What We Talk About When We Talk About Firing the Coach

There are an infinite number of ways for teams to make fans unhappy. So why is it that coaches and managers have evolved into the designated blame-catchers?

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Jun 22 2016, 1:44pm

Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

For the past few baseball seasons, my friend Jimmy and I go through what's almost a ritual after particularly interesting Chicago White Sox games. If they win, we'll text some variation of "Sox," a simple check-in to make sure the other bore witness. (What are spectator sports without the fellow spectators?) If they lose, as has become the norm over the past month and change, we recap every damn way manager Robin Ventura screwed up.

This is not an uncommon sentiment, not only for Ventura—who will not stop scrawling his second best outfield defender's name into the DH spot!—but, more to the point, for coaches in general. When things go right, you praise the players for jobs well done. When they break bad, you take it out on their bum of a coach.

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It doesn't seem fair. Players—that is to say, those actually playing the games and making millions of dollars while they do—are the ones who in one way or another fucked up and are, therefore, the ones that deserve the lion's share of the blame. If simply one aspect of the game was mucked up, there are specialty coaches and coordinators to berate. Hell, the general manager created the team, maybe he should face some scorn and ridicule. Above all, there are the owners—puffy pink billionaires dictating mostly fictitious budgetary constraints, fiddling with hirings and firings, even sticking their ruddied noses in roster moves no matter how often they preach autonomy. There is no one easier to be angry at than an owner. And yet.

And yet, despite the many fish in this particular sea, it's the manager that keeps getting filleted. They draw the angriest calls on sports radio, inspire the choicest GIF-laden rants down team message boards; they were the focus of single-serving Angelfire pages during Internet 1.0. The reasons why start with the simple scapegoat logic of one standing in for many.

"One cannot fire the whole team," says Edward Hirt, a professor of psychology and brain studies at Indiana University. "The coach is a target that can more easily be replaced." And so the coach it is.

When you have your doubts about the science, is all. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Blowing up and starting from scratch or adding a few high-priced band-aids to close gaps are decisions fraught with variables and complexities that are tough to parse from the couch or the barstool. Firing a manager, however, is a singular pink slip issued to someone who, in large part, has qualities mentally and aesthetically similar to the beer-bellied rest of us. If one were to rip off the manager's uniform—that said, probably don't—odds are they'd fit right into the uncles' cigar-smoking table at most family weddings. You can't say this about the players, those athletic specimens who routinely perform astonishing things before our very eyes.

"We can't in good conscience say, 'I could have struck that guy out,' or, 'I would have read that defense and completed that 15-yard out,'" says Guy Haberman, half of the Bay Area's "Haberman and Middlekauff" on 95.7 FM The Game. "But we can always say, 'I would have brought the closer in there,' or, 'I can manage timeouts better.'"

So it's decision-making that allows us to call for managerial heads. It's not only part of the game (I wish I could locate the eloquent quote from Joe Maddon when he was asked about how he reacts to criticism from the Cubs faithful, which he dismissed with a refreshing understanding that said criticism is part of the fan-sports interaction and makes the tapestry richer for its existence, but this long-winded parenthetical will have to do); it's the one part that fans can believe they'd be able to handle. In today's era of readily available statistics and the "on the job" experience that comes with managing fantasy squads, that sense is not entirely invalid—fans really are smarter than they used to be, or at least they're better informed. As such, they're more likely to aptly second-guess managerial moves. Still, questions that take the form of "if only they would've" or "why didn't they," which coach-questioning tends to do, steer into inherent absurdity.

There's a term for this second-guessing behavior in social psychology: counterfactual thinking. It's the tendency to come up with alternatives to events that happened or choices we made. What if we bought that lottery ticket? What if our plane crashed? What if we didn't chicken out asking that crush to prom? Basically, Sliding Doors or (kind of, go with me on this) Quantum Leap. That dreamscape-living is part of how we process life, and it can have ancillary benefits, as the fanfic maybe trains us for the next time a certain decision comes our way. But there is little truth to the actual answers we find here.

When you read the mentions. Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

That's because "what if" scenarios are complete and utter bullshit. There's no telling what would've happened if we had zigged instead of zagged, what with alternate realities being the convoluted medieval family trees they are. Maybe you'd win the lottery, sure, and then get run over by a bus on your way to collect. Maybe that prom date would be a Grade A snooze, and the experience boring enough to urge you into more purposeful sexual experimentation.

Sports-wise, these splits in the reality are the Big Points of Criticism on which fans linger. Grady Little refusing to pull Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Pete Carroll passing on second-and-one with 1:26 left in Super Bowl XLIX. Feel free to add something Chip Hale did in the past 48 hours to this list.

"It's easier for us to think about it like that," says Hirt. "Decisions are easier to counterfactualize in a way that makes sense to all of us and we say, 'Yeah, that was the reason. That was what changed, everything hinged on that.'"

The problem with focusing on these decisions is that hindsight and second-guesses don't mean anything. Maybe, when Pete Carroll decided to hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch, he would've fumbled so horrifically into the stands that a scuffle would've broken out, and that scuffle would have been the catalytic Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment that started World War III. Far-fetched, obviously, but there are New England Patriots fans involved.

It's no coincidence the examples I've used of poor management come late in the game. Second-guess criticism tends to be pretty short-term, and grounded in seeing the result and winding back the clock from there. "That last free throw, that last turnover, that horrible shot or whatever," Hirt says. "But all the baskets ultimately add up to the total score. You could take anything along the game and it could've changed the whole outcome. What if the guy didn't miss the layup in the second quarter?"

My favorite pet theory for why managers are the most consistently zapped lightning rod on a roof full of them (there are a few more: the variability of injuries, faulty expectations based on previous luck, pressure from the GM to showcase talent, a player's head "not being right" that day and the manager's options being more limited) is that managers are the living avatars of what each of us considers The Man. You know this guy, although yours might be different than mine. The Man is a specific boss breathing down your neck, the gov'ment taking their goddamn cut, the broader system of neoliberal capitalism, whatever—it's just your run-of-the-mill proletarian disgust, and it's one most everyone can understand. But unlike the more monarchical owners, coaches are within our grasp. An owner is a bitter fact of life; they cannot be fired. Managers and coaches, on the other hand, are a different sort of boss—think of an elected official that can be fired via the voting booth. Booing is exercising that vote, open calls for their firing are political campaigning, and if you squint it all almost looks democratic.

So, go ahead and call for the coach's firing. Sure. Why the hell not? Managers and coaches have such limited overall impact anyway, and this sort of sin-eating is the better part of how they earn their paycheck. However good or bad they are at their opaque jobs, managers do make decent enough stress balls for those of us seething at home. If popping off at them keeps us from raging elsewhere when we try to make sense of the randomness that leads to success or failure, then we might as well thank them for their service. And when the new guy screws up just as bad, well, they can see themselves the fuck out, too, with our compliments.

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