Do Fans Always Need a Scape Goat?

A question I’ve often asked myself as a sports fan over the years is why do most fan bases need a scapegoat? Invariably every team has a player or players that seem to be the lightning rod of criticism for fans; that get an abnormally large portion of the blame during a losing streak or after a tough loss. The question is, can a team exist in sports without that designated polarizing player or players? Cubs’ fans are no exemption to this rule; over the years numerous players have filled the role. Most recently no player was as divisive as Starlin Castro. Hours of radio and TV time and extensive online space were absorbed with endless discussion of all things Starlin. His mental lapses and defensive struggles were endlessly dissected. But he’s not the only one.  Over the years many Cubs have filled the role. Opinions on these players were sharply divided among fans; some defending them and others heaping blame for every loss and misplay on their heads. I’ve been on both sides of the debate, defender and critic. I thought I would delve into my own experience on scapegoating players to examine this phenomenon; once when I was a defender and once when I was critic.

Certain players have irritated me over the years, either by their play on the field (looking at you Marmol) or attitude off it (Milton Bradley please step forward). A few select players seemed to have both a bad attitude and poor play at once. I think a lot of us felt that way about Zambrano by the end.  We tolerated the passion and competitive fire when he was winning — and perhaps even admired it, but when that passion wasn’t matched with results and led to some internal turmoil, we became much less forgiving.

But it was the man on the other side of the famous dugout throw down I particularly liked to blame Cub issues on. Michael Barrett joined the Cubs after the 2003 season in a trade from the Oakland A’s. The first couple seasons Barrett was an offensive force in Chicago even winning a silver slugger award. But as Barrett’s offense faded his personality issues began to take center stage. At first I didn’t mind.  Who doesn’t want to punch AJ Pierzynski? 2007 was a year of growing expectations for the Cubs after two disappointing seasons. Jim Hendry made a big offseason push in free agency and hired Lou Pinella as manager. The season got off to a bad start stagnating around .500 through June while the Brewers built up a big lead. Barrett was having a rough year as well in 2007.  His offense and defense had begun to decline. The personality issues that had bubbled below the surface also began to worsen during the same stretch. After altercations with Zambrano and Rich Hill, a personal favorite of mine, I began to wear out Barrett. I nitpicked everything he did during that season, every strike out and error was the reason the Cubs lost. I was, needless to say, very happy when he was dumped in June. Perhaps the Cubs were too, storming back to a division title in 2007.

Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano were a big part of the Cubs division title run in 2007. Both players, Aramis especially, were personal favorites of mine.  They were excellent hitters and great teammates. For other fans, however, they were often scapegoats — especially as the Cubs declined after the 2008 division title. I especially got tired of accusations that Soriano and Ramirez failed to hustle or were so called lazy players. Individual isolated lapses are one thing but to extrapolate that to conclude that someone never tries or is inherently lazy is harsh and unfair.

A famous story told often in my family applies in this case I think. My grandfather was a big Cubs fan, in fact retiring to Mesa so he could go to spring games. One spring in the early 80’s the Cubs were playing a particularly sloppy game. My grandfather (as he was wont to do when Cubs played poorly) was making his displeasure known. An older fan near by turned to my grandfather and said, “Why don’t you go out there and try to play, sonny?”  Suffice to say that it put my grandfather at a temporary loss for words (which was a rarity believe me). I often think of it when the urge to let the Cubs have it builds up inside me. Perhaps someone should have posed that question to Bob Brenly?

Now with Castro going to the Yankees the scapegoat void is open again. As some may know I am a big fan of Jorge Soler. I really see big things from Soler in the future and often argue for the Cubs to keep Georgie long term. I will admit that Jorge can at times does some of the same things for which Castro often received heat. He can be streaky at the plate and can occasionally have the same lapses in the field and on the base paths. The base-running gaff on Wednesday when he was doubled off on a fly ball to center was the latest example of this. But like with Castro and others before him, I don’t feel that he should painted broadly as the cause of all the Cubs woes. Yet, most of us have done this at some point, myself included.  So we return to my original question are the Cubs fated to have someone feel that scapegoat role? Maybe all that negative fan energy has to go somewhere? I’m curious to see what you the readers think. Does every team “need” a scapegoat?

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  • I don't think every team needs a scapegoat, but players with "mental lapses and defensive struggles" are going to become them.

    Similarly, after 5 years of DHs around the Mendoza line with a negative WAR on the other side of town, we're going to see if the latest one's retirement turns it around.

