All this talk about Bobby Witt Jr. has had me thinking about prospect hype from years past. Sure, there were the fantastic success stories like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez. But I also remember the failures like Chad Durbin, Dan Reichert, and Angel Berroa. There is also a third category I remember: Billy Butler, Joakim Soria, and Mike Sweeney.
Those last three are far from alone in their group, but their group is the most interesting to me. These represent the players who found success early in their careers but found themselves in Royal uniforms as they began to fade. At one point, each of those three men was a highly touted prospect or a young star for teams badly in need of them. At another point, each of them was booed by the fans who wished they’d just go away. There was no respect for the prior work they’d done. That’s not inherently wrong of the fans; of course, sports are as much about what a person has done lately as any human venture. So if player failure or decline is the low point for a fan, what’s the high point?
You might argue that it’s when the players are having success in the big leagues. I’m not sure that’s true. Butler, Soria, and Sweeney all made amazing contributions to their teams but have only one Royals playoff run between them. I suspect many fans would have happily traded any of those guys during their primes if it somehow meant the Royals made more playoff appearances.
No, I think the best time to be a fan of a player is before he’s contributing to the team in a meaningful way. Think of it like this: Bobby Witt Jr. is Schrödinger’s cat. He is simultaneously the greatest baseball player ever to live and the worst. What could be more fun as a fan than this moment?
Have you ever been incredibly excited for a new movie? You probably raced out to see it on opening night, or at least opening weekend. I expect that sometimes you watch that movie and sure it’s good, but it’s not amazing. If you were expecting an amazing movie that can be a pretty big downer. It is the same way with athletes who haven’t yet contributed to your big league team. They can be anything right up until they’re something. And something isn’t always as good as the anything we imagined.
In the same way, Witt might end up being a superstar. He might live up to our wildest imaginations. He might be a complete bust, which would obviously stink. Or he might be very, very good but not as good as we had hoped and therefore something of a disappointment - if you’ve been a baseball fan who pays attention to prospects before, you’ve no doubt felt that disappointment. It’s the same as that movie disappointment.
Anticipation is such a driving force for humans. As children, we anticipate becoming teenagers. As teenagers, we anticipate becoming adults. On a smaller level, we anticipate the end of our busy day as we work or study. Musicians and storytellers have known and capitalized on this for millennia. Both songs and stories are written to lead to conclusions - not just at the end but throughout - things that audience members can anticipate and enjoy. The thing about songs and stories is that because they are manufactured, they lead you to particular conclusions. That means that the resolution matches the anticipation, which increases the enjoyment. Unless the story is Game of Thrones and the writers are hacks who think that themes are only for eighth-grade book reports and otherwise don’t really care about understanding the conclusion toward which the story pointed.
However, sports don’t have that constructed conclusion - no matter how much we sometimes want to assume they’re rigged. On a team level, a fanbase can go decades anticipating a championship that never arrives. This is, I think, a large part of why sports championships are so celebrated. They are the moment that all of that anticipation has been building toward that has finally arrived.
As much time as can pass between resolutions for fans of teams, fans of players have it even worse. If the conclusion you seek for every player is to be the best that has ever played, you’re going to be disappointed millions of times. Players cannot reach the anticipated conclusion. Unless we can learn to change what we anticipate, the conclusion will always be a let-down; therefore, the anticipatory period is more enjoyable. Our expectations haven’t yet been failed, after all.
Bobby Witt Jr. will almost certainly not play for the Kansas City Royals this year. That is probably a disappointing statement for many of you. You feel the anticipation, and you want that conclusion to arrive. But the fact of the matter is, the conclusion you seek may never exist. So, really, the Royals are doing you a favor by not promoting him to the big league team. You get to enjoy your fantasies for another year.