John Coppolella, man in the news, spoke to Bob Nightengale of USA Today via phone and — there’s no other way to put this — vented. The Braves’ general manager said: “I know it’s hard for our fans, but I’m not running for office. We are doing what I believe is what’s best in for the long-term interest of the Braves. I’ll trust our scouts and analytics.”
Then this: “I’m getting so tired of this. If guys want to take shots, or (degrade) us, fine. But let’s let it play out for a few years before we start (brandishing) our pitchforks and torches. I feel in my heart this is the best for the Braves.”
And this: ““We’re not afraid of the criticism and taking the risk, but we’re tired of it.”
That part where he said, “I feel in my heart this is the best for the Braves”? Absolutely true. As noted in this space a time or two, Coppolella is convinced his way is the Right Way. And I know, from conversations with him, that he can’t quite fathom why others fail to grasp the wisdom of this grand vision. But here’s a dollop of unsolicited advice to the guy who officially been GM for seven weeks:
That part about not running for office? It’s also true. Coppolella was hired to do a job, and if his bosses didn’t approve of what he’s doing they wouldn’t have handed him a contract through 2019 when they made him GM. He has been given something approaching carte blanche to remake these Braves, and he’s obviously not afraid of exercising his imprimatur.
But saying he’s tired of being criticized indicates that the guy who doesn’t care about being popular cares about being popular. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he can’t have it both ways. Coppolella, who’s a very bright guy, has to grasp that the course he has chosen — the course in which he believes utterly — won’t be greeted with acclaim from many fans or even the dispassionate folks in the media until/unless the Braves start winning, which even in his best-case-scenario is a ways away.
Bobby Cox was the Braves’ general manager for a while — he rebuilt around young pitching and traded the sainted Dale Murphy — and had a way of dealing with criticism: He ignored it. A lot of public figures will say, “Oh, I never read the paper.” Ninety-nine percent of them are fibbing. Bobby Cox is one of the few public figures I’ve ever known who didn’t read the paper. But ignoring criticism is exponentially harder in the Internet age, and Coppolella reads everything. He probably should cut back.
If he believes in what he’s doing and his bosses support him, that should be enough. Really, that’s all the affirmation he’s apt to get — except for the occasional column like this, for which the writer has himself heard much criticism.
Fans want to win now. Fans want to win every game. Baseball professionals know that’s not possible, which is why they’re professionals: They’re driven by pragmatics, not emotion. Fans are not professionals. They’re fans. And they’re the ones who buy tickets. It’s never a great idea to get ticked off at the people you want to buy your product.
This rebuild, which has just entered Year 2, hasn’t been easy on Coppolella and John Hart; both have admitted to losing no small amount of sleep, and last season’s awful second half was described by Coppolella as “the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.” Difference is, Coppolella and Hart have the power to make roster-shaping decisions. In setting organizational policy, fans are powerless. All they can do if they see something they don’t like — and fans never like a trade that dispatches a favorite player — is to complain. And to stop buying tickets.
It’s instructive that the venting here wasn’t done by Hart, who’s 67 and who was rebuilding the Cleveland Indians when Coppolella was in high school. It was done by the 37-year-old who hasn’t been in a position to be criticized before. (Before the Braves fired Frank Wren in September 2014, how many among you had heard Coppolella’s name?)
I’m happy to grant Coppolella a mulligan because I admire what he’s doing and I understand how passionate he is. But I’ve known him for a few years. The average fan doesn’t have that same access. If the average fan reads him saying, “I’m getting so tired of this” … well, wouldn’t the kneejerk response be to say, “And we’re getting tired of you trading away all our players”?
The only way Coppolella can win over the fans is if his team wins big. Winning big can only be achieved by acquiring good players. Toward that end, he has acquired a slew of promising talents who could conceivably become the nucleus of a winning team. In my view, he hasn’t lost a trade yet. But I can’t say he won the interview with USA Today. Let’s hope that’s a lesson learned.
Oh, and one thing more. Coppolella also told Nightengale: “I cannot make it any more clear: We are not trading Freddie Freeman. We are not. I’d give my right arm before we trade Freddie Freeman. It is not happening.” Which is pretty much what I told you the other day.