    Also, most cited were crybabies or had anger management issues, and mostly were overpaid for not doing a job like a professional.

    And don't forget, the Cubs biggest scapegoat was Bartman, not Moises Alou throwing a tantrum or Mark Prior losing it, or whoever then was the shortstop.

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    In reply to jack:

    I agree it is "mental lapses and defensive struggles." The other element I think that matters is money; often it's players with large salaries and those two elements that gets scapegoated.

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    In reply to Cubs Win 009:

    That was a big factor for Soriano for sure. The large contract adds expectations and gives people an easy go to complaint for someone. Another guy I didn't mention Edwin Jackson was a vicim or poor play and a big contract.

  • In reply to jack:

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    In reply to jujuberavu:

    Can nothing be done about this crap. I certainly have no desire to own a nearly new blue Honda Accent Hatchback unless this will be the newly appointed Cubs scapegoat.

  • I think Cubs fans, more than any other fans of any other team in any other sport, need scapegoats. There has to be a reason we can't win. An explaination why others are always better. A logical way to explain the repeated failures, other than to face the obvious: we just weren't good enough.

    I don't know about you, but I'm done with scapegoats. I'm as guilty as anyone of being too quick to blame and too stubborn to see. I spent years admiring young Zambrano's "competitive fire", then spent years defending him after he didn't heed my wishes of growing out of his immaturity. More recently, at the risk of my welcome here at Cub's Den, I'll admit to a mortal sin: Following the trade of Samardjiza and Hammel to the A's, I remember reading an interview with Jake Arietta. He stated he was ready and willing to accept the role and responsibility of being the ace of the staff. I remember thinking "Who in the *¥{% does this guy think he is, talking like that with his track record?" Too quick a judgement on my part, I suppose.

    No more scapegoats. We sink or swim on our own merits. As much as I love the joy the current success and future optimism brings, it has also hardened me, in a good way, I hope. I commented a while back that I have come to enjoy the attrition of lesser talent. No more "he deserves a spot". No more "If so-and-so gets sent down, it will create tension in the clubhouse". I'm done with scapegoats. I'm done with the Cubbies. I've had enough of the lovable losers. #wearegood. And having fun doing so. GO CUBS!!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Yep, it's different now.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    But, 20 years from now, when we suck again, I'll have another man-crush on another underdog prospect who nobody can see the potential in but me. I'll sit on my porch, telling anyone who will listen stories of glory days and Championships, snow angels and tequila, and the time the Chicago cop gave my drunk ass a break because he recognized me from a sports blog. Such is the tale of a lifelong die-hard Cubs fan. Maybe I'm not so hardened after all. For now, then, and always, Go Cubs!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Corey Patterson IV is on the way up.

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    In reply to BarleyPop:

    I distinctly remember the Arrieta quote. I think it's a perfect reflection on this article that I interpreted this in an opposite manner as a guy embracing circumstance.

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    I think its a shame but its in the nature of fans, hell its human nature as well, to always blame someone for things not being better. and in some cities in particular where there is added focus on a team its worse. but yeah, pretty much every professional team with a large fan base has scapegoats.

    hell off the top of all of our heads...Cutler, Rose, Laroche, Crawford....rightly or wrongly all have been flat out blamed for their teams not doing well at times in recent years (Crawford was regularly blasted by some Hawk fans while winning two Stanley Cups)

    New York and Philadelphia are the same way. Maybe in LA or a smaller market it isn't as bad. But where there's a focused fan base and large media coverage, There's always someone to blame for losing...or just to be paranoid of that they may cause a team to start losing.

  • The concept of the scapegoat dates back thousands of years and is ubiquitous in even the earliest of human cultures. It literally means placing the sins of the village onto an animal and expelling that animal from the town. Hence, with the scapegoat gone, the village is now free of sin.

    So yes, when things go poorly, it seems a deeply ingrained part of human nature to single out a so called scapegoat for blame. If only it weren't for that one player (or players) everything would be fine, the team would succeed, and there will finally be joy in Mudville.That will never change.

    As for the Cubs, as they turn their history around from perennial losers to (we hope) perennial winners, this should lessen the need for a scapegoat. But, Cubs players beware as this also raises the stakes. If a player makes a boneheaded play in say the NLCS or WS, and the Cubs fail to win that series, the scorn placed on that player will be far worse than anything the likes of Starlin Castro ever had to endure.

