After the jump, the chapter voted as the free “single” from the book: The Process, the Beast, and the Emptiness of Winning by Nicholas Macaluso.
The Beast is real and it has many heads. Four of them, covered in oily scales and stuffed with teeth. They have the tongues of cynics and beneath their shared breast a lump of cold gristle. This creature is a composite horror, bonded with the meat and blood of enemies afar and at home. This terrible thing is Andrew Friedman’s destiny. A gnomish fellow, himself the patchwork avatar of many faceless heroes, perhaps no taller than the sword he carries to the duel. It is a sturdy sword, a practical implement for a use such as this, and forged to endure many blows. But it will never kill the Beast. Andrew has long since accepted this, embraced it. In the spring, he will meet the Beast and one of them will live to see the leaves change. No matter how deeply in the earth Andrew buries the cloven heads, the Beast will rise in six months with sharper fangs.
Odds are that you’ve become aware of this annual by visiting websites that have done well to describe and explore The Process as it concerns the Tampa Bay Rays. This entire publication is devoted to reporting on it, so if you are confused, for now know that The Process means to make a personnel decision based on diligent research that will provide immediate and residual benefits without profligate use of resources.
Of all sports, baseball most accurately captures the human condition. It is a grind defined by failure and the response to failure. The sport consumes more than half of the calendar. The best players (with the exception of the otherworldly early 2000s Barry) don’t achieve their primary objective even half of the time. Some teams have unfair natural advantages, like market size or absurdly wealthy owners. Players must tolerate accumulated pains and injuries for the good of the team. The baseball Powers That Be are ruthless pricks shamefully indulgent in favoritism. In the end, very few teams can recognize success.
The World Series is the most difficult trophy to win in American sports. Baseball is designed to beat you. And, I’m not being a deliberate sourpuss here, but such is life. Life is a grind spotted with meager successes and rare episodes of euphoria. Day in, day out, we slog through and take our bumps (boss was in a foul mood, traffic was brutal, DVR didn’t record Pretty Little Liars) and enjoy the small pleasures (free bites of bourbon chicken at the food court). But, in thinking about The Process, I’ve arrived at a comfortable understanding with baseball and sports and life and Beast-fighting: winning and happiness are beside the point.
In 2003, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers crushed the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl 37. I was eighteen years old. I remember my mother crying. I’ve never asked her about the tears, but I’m certain that they weren’t shed for Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. She was crying for my father, my grandparents, my uncle, who had spent – at that point – more than 25 years boiling in the concrete crucible obtusely bynamed The Sombrero and then at the luxurious (in the sense that the seats weren’t planks of metal) Raymond James Stadium. To my mom, the satisfied grin on Malcolm Glazer’s face as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy was a symbol of vindication of her loved ones’ investment.
At the time, I couldn’t disagree with her. That confetti may as well have rained down on me. We won the fucking Super Bowl. SCOREBOARD, etcetera, all caps required. Victory granted immunity from other fans’ derision, justification for something as simple as having been born somewhere. Eight years later, I confess that it means nothing to me and it hasn’t for about five years, probably seven but I can’t remember. I know that Derrick Brooks returned an interception for a touchdown in that Super Bowl. I can picture him crossing the goal line with his right arm raised, but I no longer feel his gallop in my chest. It’s just footage. Awesome footage, to be fair. I’m able to recognize that this interception was more significant than other interceptions, but the elation and relief and specialness I felt because the flag on his helmet represented a community of which I’m a part has vanished.
Glory is quick to fade. I know this because Yankees fans aren’t satisfied with 27. Because threepeats are better than repeats. Because champions don’t get an automatic spot in the title game the following year. Title defenses are illusory. Championships last until training camp. This is true in every sport. So why, as a fan, obsess over a feeling, an emotion, with so short a shelflife? The wisdom of crowds and its high priest Herman tells us that you play to win the game. Winning is the goal.
I’m not so sure how true that holds for fans. I am certain of how true it holds for me, which is to say, not a lot. I watch sports in general for the same reason I once read comic books: these cats can do stuff that I can’t and it’s really effing sweet. I enjoy the sweeping arc of Junior Griffey’s bat, the hitched step when he knew that only an act of God was keeping that ball playable. I think Ben Gordon’s parabolic jump shot is a work of art. I feel the way Prince feels about sex when BJ Upton dashes from second base to the wall and hauls in a screamer around his belt buckle.
None of this is to say that I don’t care about winning. After all, I still root for my teams. It’s nice to win and it’s fun and the internet is less annoying when it happens. But the 2010 San Francisco Giants taught me that baseball is ruled by luck and awful scheduling practices. Any Giants fan who raises an argument against this is unreasonable scum. (on a westerly wind, a thundering shout: SCOREBOARD, etcetera.)This is a Rays-centric publication, so I feel no shame in saying that it’s absolute bullshit that the Rays won baseball’s hardest division and had to play the best team in the American League in the first round.
