Don’t Believe a Word I Say

Daniel at There Are Better Deals in August asks whether it’s okay for the front office to lie. It’s a provocative question, and one that deserves attention.

He cites a recent article by Derek Carty, my colleague at Hardball Times, that mentions Paul DePodesta’s blog as a possible propaganda tool. From Derek’s article:

By sending messages through the media, the front office can send them under the guise of praise for the actual players or on-field management. By writing to a blog, these messages can be sent under the guise of informing the team’s fan base.

Derek then asserts that DePodesta may be trying to influence other GMs, such as Houston’s Ed Wade, by presenting in a favorable light players that the Padres are trying to trade. Maybe I’m being overly naive here, but I doubt that the best way for DePodesta to reach Wade, who worked for the Padres not long ago, is via his blog.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good to be skeptical of all information regardless of source. I also think it’s good to remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The notion that Wade will be influenced by something DePodesta writes on his blog strikes me as a bit… insulting. Among other things, it assumes that Wade is an idiot. (Yeah, I know what’s coming next; so my question to you is, Why aren’t you a big-league GM?)

Getting back to Daniel’s post (you know, the one that talks about Derek’s article), here’s a fun nugget:

A messier version of a team misleading the public occurs when the team knows they will not be very good, but tries to convince the fans that the team will contend. In this situation, the team stands to benefit from the higher ticket sales that result from positive expectations. Some point to the Padres preseason prediction of 90 wins as unethical manipulation of their customers. Personally, I doubt that the Padres consistently predicted 90 wins for this team. Perhaps a few simulations out of thousands resulted in a 90 win season, but there is no way that was the average result.

I personally had this team at 85-86 wins. I wasn’t lying, I was just wrong. Sorry, it happens. Kind of a lot, actually, but that’s not the point.

I liked the Padres chances this year for many reasons, the vast majority of which fall under one of three umbrellas:

  1. The team played well last year.
  2. There was no apparent talent loss headed into 2008.
  3. There are no dominant teams in the division.

Of course, the key word resides in that second point: “apparent.” We didn’t know that guys like Josh Bard, Khalil Greene, Joe Thatcher, and Chris Young would fall off the proverbial cliff.

(In our defense, neither did a lot of experts. Yeah, we were wrong, but so were many other people — not that this helps, but it’s worth noting that we weren’t just a bunch of Pollyannas hoping that guys would play beyond their abilities.)

Anyway, back to the front office. Now that the team is struggling and the season is shot, the question becomes: Were they lying or were they just plain wrong?

The answer to this question depends greatly on how you perceive the front office. If you are inclined to mistrust them, then you will conclude that they were lying because this is consistent with your beliefs.

It’s easy to find (or concoct) justifications for a particular point of view. What’s difficult is taking an honest look at a situation, with all its incumbent variables, and trying to figure out what’s actually happening.

Many people don’t do this precisely because it’s so difficult. It requires effort in a way that, say, absorbing the words of some talking head on television doesn’t.

In any communication, we need to ask ourselves three questions:

  1. Who is delivering the message?
  2. Who is its intended recipient?
  3. What is its intended purpose?

This is fundamental stuff. If you fail to consider these issues, you run the risk of being taken for a ride by anyone who knows how to spin a tale that folks want to hear. (Try watching a political ad sometime — they all promise the same thing and say the same nasty stuff about the opposition; that little “I approve this message” tagline at the end is supposed to lend some credibility, I guess, but it all comes off as so much manure.)

To the original question: Was the front office lying about this team’s chances in 2008 or were they just plain wrong? The key this time can be found in point #3 above: What is the message’s intended purpose?

Before you answer, consider the nature of a relationship between a company and its customers. To sustain a successful operation, in which customers willingly part with hard-earned money to keep the company in business, which is the better strategy: Lying to customers or telling them the truth? While you’re pondering that, here’s another question: How do customers tell the difference?

It’s a little complicated, you see.

My personal opinion is skewed by the fact that I’m a fan of the current front office. I make no bones about that, and I offer no apologies. This doesn’t mean that I blindly accept everything they tell me, because only an idiot would blindly accept everything anyone tells them.

What it does mean is that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I give them the benefit of the doubt. I look at one miserable season following the best four-year run in franchise history, and figure things will probably get better because these are smart individuals who have demonstrated that they know what they’re doing.

Do they have their weaknesses? Well, sure. They’re probably a little too blunt at times, and they aren’t good at providing snappy sound bytes that inspire fans with a false sense of… whatever it is fans looking for that sort of thing want. But it could be worse. They could be bad at, say, identifying and developing big-league talent. (Those who are still crying over Matt Bush may suggest that the front office is bad at this, mistakenly believing that a single point of failure is more important than the entire body of work, but I digress.)

I’m babbling now. What’s important to remember is that everything you just read is one man’s opinion, which brings me to my larger point. Be skeptical of the message. Be skeptical of the messenger. Be skeptical of the skeptics who tell you to be skeptical of the messenger. And above all else, don’t believe a word I say.

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