    So simply put, to avoid the scapegoat, just win baby.

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    In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    It's like how Schwarber is remembered for that belly-flop trying to field that ball in LF in the playoffs, not for the pretty good job he did the rest of the season, his rookie season, in LF.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Or, or, or, and better STILL and that he is NOT remembered for that belly-flop as he was rounding first base after his second homer in the second game against the Phillies on Sept. 20, 2015. Special thanks to T. Souers from Cubbie-Blue.com on how he depicted Schwarbers reception once he met the dugout. I loved how he said "It's the freaking Chicago Cubs and they are open for business like never before." http://www.cubby-blue.com/my_weblog/2015/09/cubs-take-two-from-phils-schwarber-wipes-out-fun-you-bet.html

  • In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    Wow, as you are ending your third para; I wonder if we could even place that scorn on a first basemen that has an even sub(r) 2013, batting <.230 with 8-12 more gidps, or upon any of our freshmen that should happen to digress into a less than average sophomore jinx. It's going to be awful. So YES! Simply put, to avoid the scapegoat, just win baby!

  • In reply to YouCannotBeSerious:

    I appreciate the background. Based on that, coaches are probably the most common scapegoat. I've often heard the statement "you can't fire the whole team" when a coach or manager is let go.

  • In reply to Pelon:

    The Marlins have figured out how to fire the manager and the whole team at the same time. The deserved scapegoat is Loria.

  • I know a lot of fans blame Soler for the base running blunder on Wednesday... But why is nobody putting blame on the 1B coach?

    After all, Soler doesn't have eyes in the back of his head and he can't see the play... But the 1B coach is the one in charge of telling him whether he needs to make it back quickly or "up easy".

  • Dunston was my favorite player and I followed his career since
    1982 when he way drafted. I don't think he every got a fair
    chance. All humans make mental errors the better ones dont
    do them again and again

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    I haven't lived in other cities for very long so I don't know if they're like we are, but it seems like people always need scapegoats, in sports or in other facets of their lives. It's easy to get down on someone from work who doesn't do the job like we want.
    But sports brings out the most vocal of these complaints. So many think that because we buy tickets we have to yell and curse players that don't perform. I take it farther too--when I said curse, I mean curse. I don't have kids, but I don't want to hear what fans are yelling at the park, and it's not only at the park. Remember the STL blogs after J Heyward signed with the Cubs. It was disgusting. Sports brings out a passion that other activities don't. It can also cause us so much pleasure and joy--how many of us were glowing after beating the Pirates last year? We get so down after losing 4 or 5 in a row, and then so stoked when we win 4 straight in beating the Giants.
    I know that I didn't really continue the theme of scapegoats but once I started writing it just flowed.

  • The size of the contract is definitely the biggest reason someone gets scapegoated. Last year I heard over and over from people how Lester was awful. I pointed out that I believe it was Bill James that had him rated as the 9th best pitcher in all of baseball and that the majority of his poor starts were in April and May coming off having no spring training and they still continued to scapegoat him.

  • Carl Jung thought that society did absolutely need scapegoats:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=9eY4CQAAQBAJ&pg=PA7946&lpg=PA7946&dq=there+must+be+some+people+who+behave+in+the+wrong+way;+they+act+as+scapegoats+and+objects+of+interest+for+the+normal+ones&source=bl&ots=7ud2-CVRP2&sig=Pk0m3Tmpr1AIGctGGShv8rWDxj0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjN_Z_fj-DLAhUHMyYKHQBCDjEQ6AEIKDAC#v=onepage&q=there%20must%20be%20some%20people%20who%20behave%20in%20the%20wrong%20way%3B%20they%20act%20as%20scapegoats%20and%20objects%20of%20interest%20for%20the%20normal%20ones&f=false

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    I personally always liked Barrett. He wanted to be a Cub and was a good hitter. Rumor had it the pitchers bitched about him because he wasn't good at calling games. Zambrano was a hot head who really didn't do anything after his no-hitter other then show his childish ass everytime he got a chance. He started the fight with Barrett, and Barrett was the one who got run out of town when it should have been Zambrano. Zambrano then went after Derrike Lee, and again, Lee was the one the Cubs moved when Zambrano once again was the problem. As far as Hill, maybe he should have stuck to working on his pitching instead of giving shit to his catcher. Just my opinion

  • In reply to Kevin Burch:

    They didn't like the way he called games because he was bad at it. He was a rrustrating catcher to throw to, not just for Zambrano, but for anyone who understood the art of pitching.

