Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Legend of JB v. FJB (aka "The Cyclone at ESPN Zone")

At yesterday's "State of the Nationals" Q&A with Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo, the "main event" finally occurred. No, not the President's Race, not the Strasburg Sweepstakes, not Hendricks v. Lerner--it was Jim Bowden (aka "Trader Jim," "Bodes," and "Leatherpants") v. "Fire Jim Bowden" blogger Steven Biel (aka, "Soch" or "Steven on Capitol Hill").

With Nationals beat reporters Bill Ladson, Chico Harlan, and Ben Goessling Bottomfeeder Baseball's Dave Nichols and Nats 320's Screech's Best Friend on hand to cover the fireworks, as well as team president Stan Kasten looking on, the showdown did not disappoint.

As Bowden and Rizzo prepared to take the stage, each warring tribe gathered with its own kind. The MSM sat together at one table. At another were all the bloggers, except Screech's Best Friend, who was flitting about with his camera between Bowden, Kasten, Rizzo, and the ESPN Zone staff like a tall, grinning, googly-eyed tinkerbell. Kasten and his posse of media flaks sat off to the side, godfather-like, slightly obscured from the group behind a post. In front of Stan sat a cold, amber brew, untouched, bought for him by an adoring fan.

Moderating--refereeing, really--the event was the universally adored Charlie Slowes. Charlie's presence had a calming effect, because in the event that open hostilities should break out, nothing would been more effective to restore peace than the soothing, velveteen intonations of The Voice of the Washington Nationals.

Charlie opened the event with a few questions about some innocuous recent matters like the team's search for a new AAA affiliate, and then opened the floor to questions. It had the feel of a calm before the storm.

The first question went to a season ticket holder who, with the clear-eyed, uncorrupted innocence of a boy opening his first pack of baseball cards, suggested that we stop acquiring bad players like Rob Mackowiak and start acquiring better players so we can win more. Bowden responded that it's not really fair to expect the team to acquire only good players, that you can't get good players unless you also acquire some bad ones too. The MSM scribbled, fans nodded, and the bloggers almost fell out of our chairs rolling our eyes. SBF took pictures.

As Jim spoke, Charlie scanned the room looking for his next questioner. Catching his eye, I was next up. Since the readers of FJB overwhelmingly identified the failure to sign Aaron Crow as the team's biggest blunder of the year, I knew that if I got only one question, it had to be about Aaronmageddon.

Speaking loudly into the microphone to ensure that people browsing at B&N next door would hear, I asked: "We've heard a lot about the problems with communication during the Aaron Crow negotiations. Jim, we know you prefer to talk on the phone, while Crow's agents prefer email. But when it comes right down to it, the deal fell apart over a difference of $900,000--Crow wanted $4.4 million, while the team offered $3.5 million. What a lot of fans don't realize is that Crow wasn't asking for a $4.4 million salary, he was looking for a one-time payment and then after that the team would own his rights for three years, probably more like four or five assuming he spends some time in the minors, and that during those years the team would pay him minimum wage. So if you average out that signing bonus over 4 years or so, he's actually asking for the equivalent of about $1.7 million, which is what the team paid Rob Mackowiak. Now, I assume you wouldn't trade Rob Mackowiak for Aaron Crow straight up, so can you explain why it's in the team's best interests to let a player like Aaron Crow--and I agree with you Jim, I think he's a future front-line starter, that he might be the second best pitcher in our rotation right now--why was it in our best interests to let a player like that walk over $900,000."

It was more of a stump speech than a question, and Jim and Rizzo both responded in kind, repeating the party line of half-truths and cherry-picked facts about how the team had offered what the 'marketplace' said (not acknowledging that there is no marketplace when only one team is allowed to bid), how we offered the same $3.5 million that #4 pick Brian Matusz got (but leaving out that #5 pick Buster Posey got $6.2 million or that #7 pick Yonder Alonso got $4.5 million), how the agents really were way dumber and how the kid is more screwed than the Nationals are. It was clear that my first punch, maybe the only one I'd get to throw, hadn't done a lick of damage.

