What Not to Say After Trading Your Franchise Star

“This certainly is not a total teardown and rebuild.” Really? O.K.
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So you’re an MLB executive who’s found himself at a press conference to explain a sticky situation. Your baseball team has traded away its biggest homegrown star—which, sure, that’s common enough now that it no longer qualifies as “sticky” and hardly qualifies as a “situation.” But your case is a bit different. See, you signed your homegrown star to a massive extension two years ago, alienated him with your inability to manage the team properly, and are now paying tens of millions of dollars for another team to take him.

That’s a tough press conference! You don’t want to make it any harder than it has to be. Here’s a framework for how not to go about it—brought to you by Tuesday’s conference call with Rockies owner Dick Monfort and general manager Jeff Bridich on the trade of Nolan Arenado.

Be Clear on Where This Leaves the Team

The first question that was asked on Tuesday: Is this a rebuild? Which should have been an easy one to prepare for, as it’s only natural for people to look at a move like trading away your best player and think that you may, in fact, be rebuilding.

From Bridich: “This certainly is not a total teardown and rebuild.” 

From Monfort: “We have an extremely talented team. They’re built to compete. It’s time for them to take the next step.” 

(He circled back with a later question to add, “Maybe nobody on this call would believe this, but I truly believe in my heart that this is a very talented team—it underperformed the last couple years.”)

Given how the Rockies have looked over the last two years (finishing a combined 52 games out of first place) … interesting answers! If either Bridich or Monfort had specific information to back up these non-rebuild claims, neither shared it. Instead, take their word for it. But if you feel that it makes sense to acknowledge that you’re the only one on the call who believes that the team is “very talented”—Monfort was probably dead-on with that assessment!—then it perhaps is not reasonable to characterize them as “built to compete” and shipping out their best player as “certainly not a total teardown.” Perhaps.

No Need to State the Obvious

Might I be so bold as to suggest that you do not need “hindsight” to know it was a big deal to lose two-time batting champion DJ LeMahieu? (To say nothing of the fact that LeMahieu was available as a free agent as recently as, oh, a week ago.)

Offer Fans Something Different from What They Already Know

The Arenado trade was met with two main sentiments from Rockies fans: 1) this sucks, and 2) this deal makes no sense. A press conference would probably not make it suck any less. But a good one could at least make it seem ... not completely awful?

Monfort chose to go in the opposite direction. He, too, thinks that this situation sucks and makes no sense. Owners: They’re just like us!

On understanding just why Arenado wanted out badly enough to ask for a trade: “I have anguished for many sleepless nights wondering why that happened. … I don’t know. To be quite honest, in all our conversations with him, he never said it was this, that or the other. I just sort of felt it out.” On fans’ negative feelings: “To be quite honest, I would probably feel the same way, and maybe I do even feel the same way.” On the structure of the deal: “There were many deals that made no sense. And to be quite honest, there were 10 times over the last two weeks where I didn’t think the St. Louis deal made any sense.”

There’s something to be said for identifying with the fans, for letting them know that you do understand their feelings, for validating their experience. And then there’s this.

Don’t … Say This

Individually, the component pieces of this answer are mostly fine; any deal like this will bring some variation on “baseball is a business” alongside a cursory acknowledgement of the personal element in play. But if you find yourself dropping multiple instances of the phrase “human existence,” you might, just maybe, have gotten a bit carried away. (Though I’d certainly be curious to hear Bridich elaborate on the relationships in human existence that do last forever.) 

The dramatic effect from the phrasing overshadows the actual substance here: This is not just “part of human existence”! The term suggests a passive quirk of bad luck, like getting caught in the rain, or losing your wallet. Jeff Bridich did not just show up at work on Friday and realize, whoops, his All-Star third baseman had left for St. Louis and he had no choice but to pay $50 million toward his contract, grab a handful of prospects in return and let it be. This was a choice, even if it didn’t feel like much of one, and a team doesn’t find itself in a situation like purely by happenstance.

Have a Message

It’s possible to imagine a version of this press conference that centered on moving forward: building a new future for the team, explaining how the failures that led here had been identified and would not be repeated, that sort of thing. But to the extent that there was any coherent theme here—and there wasn’t much—it was one of delusion. Particularly for Monfort, the connective tissue of his answers was that everything was fine, the team should be able to win and this was just one more thing to move past. It worked only if you ignored all the recent history and relevant context. At one point, he was asked if he’d consider selling the team.

“You’d like that,” Monfort quipped, “Wouldn’t you?” He smiled to show that he was joking, but then again, was he?