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The Colorado Rockies and the soft bigotry of low expectations

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How do you REALLY feel about the Colorado Rockies?

George W. Bush's famous "soft bigotry of low expectations" clouds our view of the Rockies.
George W. Bush's famous "soft bigotry of low expectations" clouds our view of the Rockies.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On July 10, 2000, then-Governor of Texas George W. Bush stood before the NAACP at its 91st Annual Convention and delivered a speech that, in part, aimed at reconciling the organization with the Republican Party during his candidacy for President of the United States (You can read the speech's full text here.)

I don't bring this up for political reasons (nor will I join any flame wars in the comments), but I link Bush's speech because of one phrase, often credited to speechwriter Michael Gerson: "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Bush used the phrase in relation to serious things -- racial and socioeconomic concerns -- while I borrow it for unimportant baseball thoughts, so let's be clear about how superficial my use is and not conflate it with something as serious as race relations in America.

Nevertheless, the context of the phrase (emphasis mine):

Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there's racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten. Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations. Several months ago I visited Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where African-Americans confronted injustice and white Americans confronted their conscience. In 43 years, we have come so far in opening the doors of our schools. But today we have a challenge of our own. While all can enter our schools, many--too many, are not learning there.

Bush framed the soft bigotry of low expectations around racial and socioeconomic concerns -- which, again are far more important than what I'm about to do -- but that phrase sticks with me as I help our talented staff on player reviews for the 2015 season. Failing to expect enough out of a person (in Bush's case, viewed through a racial and/or cultural lens; in my case, a member of a baseball team) damns them with faint praise, as it were. That one would expect little out of a person based on their station alone is the soft bigotry; it's a nuanced and fascinating (if not depressing) idea. But what does it have to do with the Colorado Rockies?

Well, the longer the Rockies are bad, the more fans and experts fall into one of two (very general) groups: group one is mad, frustrated, and fed up with the path of the team. This group argues for serious moves right now to prove the club wants to win -- whether it's new ownership, new coaches, a total revamp in player acquisition and/or player development, or a combination of all of that and more.

Group two takes a slower approach and is more trusting of the process. It seems more content to give Jeff Bridich time to make moves while understanding why Walt Weiss will return to the dugout in 2016 among other moves and non-moves in the Rockies' recent past and future. (Obviously there are more subtleties to opinions surrounding the Rockies than just these two groups, but surely you get my general point.)

Neither side is wrong, of course, but (very broadly) taking one of those two perspectives leads to the trap of repetitive, unoriginal takes on the club and its slow path to relevance. I worry that increasingly, fans are lining up at various levels within group one while writers, bloggers, and "experts" fall in to group two. And I worry that in group two (my group), sometimes patience belies the soft bigotry of low expectations. I can feel it when I write about players. The best example of this for me, personally, is Yohan Flande.

★★★

In almost every other major league organization, Flande would have a Triple-A ceiling. In Colorado he's appeared in 35 games (20 starts) over the past two seasons at the big league level. He was in the rotation for a third of the season this summer. And he did OK! That's the crazy part!

But that's where the soft bigotry takes hold: Flande did fine ... for a replacement-level swingman who would be in Triple-A in virtually every other organization but instead finds himself in the big leagues because the Rockies' pitching depth is perennially tested as they lose nearly 100 games every year. Nobody expected anything out of Flande, so when he wasn't a complete dumpster fire on a club that was bad anyways, it suddenly becomes commendable. On a winning club -- which is what the Rockies are nominally in the business of producing, and have failed to do so consistently -- Flande wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the big league rotation.

The long-term low expectations for the Rockies have taken this shape of soft bigotry against players like Flande -- and Chris Rusin, Rafael Ynoa, Brooks Brown (see here for proof) and Christian Friedrich (example here) -- and anybody else who frankly wouldn't have been good enough on a contending club but settled in to some kind of role in Colorado. And when these players have (small) success, because expectations have been beaten down by so many years of bad baseball, it suddenly becomes an achievement for the player to produce good enough.

I can see it in the modifiers placed on these players' performances: all things considered, it goes when explaining a player's stats, or perhaps relative to the rest of the pitching staff while analyzing the season. That analysis isn't wrong, it's just ... well, it's the soft bigotry of low expectations. Not much is expected of these guys playing on a rebuilding team that won't win for at least another season or two. And when they have little moments of (relative) success here or there, they did it! All things considered, of course.

