You may have heard that the Kansas City Royals are planning to give out Tony Pena Jr. bobblehead dolls on Sept. 6. You, in fact, may have decided to beat the Labor Day rush and already started making jokes about the Kansas City Royals giving out bobblehead dolls of a player who is hitting .160 and has an OPS+ of 2 (yeah, 2) and has 13 plate appearances since July 8. You may even have started to plan your "They're really giving away Tony Pena bobblehead" party, complete with artifacts from other historically inappropriate decisions like:
1. The album cover from the Jerry Lewis Singers recording of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "If I Had a Hammer."
2. A Mike Jacobs T-shirt from that glorious day when the Florida Marlins gave it away on Jewish Heritage Day despite the somewhat inconvenient fact that Mike Jacobs is not actually Jewish*.
3. A recording of the job interview Matt Millen had with the Detroit Lions.
In any case, back to Pena bobblehead, the Royals apparently are crying foul about the jokes: They don't really think it's fair to second guess the Pena bobblehead decision, which was made way back in February. They have a small point -- bobblehead days, because of the various intricate bobblehead logistics involved, have to been be planned way in advance. And so there's no way to guess what will happen. When the decision to have a Tony Pena bobblehead day was made, he was the Royals starting shortstop, he was viewed as an above average defender, and he's a very likable guy who seems a worthy representative for "Hispanic Heritage Day," which is on the same day. Plus, let's face it, these are the Royals and there are not too many slam-dunk bobblehead candidates.
Of course, it's only a small point because Pena also had a 66 OPS+ last year, which was the third-worst in baseball for anyone getting 500 or more at-bats. And there was every indication, based on his minor league numbers, that the 66 OPS+ was, in fact, a fluke year, a Norm-Cash-in-1961 kind of season*, and that he was very likely going to hit a lot worse in 2008. It really did not have take Nostradamus to see this year coming.
Again, back to Pena, the reason this bothers me is not that the Royals were unduly optimistic about Pena's baseball future or that they did not anticipate the potential for extreme comedy built around a Pena bobblehead doll. No, what bugs me is a a more general thought about how we rush to make a player a fan favorite. We don't take our time anymore, wait for a player to succeed, it's all about potential and promise and young success.
I think Alex Gordon is an even better example of this ... I like Alex Gordon. I do. He's only 24 years old, he's shown signs of becoming a good defensive third baseman, he has flashed some power potential, he seems to be improving his plate discipline. If forced to bet -- something I do not like doing because I'm terrible at predicting the future -- I would bet that Alex Gordon will be an All-Star more than once in his career.
But ... I could lose that bet. Because Gordon is also hitting .256/.348/.418 in his second full season, he's on pace to strike out about 150 times*, his defensive numbers appear to be atrocious (only Jorge Cantu among third base qualifiers has a worse zone rating) and while he flashes power potential, he will probably not hit 20 actual homers this year.
*Gordon could become the 15th player in baseball history to strike out 150 times and not hit 20 home runs. Those include:
1. Delino DeShields, 1991, 10 homers, 151 Ks.
And yet, there are many Kansas City fans who view Gordon as a star, embrace him like one. These are the times. If you're a Royals fan, you can't take your time, build a relationship with a player, get to know him. There's no time for courtship. Jermaine Dye was the first Royals player to start an All-Star Game in forever, and he was traded by July of the next year. Johnny Damon led the American League in runs and stolen bases and cracked 214 hits, and he was traded before Opening Day of the next season. Carlos Beltran played five full years in Kansas City, but there were some low moments in there, and the the last three years were clouded by trade rumors, and everyone knew how that was going to end.
So maybe there's no choice. Maybe the only way to deal with this stuff as a fan is to embrace Alex Gordon as a star early in the hopes that he will become a star. Maybe the only way to deal with this stuff is to take a likeable young player with a good glove like Tony Pena and make a bobblehead out of him and hope for the best.