I haven’t ever been as thoroughly dejected as I was leaving the Trop after Game 5. It was like every cell in my body had developed a tiny fracture. The 2010 edition of the Rays was hitched to a large cart groaning under the weight of a fanbase’s hopes and expectations. Rooting for them was emotional abuse – and this team won 96 games. Due to the elevated expectations for the squad, every loss felt like a cataclysm and every strikeout a sudden, cruel dicktap. When they crashed out of the playoffs, I felt like a cerebral amputee struggling with the sensation of a ghost dream. Something that was both present and not. A furiously imagined glory stillborn in gray matter.
For several days, I was grouchier than usual. Maybe I cried, but it was only for a second and then I stuffed some nerds in a toilet to restore my swagger. But from under that miasmic cloud emerged a zenlike perspective that winning trophies is a bonus; it isn’t guaranteed to the most deserving and it’s often subject to randomization in physics. A grounder careens wildly off the lip of the infield or it takes even skips onto the clay. Too much or too little finger on the seams turns James Shields, professional baseball thrower, into James Yields, professional turdface. To ape soccer magi: the ball is round. Even when the home team is treated to the greatest of all wins, its impact will erode sharply. I was finally honest with myself about the 2002 Super Bowl while sitting shiv’ah for the 2010 Rays. Defining my team by trophies and banners would no longer be enough. It no longer made sense. The goal of competition is to win, from the most narrow sample set of one game to the most broad sample set of an entire season, but the point of competition is not to pray for virtue, it is to earn it. The point is The Process.
The Beast is real and it can’t be vanquished. Delayed, at best. Andrew raises his blade to it because the sword is his best chance to stay standing, now and every spring hereafter. The Beast may parry or its hide may shrug off the thrust. The Beast may tear Andrew’s heart from its cavity. But should The Beast falter, Andrew will be there, his movements practiced and crisp and with a series of wet thuds The Beast will be divested of its menacing heads.
The Process is a weapon. A beauty tempered in logic and patience. The tool with which the Rays arm themselves to combat the beasts of the AL East. There’s something romantic about the Rays front office’s conviction to certain philosophies. It obviously hasn’t won them any world championships. They’re budget constrained by more socio-economic problems than I care to devote time to discussing. And their infallibility is far overblown. But they persevere, they fight, they rely on The Process, they go to work. I struggle to commit to the idea that I’d rather lose the right way than win the wrong way, because it’s superficially opposite of the premise of competition.
But that struggle is rooted in fear of going against the crowd. In truth, I’m soothed by the blade. It’s a great relief to place my confidence in an organization knowing that, year to year, the utmost care was taken with every decision, every strategy thoroughly scrutinized. The Process doesn’t always produce optimal results. In hindsight, it’s easy to criticize the Rays for signing Pat Burrell, Jason Isringhausen, for not pulling the trigger on trades for Jason Bay in 2008 and Cliff Lee in 2009 and 2010. But, to make this brief, the team has won more than 250 games in the last three years, two division titles, and one pennant. Only a lunatic would suggest that The Process hasn’t been a successful methodology.
The rationale behind every decision since Sternberg bought the team has been consistent and wholly evident – and that is just about the most a customer can ask for. No strategy is ever going to be perfect. Losses will occur. That’s just part of the game. It’s okay to lose this way, though, because with The Process, losing is a temporary madness. The Process has come to define this organization in the same symbiotic way that that the grind defines life, that failure defines baseball. The Process is a literal meme, a set of principles, an ideology that sticks to the heart and mind with more tenacity than the rush of winning. That’s what I’ve come to root for.
The eternal lesson of baseball is to keep steady. No matter how well the Rays do, no matter how giddy fans get over the arrival of the Manny Ramirezes and Rafael Sorianos of the baseball world, the team will always have to reckon with the twin behemoths of the northeast. Alex Anthopolous and the Blue Jays have just served the AL East notice this off-season as well. The Yankees and Red Sox have responded to failure in the past three years by renting a solid gold zeppelin and flinging cash and cheese baskets down into the laps of the game’s best free agents.
This is our unfortunate reality (until someone with engorged testes in baseball’s ivory tower makes one of those For the Good of the Game decisions and abolishes the division format). Our highs aren’t ever truly so high; Theo and the Steinbrenner rugrats are always circling with javelins to pop our piñata. But the dejection of watching Carl Crawford sprain his wrist by dotting the I’s too quickly on his Boston contract shouldn’t dominate our perspective, either. The team lost quite a few fan favorites this off-season and seemingly all of them to our sworn enemies. But that hasn’t stopped me from lacing up my Rays-blue high tops and setting chunky black frames on my nose.
Supporting an organization that subscribes to The Process means that a place has been reserved for me in the bunker; there are blankets and flashlights and even a scented candle. Things are going to be okay, even when the baseball world collapses in a flaming heap, as it does every winter. These end times have been prepared for. Just take the hand of the Rays fan next to you and breathe in slowly through your nose. Not only will we ball on a freakishly minute budget this year, but the draft picks received for letting those fan favorites depart will sustain the talent pipeline for the next half-decade.
These decisions were the right ones, given all that is known at present. That’s the core idea of The Process. Andrew could’ve sat this one out, huddled in his 2008 and 2010 division banners and let The Beast trample through Tampa Bay. But our Andrew doesn’t cower. He scraped the dried Yankee blood off of his sword and went to work.