    And how do you see Zambrano as a hot head and not Barrett? That makes absolutely no sense. Barret had no self control -- but I guess maybe that was okay...but Zambrano wasn't? I'd ;ove to hear a rational explanation for that one. Anyone who followed Barrett's career knows he wasn't the best teammate to have around...would love to hear why you think his behavior was acceptable.

  • In reply to Kevin Burch:

    Barrett wasn't a good teammate, period. Not just a Cub, but all of his stops. IMO, the only reason he was given any slack, was because it was A.J. Piersynski that he punched, and he was one of the most hated players in the game. What if that would've been, say, Mark Buerhle he punched that day in the crosstown game? Zambrano had more than his share of flaws, but Barrett just wasn't a good teammate anywhere he played.

  • In reply to copinblue:

    The difference is that nobody questioned whether AJ knew how to play the game. He, like Rodman, usually got the pass because "he's our jerk." Barrett was just a jerk.

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    You raise an interesting question, Sean. The team scapegoat is kind of the same as the "team darling". The guy that everyone assumes can walk on air. I think that for many (not all) fans, especially "casual fans" it is simpler to pick out a player on whom to blame all things. It provides them with a way to AVOID putting the blame on their favorite player when that is truly where blame should fall. To me this is especially true when the team is good. Being able to blame Castro (or Soler) is easier than admitting that Bryant has flaws in his game, the same as Rizzo has flaws in his game, or Schwarber. While, yes, people will blame them when they make a tragic mistake it is easier to pick on the guy that everyone dislikes than the guy that everyone adores.

    What makes it particularly tragic is when that player designated as "scapegoat" is sensitive. I think it truly did "hurt" Castro to be designated for blame, especially when it was undeserved. I think it bothered Soriano. I am afraid it will bother Soler. There are some players that "don't care" what people think. but I don't think Castro nor Soler are one of those players.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    The players on the current team (except Rizzo) are too young to assess, and if you are doing so already, that's showing a certain prejudiced mindset. On the other hand Castro had 22 or more errors in 5 out of 6 seasons. The Cubs finally found a better shortstop and put him in the lineup.

    Now, if 4 years from now, Russell has a similar record, or if Soler is still around, he does, you;ll have room for complaint.

  • Anytime a player is not a good teammate things tend to end in a bad way. If one is a hotdog, diva, or lazy karma will come to get you(Barrett/Sosa), but if a player gets himself into the doghouse and plugs away with a good attitude, he will win the fans over in the end(Castro/Soriano).

  • Thought provoking stuff Sean. To be honest this is an aspect of sports I hate. Often times a player will be scapegoated, they then try to make up for whatever they're being criticized for and put so much pressure on themselves that they actually perform worse. The fact that it's tied to money in many cases bothers me even more. These players didn't pay themselves. They asked for a number and were paid what the team decided they were worth to them. You want blame someone for a highly paid athlete that performs badly, blame the scouts and GM as they assigned the worth.

    The Jon Lester example is one where it doesn't even make sense. By the numbers he was the 8th best pitcher in the NL and the 13th best in MLB and yet the cries of his "terrible season" haven't stopped. He was also a 5 WAR player in 2015 and with the accepted cost of WAR being $6 mil- $8 mil per his performance exceeded his $25 mil salary. He was paid to be Jon Lester and, aside from a tough spring coming off injury, he was exactly that.

    I think you and others are right that there will always be scapegoats. It's an easy way to complain in shorthand without blaming an entire team or, heaven forbid, not blaming anyone at all and recognizing the mercurial nature of baseball.

  • In reply to TC154:

    But he didn't have a good start. He turned it around, but I think you have to dissect the first 2 months.

  • In reply to jack:

    He always pitches poorly in April, it's part of who he is. The difference in 2015 was the lack of much ST and the fact that his slow start carried over into May. Even with his slow start though he pitched to his career averages and his FIP exceeded his career numbers, 2.92 to 3.16. As he always does he's likely to have a poor April but his May should be much better and I think he'll have a better year from an already very good one. Not sure why you would key in on 2 months when he was so good when it counted and the overall numbers were very good.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Because your reliance on statistics averaged over the year skewed the reason for dismissing the dissatisfaction.

    I'll leave it for you to argue if the Cubs are getting their $25 million annual average worth if you think normal for him is to extend spring training into late May.