But is that frame of analysis too generous? Is a successful season from Yohan Flande relative to the rest of the pitching staff still inconsequential, since the team is ultimately irrelevant? Have I expected so little of the Rockies for so long that when somebody does something that'd be considered sub-par on any contending team, they are suddenly nominated for sainthood in Denver? That's hyperbolic, of course, but the question stands: is it all soft bigotry borne out of having such low expectations?

I know this is how it goes with a bad ball club sometimes, and there's a certain amount of that kind of player analysis that will inevitably happen on any bad team. But I worry that if every time I place Flande's performance into that context, for example, I am damning both him and the Rockies with the faint praise that almost condones losing.

Hey, it goes, Flande wasn't bad considering he was filling in for injuries/bad starters/ineffective younger guys/he should have never been in the rotation in the first place. It's not his fault the Rockies were forced to use him where they shouldn't! And all things considered, he did pretty well relative to the rest of the Rockies' pitching staff!

That all may be true -- and this isn't about Flande so much as it is the general expectations of the Rockies, so I do not intend to specifically single him out -- but is it also being too easy on a club that has for too long seemed content to aimlessly flounder at the bottom of their division? Does it lack the urgency needed to demand a winning team in Denver? Has my perspective been so skewed that every time a replacement-level player puts together an average performance, it becomes a commendable achievement relative to my low expectations of the Rockies?

And what's the solution, anyways? Is the answer to start delivering hot takes around the clock? Should I be unnecessarily mean to players just because they're replacement-level talent on a bad team? Does the Rockies community benefit from having yet another person call on the club to fire Weiss, or for the Monforts to be less involved in front office decisions, or for the team to hire somebody to (finally) replace Keli McGregor, or for Bridich to make major moves this winter, whether for legitimate reasons or perhaps just to prove he's not his predecessor?

I honestly don't know. I'm not about to start yelling that the Rockies ought to go after Zack Greinke or David Price, because that's just not based in reality. But there's a balance to be struck between the proverbial hot take and the measured analysis of praising players relative to the rest of the pitching staff. I worry about soft bigotry spreading thanks to my own expectations of the Rockies -- and in spreading, damning players with faint praise while not accurately calling on the rebuild that ought to be happening.

★★★

Maybe this is all wrong. Maybe the soft bigotry of low expectations is a dumb idea and I don't have my finger on the pulse of any of it. Perhaps more accurately, maybe there's something to it and I completely botched the angle (nobody ever accused me of being the smartest tool in the shed!). And certainly my superficial hijacking of the term isn't meant to be taken in nearly the same context of the important original use during Bush's speech to the NAACP.

But it got me thinking about what seems to be the diverging path between fans and "experts." If you're a fan passionate about the Rockies in any way -- whether you're positive about their rebuild, whether you think Walt Weiss ought to be fired, whether you think the Monforts are an abomination to professional baseball, whatever it may be -- have your say. We want to hear from you.

The best way to do that, especially if you're a veteran of SB Nation, is by writing a Fan Post. Go here to write your very own Fan Post on any Rockies topic you want. We read these. We want to know what you think -- we always have, we always will, we encourage this kind of interaction, and we are interested in your views. We routinely push them to the front page. In fact, we even recently added a staff writer to our team because of one of his Fan Posts.

There's also this: with the blessing of the overlords here at Purple Row, I'm interviewing Rockies fans about their feelings towards the team, the Monforts, Bridich the rebuild, prospects, draft strategy, losing almost 100 games, Walt Weiss, EVERYTHING. Whatever you want to talk about. And yes, that literally means you! I want to talk to YOU.

If a Fan Post isn't your thing, or you know of other Rockies fans outside the SB Nation purview who have something to say, please email me at the address on my SB Nation profile, and tell me how you feel about the Rockies. You can tweet me if you'd prefer to connect there. Or send me a Facebook message. Please share your thoughts, whether you're angry, disappointed, content, or optimistic and excited about the Rockies' future.

Maybe we'll turn this into a series depending on its popularity. I'd love to see a dozen Fan Posts about this in the next week, too! But whatever happens, whatever your view, it's not my job to tell you that you're wrong, because you're not. Anger, frustration, complacency, excitement, and/or any other feelings towards the Rockies are all valid, and I'm genuinely interested in better understanding how you see the Rockies, their front office, and their future.

I think it might do us all some good to put the club in perspective, especially as perspectives seem to be diverging between the fans and the "experts." Reach out! Lay it all on me. I want to hear from you.