Somewhat rattled, I shouted out, "Who cares whether the agents were terrible--we want the team to win!" Charlie, using a look he somehow learned from my mother, glanced back at me disapprovingly, making it clear that heckling would not be tolerated. I nodded understanding and began sketching out my next maneuver.

Bowden and Rizzo dodged a series of jabs from the crowd on topics ranging from the future of Austin Kearns, the outfield defense, the pitching staff, etc. And there was a lot of talk about injuries, especially from Bowden. Even before the fan questions began it was clear that Bowden's strategy was to deflect all attacks with one line: it's the injuries.

Asked how many games we would have won if healthy, Bowden said, "If every single one of our players had stayed healthy and played up to their top potential we would have gone 82-80." Which of course is like saying that if every single CIA-trained Cuban exile at the Bay of Pigs had fired their guns with perfect accuracy, fought to the death, and every bit of possible good luck had all gone our way, it would have taken Castro at least a few weeks to kick our asses.

My favorite question of the event came from a fan who seriously could have played Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos asking what the team can do in terms of diet and conditioning to avoid injury. (Sorry, I know that's kind of mean, and if the fan in question reads this and has hurt feelings, I truly apologize. It was just ironic is all.)

Clearly anticipating Bowden's line of defense, Dave from Bottomfeeder Baseball was ready with a skillful parry. After Charlie finally decided that I'd behaved myself long enough that it was safe to venture back to the blogger pit for another question, Dave asked, paraphrasing, "isn't it a little disingenuous to blame this whole season on injuries when we have a team loaded with injury-prone players? I'm thinking of Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, Shawn Hill, Dmitri Young, Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, Cristian Guzman. These are guys who didn't just get injured this year--they get injured every year."

Bowden acknowledged that Nick Johnson was an injury risk (and weirdly commented on what they were thinking when they acquired him, even though Johnson was a hold-over from the Expos, but whatever). Dave had landed a glancing blow, but Bodes fought back, replying that if we looked at the back of Cristian Guzman's baseball card, we'll see that he's played on average about 148 games a year. Unfortunately for the fans in Trader Jim's corner, however, Dave had a Topps 2008 mint set under his chair, and it showed clear as day that after missing all of 2006 and most of 2007, that Guzman had averaged just 114.33 games over his career going into this season. Jim was clearly shaken--Dave had hurt him with a solid cross.

Sensing Jim's weakness, I went in for the kill. Charlie seemed to hesitate slightly as he handed me the mic, but it was too late. He was giving me a second question.

I scanned my list of questions carefully, like a general reviewing his battlefield map. The options we many:
  • Should I go for Smiley-gate? ("Of course, I know that you're not a felon, Jim, but is there anything you can say here that would assure other fans that you and Jose Rijo are completely clean? Things do seem a teeny-weeny-itsy-bitsy bit suspicious")
  • Cordero? ("Jim, how would you feel if Stan got on sports talk radio this afternoon and casually mentioned that you were going to be shitcanned after the season?")
  • The cherry-picked 20/20 hindsight blunders gambit? ("What were you thinking when you left Trevor Hoffman exposed to the rule-5 draft and traded B.J. Ryan for a one-month rental of Juan Guzman and traded Paul O'Neill for Roberto Kelly and released Scott Downs outright?")
  • Kevin Towers? ("Jim, Kevin Towers says you're an idiot and that he won't even take your calls. Is that true?")
I decided to go another way, kind of a rope-a-dope strategy of passive-aggressive praise followed by a back-handed slight. Gripping the mic, I said, "First, I want to say one guy we should lock up long term is Charlie Slowes. This guy is brilliant. And at his age he could be here for 30 years and become a legend like Vin Scully."

The crowd burst into applause. Jim's eyes narrowed, knowing something was up.
SBF took pictures.

