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Bloggers React to Cards GM's Infamous Online Spat with Fans

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UPDATE: More comments from Chuck Brownson, a blogger at Viva El Birdos, are at the bottom of this post.

In July 2007 I wrote an article for the RFT about the increasing influence that statistically-minded baseball blogs were starting to have on the day-to-day operations of the teams they cover.

In addition to discussing the remarkable circumstances that led to a Seattle Mariners blog called the U.S.S. Mariner directly influencing the approach of their star young pitcher Felix Hernandez, I asked Tony La Russa about his opinion of blogs and advanced statistical analysis, and interviewed Larry Borowsky, creator of the popular stat-head Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos.

The take-home message at the time was that while sports blogs are better than ever and wield considerable power in some cities, the Cardinals organization wasn't exactly on the cutting edge of the trend.

Obviously, much has changed since then. It's still unlikely that Tony La Russa is reading Deadspin in his free time, but Jeff Luhnow, the man who runs the Cardinals farm system, routinely does chats, interviews, and podcasts with local blogs.

Then last week there was the infamous (and hilarious) spat that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak had with a few trash-talking trolls during an online chat on the Web site of the Post-Dispatch.

After some gleeful mocking of the incident, I started to wonder how that online interaction might impact the way Mozeliak, the man with the keys to the Cardinals organization, reacts to online criticism and advice in the future.

For instance, if Adam Wainwright was getting rocked because he was throwing too many fastballs in the early innings, and a writer at Viva El Birdos astutely pointed this out (such was the case with the U.S.S. Mariner and Hernandez), would Moz be more likely to disregard the legitimate analysis because some moron with a web handle of "I Hate Bill DeWitt!!!" mocked him for signing Khalil Greene? 

I exchanged emails with Borowsky, one of the most prescient voices to get his take on the subject.

Borowsky (who has turned over full-time blog duties at VEB to a trio of writers, including The Rundown's own Aaron Schafer) seemed to place blame for the incident on Cardinals fans who refused to adopt to the way the club has chosen to do business in the 21st century:


"The problem here is that the Cards shifted their personnel philosophy a couple of years ago, and a large part of the fan base still hasn't caught on. The old philosophy -- which fans trust, because it worked in this decade -- was to plug every hole on the roster by spending money on a veteran player. But that's an inefficient way to operate, because when you make a bad decision or get unlucky, you end up with a lot of dead weight on the payroll -- viz. Tino Martinez, Adam Kennedy, Juan Encarnacion, Mark Mulder, Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen, Jason Isringhausen.

The new philosophy is that you plug most of your holes with homegrown resources. The majority of fans don't trust this approach yet, because it doesn't have a recent track record of success -- at least not in St. Louis, although it has worked for many other organizations (including the two current pennant winners). People are still attached to the old way of doing business, and until the Cards win something with the new philosophy, a lot of people will bitch about it.

Another important factor here is that the team has done a lousy job of explaining its new philosophy and articulating it consistently. That's partly because one key member of the organization -- La Russa -- doesn't fully buy into it. Mozeliak also made a huge mistake by promising the team would be aggressive buyers this off-season; he created a sense of expectation, and that left people feeling cheated when circumstances forced the team to take a different tack. So if some fans or media members don't get it, that's partly the Cardinals' own fault. Some of the abuse from fans is simply a result of incompetent PR. But if the team gets back to the playoffs this year, all will be forgiven. It's all about results."

Nothing Mozeliak does -- short of spending like the Yankees and winning a pennant every year -- will please rabid Cards fans and the zombie-like disciples of sports talk radio haters.

The real question, though, was how might the chat incident change the way Mozeliak treats constructive criticism from sites that conduct serious sabermetric analysis. Front offices have long ignored sound advice from newspaper columnists and other outside observers. But this is a new era right? Several stat-head bloggers have graduated from lonely nights in front of computer screens to roles as paid consultants for big league clubs. Surely, the testy exchange jaded the Cards GM and made him less likely to even read a sports blog, let alone hire one of the writers, right?
      
According to Borowsky, the thought of Mozeliak hitting up a sports blog for advice on how to manage a $100 million payroll is a bit unnerving:
 
"The 2004-05 Cardinals got old and the organization was forced to endure a transition phase; it happens to every team. As transition phases go, this one has been pretty mild. Mozeliak has done a terrific job of shedding old players and lousy contracts while keeping the team in contention. In his first year at the helm, the Cards far exceeded expectations. I don't agree with all of Mo's decisions, and in fact I vigorously disagree with some of them. I also think the Cards may look back on this off-season as a missed opportunity. But overall I'm impressed with the job Mo has done to date, and I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He certainly does not deserve the abuse he's received."

Ultimately, I think the most reasonable analysis of the Mozeliak chat came from the P-D's own Bernie Miklasz, who had this to say about the perils of online fan interaction in one of his columns:

"If you're going to set up shop on the Internet to truly interact with readers, then you should try to keep it real, and spontaneous. And sports fans like to bust on each other. It's no worse than the discourse we have in our culture over politics and religion."

What he said.

Charles Brownson:
As for the chat itself, it takes guts for any GM to do a chat the way Mozeliak did last week. Few GM's do this and I hope that Mozeliak isn't dissuaded from doing it again in the future because he got ambushed by some idiots hiding behind anonymous screen names. He may avoid it for a while but I think he'll be back. As for whether or not this will affect how the front office deals with criticism, my gut tells me that if Mozeliak is confident enough in what he's doing to do a chat knowing that the fan base was beginning to get worked into a lather already, he's confident enough in his abilities and in the process to stick with it. They may be less open with the media for a while but I think they'll keep doing what they believe is best.

I also think that the fans' reaction is a blip on the radar. Cards' fans are notoriously loyal to their team and, come April, they'll fall in line by and large. Now, things may change if the Cards have a 75-win season, but if the team can push their number of wins into the mid-80s again, I think everything will be okay. Many fans are frustrated right now but they're also bored by the fact that their football team was terrible and the baseball team hasn't played a game in nearly five months. We need something to happen to sate us so there is a visceral reaction by some when we're unable, or unwilling, to meet Brian Fuentes' price, for example. In short, I really think this whole thing is a blip on the radar that will blow over. I also think that Mozeliak's strategy is the correct one and that the emphasis he's putting on pushing the young players and giving them opportunities to play will pay dividends. If he's right, the team will improve and that, too, will help satisfy the masses.



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