  • In reply to jack:

    What I'm saying is that Lester is a slow starter throughout his career and an injury exacerbated that slow start. After that he was every bit as good as advertised and his season stats bear that out. I dismiss the dissatisfaction because it doesn't take all the facts into consideration.

  • I've got a personal Michael Barrett story to share. I was sitting in the front row when Barrett hit a line drive foul that bounced off the back of my hand and hit me in the chin. I bled like a stuck pig and required five stitches to close the wound. About a week later, a baseball appeared in the mail, signed by Barrett. He wrote, "Do you have a picture of the bruise the ball left? Hope by now it's OK."
    About a week later he got hit in the balls by a foul ball and suffered a scrotal hematoma, which ended his season.

    I didn't ask for a picture of his bruise.

  • Just a note........
    Anyone notice who is having the best Spring for the Yankees so far?

    Let's hope this all shakes out as a good move for both teams that were involved.....

  • I think everyone when they are feeling down looks for a scapegoat.

    It always makes me chuckle that even though we are so close to the promised land that occasionally the Ian Stewart trade is brought up as testimony of Theo / Jed being human.

    If you never made mistakes, you'd never try something new.

    So much that Theo / Jed have done to get us here over the last 4 years has been outwith normal thinking, like largely forgetting about TOR pitchers in the early stages of the draft... Yet I'll happily take where we are.

    Many made Soriano their scapegoat, but let us remember it wasn't him that outbid himself to add an extra 2 years to his already big contract.

    While he may have never quite lived up to the monies paid, 2007 and 2008 which he was part of were a hell of a ride; and he brought many unseen things to the Cubs in the way that he was a great teammate, a great mentor to the younger players and despite his price-tag always smiled, signed autographs and shook hands with fans in Mesa and Chicago.

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    If someone is bad, is it making them a scapegoat to call them out for being bad? I was someone who called out Castro even during his good seasons because of his mental lapses. Due to the position he played he is supposed to be a leader on defense, leaders don't lose focus that much. I understand slumps, but inconsistency in the mental approach is a much bigger problem. If any player does it they should be called out, which us why I thought solver should be traded.

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    I stil l think that trading Castro away for warren will end up being one of the worst trades of all time for the cubs. I know that everyone loves Zobrist,but at 35 his playing days are about 90% finished. Hopefully Warren proves to be something other than a 5th starter/middle reliever...otherwise that trade is going to go down as a real stinker.

  • In reply to Greg Simmons:

    I think Warren will prove to be valuable but if he isn't this was a change of scenery trade. Castro was unlikely to thrive here with the constant baggage, not to mention the fact that his game was not an ideal fit for what the Cubs wanted to do. You would have liked to have built up his value more but what if he actually got worse and he became worth even less than a quality swing arm, not to mention making the team worse? It was a tough call, and I'm rooting for Starlin, but it was a move that had to be made.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I'm not sure it had to be made. It certainly was a "win now" move. Analytics and Maddon sure like Zobrist, but still, a 25 year old 3 time all-star who had the longest tenure on the club is tough to give up. I get the whole OBP thing, but 5 years from now, We'll be looking back saying "wouldn't it be great if Castro were still a Cub." Hopefully we'll be saying it with world series under our belt.

  • In reply to Oneear:

    Agreed, "win now" is more accurate than "had to". I don't see Brock for Broglio here but could they regret it? Sure.

  • In reply to Greg Simmons:

    I worry about that deal too.

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    In reply to Greg Simmons:

    Even if he is a 5th starter they got out of a long term deal for someone who was a negative 2 out of the last 3 years. If Castro is good 2 out of the next 5 years does that make him, a success? Zobrist is a placeholder with solid offensive skills, in 2 years when happ and to Torres are knocking on the door they can just relegate zobrist to a utility role allowing him to play the corner of, 1st, second and maybe occasionally 3rd. I don't understand how anyone can consider getting someone like Warren who is a positive contributed for Castro and probably saving around 20 mil a bad thing. You can say you don't like the zobrist signing but the value they got for Castro was excellent.

  • I worry about the deal as well. But let's face the 3 time All-star issue. For at least two of those years the only reason Castro was an All Star is that somebody from each team had to be selected.

    That said, I think Starlin will star for the Yankees. I just hope Warren amounts to something for the Cubs. In my opinion, they could have got more for him, but it was a salary dump to afford Zobrist.

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