I continued, "And Jim I just want to give you credit for some of the really good things you've done, like signing Tim Redding and Odalis Perez. Of all the free agent starting pitchers out there, Redding and Perez have been brilliant. If you had spent unlimited money, you could have barely done any better than these two, especially compared to the much more expensive options like Carlos Silva and Barry Zito."

Jim's face eased a bit, but he was clearly still suspicious. But as the crowd nodded assent, I felt I'd lured him in close enough to deliver my fatal blow.

"But my question is for Mike, actually. Mike, when I look at what you did in Arizona, it's amazing. I mean, there was a run of 3-4 drafts there where it was like you had a crystal ball or something. You struck gold on every single pick it seemed. Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, Max Scherzer, Micah Owings, Mark Reynolds, Chad Tracy, Dan Uggla, Conor Jackson, Brandon Webb... It's amazing. Now, I see you as a future GM in this league, and so my question for you is this... would you someday like to be a general manager in MLB."

The MSM were shocked by the effrontery. Even the bloggers were a little embarrassed by the baldness of my disrespect.
To most people listening, it sounded innocuous enough, maybe a little over the top in my praise for Rizzo, but to anyone who knew the context, it was a ruthless blow. And it was about to become very clear that no one understood the context better than Jim.

Rizzo, basking in the glow of the list of all-stars and potential future HOFs he'd uncovered contrasted with Bowden's crummy little dumpster-diving finds, did his best to help his boss recover. He credited Bowden with setting him up "light years ahead of where we were in Arizona when I started there."

Bowden was hurt, though not knocked out. Most fans seemed compelled that if not for injuries, bad luck, gravity, humidity, wind conditions, and the fact that some players don't always play every game at their absolute peak ability every time, we could have nudged to about .500. Charlie took a couple more questions but the battle ended there. Or so it seemed...

After the Q&A ended, a group of us began chatting up Rizzo and Kasten. I'll have more detail on those conversations later, but this is getting long as it is (ya think? you say??). After a few minutes, Bowden walked over to me and without a word of hello or any pleasantries at all, launched his counter-attack.

"You know, it's really great how my kids get to read all that stuff you write about me. It's just really great."

OH NO! It was the dreaded "Catholic mom guilt-trip" ploy combined with the powerful-MLB-exec-bullying-random-fanboy" gambit!

The moment was tense. Mike was just an arm's-length away with Kasten lurking behind.
SBF took pictures. I was a little startled myself. I had expected Jim to use either the "I'm too important to even notice the idiot blogger" strategy, or else the "kill you with kindness" charm offensive. I hadn't expected to see the thin-skinned l'enfant terrible described by Bowden's biggest critics, like Hal McCoy.

But little did Jim know, I was raised Catholic, and given my years of training getting yelled at by congressmen and senators in my actual job, I had developed an immunity to both the CMGT ploy and the PMEBRF attack. He's swung hard and missed badly.

"Oh, that's great Jim, I'm glad," I said.

"I'm being sarcastic," he explained, visibly worried now that his bluff-charge had little effect.

"I know. But I'm not sure why you think I'm being unfair. I haven't engaged in name-calling or profanity or anything like that."

"I just think some of what you say goes over the line," he said.

"Like what? Is it unfair to say you shouldn't have released Scott Downs, who's now the best non-closer relief pitcher in baseball?" I asked.

Jim said no, that was fair. It was another blow against JimBo. He was staggering.

"Is it unfair to criticize you for trading Juan Rivera for an older more expensive version of the same guy in Jose Guillen and to throw in Maicer Izturis to boot?"

Suddenly, I'd given him an opening, and Jim found his footing. "Well now, we just disagree on that one. Rivera hasn't done what Guillen has."

"Yeah but how much is Jose Guillen helping us now?" I said.

The exchange was a draw, but momentum was swinging back to Jim.

"OK well what about Armando Galarraga? He's looking like one of the better young pitchers in the American League, and you gave him away for..."

