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of disappointment about the fact that they didn’t try to get Cole or Rendon. But at the same time, there are probably a lot of us who don’t really understand why keeping Bumgarner (and Pillar) would’ve prevented the franchise from doing what we need to do to have healthy farm system and a contending roster 3-4 years from now. I mean, it would’ve been nice to have a Bumgarner start to look forward to every few days, and to be able to think, “well, at least the Giants game should be worth watching on Thursday when Bum starts.”–Joe M., comment on Andrew Baggarly’s article in The Athletic, January 4, 2020

 

And here’s another interesting point from Joe M.

This idea that fans have some obligation to shut up and sit tight and keep buying tickets even when the team is giving them no reason to think the next 2-3 years are going to be anything more than an extended series of tryouts for more Connor Joes and Aaron Althiers strikes me as pretty goddamned ridiculous. I can’t really imagine any other business model where that would be tolerated. “Sorry sir, I know that you’ve had a miserable experience every time you’ve come to our restaurant for the past three years, but if you just keep spending your money with us, we expect to be able to serve you a decent meal sometime around 2023.”

 

Your turn

What does a professional sports franchise “owe” their fans?  What do you think?

Happy 2020, everyone. Lefty out.