In “Homer at the Bat”, from season three of The Simpsons, centenarian Springfield Nuclear Power Plant owner C. Montgomery Burns, moonlighting as the manager of his company’s softball team, instructs then-Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Darryl Strawberry, paid a boatload of cash to play on the team in the league final, to hit a home run. Strawberry, a near-peak All-Star slugger facing off against some guy who works at the Shelbyville Nuclear Power Plant in slow-pitch softball, hit a home run long enough to befit the fact that he’s literally in a cartoon, after which Burns exclaims, “I told him to do that!”
The joke is painfully obvious to anybody merely acquainted with the concept of professional sports–hitting a home run was not a matter of strategic brilliance but of inevitability. Mr. Burns did not teach Strawberry how to hit a home run–he merely benefited from the talent surrounding him (setting aside that his wealth was what brought the talent to Springfield in the first place).
This is largely how I imagined Jeff Albert doing his job as hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. Both Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado were really good hitters prior to Jeff Albert being their hitting coach and then Jeff Albert was their hitting coach for a while and then they were still really good hitters. To some extent, I have been a Jeff Albert defender, but this is less a matter of believing that Jeff Albert is actively doing a good job and more a matter of believing that his job is inherently silly and meaningless. Realistically, if you made me (terrible at hitting, barely able to hit a baseball in the air) the hitting coach for guys who are already Major League Baseball players, what could I possibly do to ruin them? Even if Jeff Albert were truly terrible at his job, a thing I don’t think can be proven nor disproven, how bad can one realistically believe it would get? It seems like it should be considerably harder to be a hitting coach for people who aren’t already incredible hitters (read: at literally any other level of baseball anywhere).
Jeff Albert, much like John Mabry before him, has been a scapegoat for a lot of fan resentment. From a baseball analysis perspective, this makes no sense to me, for the reasons detailed above. From the perspective of trying to create a sense of order for one’s favorite baseball team, however, blaming a relatively unseen guy for the failures of the greater collective can be very comforting. It’s like when politicians blame pork barrel spending for federal budget deficits, as though a few million dollars set aside for some superfluous cause is the reason a country that spends close to a trillion dollars every year on the military hasn’t balanced its books. If you want to blame the Cardinals’ sub-optimal personnel for their shortcomings, it would take tens of millions of dollars and a whole host of transactions to rectify that. If the blame falls on Jeff Albert, the Cardinals are one move away from being an unbeatable juggernaut.
The Cardinals, in the end, did not fire Jeff Albert, but his most ardent critics came away from today happy, as it was announced that Jeff Albert would not be returning to the Cardinals for the 2023 season. Similarly, Mike Maddux will not be returning as pitching coach, but since the Cardinals’ pitching was mostly good during the 18 innings of the postseason this year, he wasn’t a scapegoat on the level of Albert. John Mozeliak claimed that he was planning on offering Albert a new contract, indicating that his departure was one of choice. And then further details started to emerge.
Oh my God, did Cardinals Twitter run Jeff Albert out of town?
People who aren’t on Twitter, and especially people who are sporadically on Twitter and for some reason feel a sense of pride that they aren’t one of ~those people~ on the bird app, love to say that Twitter isn’t real life. To some extent, of course, this is true–I’m imagining a scenario now where I tried to name-drop and then explain dril to my less Online friends. But social media is by definition the logical extension of those who comprise it–the truly deluded are the ones who believe that social media posts are all actually Russian disinformation bots or whatever rather than the manifestation of, at the very least, some actual people. Even if your express purpose is to troll people, that you are doing so is itself a reflection of your own feelings. And if you are a public-facing figure of any note, social media is going to weigh in on your existence. If you are a coach or a manager, even an extremely successful and largely acclaimed one, there is going to be resentment out there towards you.
On one hand, I am empathetic towards those incapable of handling criticism on the internet. I’ve written some widely savaged things on this here website, though in each of those cases I received more positive notes than negative. It’s not as though there’s a widespread collective of loudly pro-Jeff Albert voices, more just anti-anti-ones, so if Jeff Albert, who as far as I can tell does not have a publicly known Twitter account, logs on to view commentary of him, it’s going to be almost uniformly negative. In a case where you receive mostly praise but some criticism, it’s inevitable to remember the criticism. When you only receive criticism, it has to be unbearable.
At the same time, though, criticizing Jeff Albert was a pastime, whether those who did it want to admit it or not, and they had a right to it. I draw the line on Twitter at tagging people–if you wanted to express your distaste during Paul DeJong’s struggles last year, that’s your prerogative, but if you decided you needed to at RealPaulDeJong to tell him he sucks, that’s uncalled for (if you’re the kind of person who sees someone say something negative about someone and then chooses to publicly tag them so that they will see it, well, I’m normally opposed to the death penalty but…). Jeff Albert, like I said, doesn’t have an active Twitter account, so anything he was seeing was a hell of his own making. At some point, it’s on him to cut off his own access to criticism–even if the criticism is irrational, seeing it isn’t going to make him feel any better. Some people are fueled by their haters–think Michael Jordan inventing slights just so he could improve his own game. But some athletes seem bothered by criticism, even great ones–Kevin Durant seems eternally bothered by the fact that some people don’t like him. I’m not criticizing this thin skin–I try to avoid reading the comments on my own posts just because I can take things way out of proportion. But each of us handles it in our own way. If you’ve gotten to a point where you’re quitting your job over it, you may need to change how you handle things.
Inevitably, Jeff Albert is going to be replaced by some other guy who will tell Paul Goldschmidt to hit a baseball good, the Cardinals offense will probably be (like it was this year) broadly fine and the same people who called Jeff Albert a war criminal for the last four years will find a new guy to blame. Unless the Cardinals go the entire 2023 season without making an out, there will always be somebody mad at the hitting coach for his inability to create the absolutely flawless offense of yesteryear that exists in many of our minds (the 2004 Cardinals scored one or fewer runs in 10% of their games). My hope for whomever comes next is the knowledge of what is coming, an acute awareness that people are going to get mad and that their opinions are not going to be what matters.