"Alfonso Soriano!" Bowden said. "You didn't like him?"

"A one-year rental," I blocked.

"Well we almost resigned him," he swung back.

"Come on, you were never going to resign him," I said. But I was now backpedalling badly, gloves up defensively.

"How do you know? Were you there in the room with me and Stan in Las Vegas?"

Jim had gained the clear upper hand, utilizing his enormous advantage in inside access and his ability to make unverifiable assertions. He had come dangerously close to blaming his boss, which is a technical foul and automatic ejection, but FJB didn't get the call from the ref. Now Jim went for the kill.

"And now we have Jordan Zimmermann."

Ack!! He had played the Zimmermann card. I was down for the count. I had but one more option available to me. It was an aggressive but dangerous, risky move. But I had no choice. I went for it.

"OK Jim, here's the thing. You take all your moves, good and bad, and add them up, and at some point, they have to translate into wins. You haven't built a winner. You haven't had a winning season in seven years as a GM, and next year will make eight. You've been to the playoffs once in 15 years. Twice counting the strike season. That's not enough."

"That's true," he said. "That's fair."

"So you tell me, how many consecutive years of losing is enough? At what point is it fair to say someone else should get a chance?"

My punch had hit home. It was a wicked uppercut, and Jim was dazed. But I was running out of gas too. One more punch, and I knew I'd be out for the count. I worried he'd play the John Lannan card or Ryan Zimmerman. I'd fired by best shot, and he still had Paul Konerko in his arsenal and Pete Schourek. Who knew what else. I knew I needed to get some cover.

"Look Jim," I said, "If there's anything, anything at all, that I've written on my blog that crosses the line, that's really hurtful to your kids or your family, I will take it down and post an apology. Chris Needham called Elijah Dukes a fecking scumbag. I don't do that stuff. Here, let me get my card, and you can email me."

I walked to my table to get my business card, relieved that I'd found a graceful exit strategy. Suddenly, I was looking like I had a chance to escape looking like perhaps the lesser baseball mind, but at least the bigger man.

Jim followed, Stan and Mike following close behind. I handed him my business card, warily aware that I'd exposed myself to the "rat out the fanboy to his boss for playing hooky in the middle of a work day" attack.

To my surprise, Jim took out his card and handed it to me as well. He was effectively deflecting my "gracious exit" ploy. With no other options at hand, I had fought valiantly but stared defeat in the face.

Then, in the decisive moment, Trader Jim blew it. Standing there face to face with his rival with my business card in his hand, he said, "Call me anytime you have any complaints or suggestions. Because I don't hide behind a blog."

The Bowden fans groaned disappointment. Unable to resist the baseless, childish insult, Jim had lost the opportunity to end the fight as the gracious victor. The refs penalized him 2 points for pettiness, leaving the final score a 15-round draw. But for an upstart amateur blogger to fight a 20-year MLB exec to a draw was a stunning upset.

The crowd dispersed; the battle was over. From We've Got Heart to Bottomfeeder Baseball to William World News to Hendo's Hutch to Nationals Enquirer, the battle had held the the Natmosphere in thrall, the most epic battle in Nationals history since the previous evening's epic Scott Schoeneweis v. Roger Bernadina showdown for the ages.
  • Epilogue: As I posted last night, after the Q&A at ESPN Zone, Jim and I had a very pleasant e-mail exchange that confirmed that he and I both agree on the most important thing--that we both want the Nationals to win. His email also showed that he understands that blog, the criticism, our conversation at ESPN Zone--it's all good for baseball and in the interest of fun. Now, without question, I'm sure he'd rather me stop saying I think he should be removed as GM of the Nationals, and I still think he needs to go (though I'd love nothing more than to have him prove me wrong by putting that winning team on the field). So we're never going to see 100% eye to eye. But I do see him a little differently now that I've met him, and I hope he sees me a little differently now too.


Sean Hogan said...

