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Which is more important, fandom or winning?

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If you’re conflicted about the answer, you’re not alone

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I miss all of them—I miss Wallace, I really miss D’Angelo. I miss Idris [the actor who played Stringer Bell]. . . . All these theories that we kill off guys because they get contracts elsewhere, it’s not true. The fact is, if you’re not willing to kill your babies—isn’t that a Faulkner line?—well, that’s no good. You have to kill your babies if the story demands it.

David Simon on his treatment of fans’ favorite characters on The Wire

There are variations on the “murder your darlings” aphorism, but they all offer the same wisdom: The integrity of a story should never be compromised in service of characters, even very popular ones. While a baseball season isn’t a scripted narrative, it raises similar questions. It’s time for Rockies fans to consider the implications.

The 2019 trade deadline passed with the Rockies making only minor moves. This comes during a disappointing season when the Rockies themselves expected to be buyers and a post-season contender. Instead, General Manager Jeff Bridich found himself taking calls from other teams hoping to make a deal, mostly for Scott Oberg. Rumors, too, were floated that the Rockies were at least listening to offers for Charlie Blackmon.

The fan reaction on Twitter was fast and firm: Charlie Blackmon is a fan favorite. More than one follower tweeted at Purple Row that if Blackmon were traded, their time as a Rockies fan was over. All of this happened, interestingly enough, immediately after former fan favorite Troy Tulowitzki announced his retirement, his 2015 trade to Toronto still fresh in fans’ minds.

But fandom and smart baseball choices seldom have a cozy relationship.

Jon Paul Morosi, who first reported the rumor about Blackmon, notes that he will be paid $21.5 million for the next two years with player options through 2023. Currently, he is slashing .325/.371/.597 with an fWAR of 1.8, the third most valuable Rockie. In addition to his on-field value, Morosi points out, Blackmon is “a major part of Colorado’s identity,” adding, “Colorado would need to consider the reaction — inside and outside its clubhouse — to trading a cornerstone player so soon after signing Nolan Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million extension through 2026.” (Nick Groke makes clear in this article that the Rockies’ financial commitments will substantially affect their future decisions; Blackmon’s contract is one of those commitments.)

I found myself conflicted. Despite his offensive production and Chuck Nazty charm, Blackmon is not a good outfielder — as in one of the worst in baseball. This was also true last year and is unlikely to improve as Blackmon ages. Unless the National League adopts the designated hitter, Blackmon may well prove to be a costly long-term liability. (In his August 1 chat, Groke suggested perhaps moving Blackmon to first, but having seen the Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy experiments, I’m not enthusiastic.)

Wouldn’t it have made sense to trade Blackmon? Sure, it would have meant no more mullet and beard and @ChuckNazty and TONIIIIIIIGHT!, but think about what he could have brought to the team in terms of talented and controllable players, a resource the Rockies desperately need.

The Rockies do not have a deep farm system. According to FanGraphs, as of May 30, the top farm system in baseball belongs to the Padres; the Dodgers are 9th; the D-backs are 12th; the Rockies are 24th; and the Giants are 27th. Wouldn’t it make sense to acquire some new talent to build on? Moreover, the current Rockies lack secondary talent. As Dan Szymborski writes, “Relative to a league-average team, the Rockies have essentially given up 5 and 1/2 wins a year when it comes to this secondary talent, and an amazing 20 wins a year compared to the Dodgers.” None of this is encouraging. So why not trade Blackmon?

Asking the question and looking at the stats is easy; answering it, however, is hard. I adore Charlie Blackmon. While drafting this article, I listened to Drew Goodman’s podcast interview with Chuck Nazty and wondered if I should even finish this piece — that’s how much I like Charlie Blackmon. But reading The MVP Machine and Astroball: The New Way to Win It All has stayed with me. These books describe teams that are not guided by fandom; rather, they use data to make hard decisions with a goal of winning. The 2019 Astros are en route to their third consecutive 100-win season. So far, their system works.

Forbes reports that the Rockies are worth $1.2 billion, the 22nd most valuable franchise in baseball. Moreover, fans attend games. According to ESPN’s attendance report, Rockies games are the fifth most attended in baseball with an average 2019 game attendance of 37,802. In other words, fans turn out to watch the Rockies, and they, presumably turn out (at least in part) to watch Charlie Blackmon. Think of the Blackmon-related giveaways (e.g., the bobble heads and beanies with attached beards), the kids who dress up like Chuck Nazty for Halloween, and the viral youngster yelling, “That’s Charlie Blackmon!” How much is that worth?

The 2019 last-minute trade that had everyone talking was the D-backs trade of Zack Greinke to (of course) Houston. In describing the behind-the-scenes workings, Jeff Passan writes this:

It’s why the Diamondbacks listened when Luhnow asked to talk Greinke — and kept listening as he upped his offers. This cannot be personal. It can’t. No matter their deep fondness for Greinke, he was still a means to an end. Thinking that way can be soul-sucking, numbing, but in a baseball world where spontaneity has been replaced by indifference, the adapt-or-die adage applies. Turn off the emotion. Do your job. Do your damn job.

“This cannot be personal.” It appears that, for the Rockies, it is. Dick Monfort has repeatedly referred to players as his “kids” and the Rockies as a “family.” Clearly the fans have bought in — indeed, they have been made to feel like a part of the family. That’s good marketing — it drives up game attendance and merchandise sales — but is it good for winning?

Here’s a question: Should the Rockies have traded Charlie Blackmon and Scott Oberg to invest in a better Rockies team that can take advantage of the rest of Nolan Arenado’s guaranteed time in Colorado? Or should the Rockies hold on to them until their contracts expire because of how integral they are to the Rockies identity — and because of how much we love having them on our team?

David Simon, creator of the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, is an exceptional storyteller, willing to face fan fury to protect the integrity of the story he is telling. David Simon is like the Houston Astros.

As a Rockies fan, are you willing to part with your favorite players today in the quest for a better team tomorrow? Are you willing to say goodbye in pursuit of that quest? These are, I think, the difficult questions we — both the fans and the Rockies front office — need to ask ourselves.