Wow. Wish I could have been there for all of this. Good job sticking to your guns, Steven. You didn't go for any low blows (such as the DUI, the "idiot" comment or the "worst person in the world" comment). Bowden did a good job holding his ground as well, but if he wants to be the long-term GM, he needs to make progress rather than just stand firm.

Steven said...

@Sean--thanks. I've said all along that the DUI and the personal stuff isn't totally irrelevant. He's a public figure and anything he does that embarrasses the team or generates more bad PR hurts the team, its brand, its gate revenue, etc. But I've also said that all that personal stuff is of secondary (or tertiary?) importance compared to the lack of winning. So I haven't totally stayed away from that stuff, but I've tried ot keep it in it's place--a minor issue, but fair game to acknowledge.

Frankly, even the Smiley-gate stuff is relevant, even if unproven. It's not fair to Jim at tall, but rumor stick. Al Gore didn't say he invented the Internet, but it stuck and cost him the election. Life's not fair. To the extent people suspect Bowden in the DR thing, it hurts the team, and all other things equal we'd be better off without the baggage. Again, it's not fair, but it's a fact.

Matthew said...

Steven, that was awesome. I loved the punch-by-punch recap. Your line about Bay of Pigs was perfect!

I gotta hand it to you, this blog is first rate. I check it about 5 or 6 times a week now.

Keep it up!


JayB said...

Thanks for taking the time to write that up. You have now blown past Chris N.......Jimbo's self inflected "hide behind a blog" tells you all you need to know. If he is back I am not.

Once Jimbo is done, I would love for your thoughts about Acta’s skills. Last night my sections of season ticket holders seem to be ready to turn on him at last. Letting Pitcher hit with bases load worked out, Acta go lucky, or did he fall asleep again….tough to tell sometimes. Did he even think about hitting for Casto? Does he see how poor and arm Milledge has? Does he care that they ran themselves out of an inning yet again. Did he every think of pulling Speigner? It just seems to be he has given up on winning. Last night was embarrassing. Reading his game quotes shows me he does not intend to put any more effort into this season....why should fans?

Steven said...

Re: Manny. I'll be honest. In-game managerial strategy is not really something I know a lot about. Other than bunting is bad, stealing is overrated, pitchers shouldn't be asked to pitch tired... it's just not really something I've paid a lot of attention to. Partly that's because for me 90% of the enjoyment of baseball is pitcher v. hitter. It's the intricacies of that one on one match-up, pitch sequence, deception, power, all the different ways pitchers can get guys out... Partly it's becuase really I didn't really start following baseball at all until the Nationals came in 2005.

So I kind of need to read a book or 2 about managerial strategy before I can really say.

My gut though is that 90% of managing is just motivation, and that Manny is one of the best in the game. That the team has never ever given up in 2 miserable losing seasons is incredible. Certainly worth more than the 5-10 runs over the course of the season that all a manager's in-game decisions add up to.

But again, I'm talking out of my ass a little here. I'll catch up a bit in the off-season.

Tom said...

bravo, steven. sounds like jim needs to block this site at home.

John O'Connor said...

I think it's just great that Chad Cordero's dad has to her about Jimbo saying on the radio he is going to dump him after the season.

And, yes, Jimbo, I'm being sarcastic about that.

Hendo said...

Magnificent work, Steven.

"Hiding behind a blog"... cripes, a blog is about the last place anybody can "hide." (And, Jim, just in case you think I'm hiding, I'll be in my regular seat in the front row of 310 all week. Drop down and see me anytime.)

Trapper John said...

"I'm being sarcastic," he explained

Funniest thing I've read all day.

Steven said...

@TJ--yeah that moment was priceless.

He was clearly expecting me to be intimidated, but I must have been grinning ear-to-ear at that moment because I was fucking psyched. His face was like, "uh oh, what now?"

But who knew he would even know this blog existed? My buddy Luke tells me all the time, "dude, he reads your blog every day, I guarantee." And I always said, "nah, that's silly." Turns out, Luke was way more right than I was.