In Defense Of Tanking In Sports

Other than Cheating, I would say the concept of Tanking is the biggest taboo in sports. There’s certainly no honor in either, though unlike tanking, there’s a variety of definitions when it comes to cheating. If you hold someone in football and get away with it, technically you’ve just cheated. But, no one is going to walk up to the ref and ask to have a flag thrown on them. And, other than the guy being held – and the fans of that player’s team – no one is going to complain about it either. However, set up an elaborate video camera and trashcan banging system in baseball to steal signals from your opponent while alerting your own hitters, and you’re rightly vilified as the fucking scumbag Astros that you are (Astros being synonymous with Cheaters, naturally).

I see a gray area when it comes to tanking, though. My worst nightmare is being a fan of a team that constantly finishes in the middle. Good enough to really squint and see some hope, but ultimately never a championship contender, yet never so abysmal as to get a top draft pick the following year. I get to say that because I’ve always been a fan of Seattle teams. If I were a fan of the Lions or Pirates or whoever continuously stinks in the NBA (I would’ve said the Kings, but from what I understand, they’re actually sorta okay this year), I’m sure I’d be reading this right now totally outraged. I get it. It can ALWAYS be worse.

Because, here’s the thing: tanking in the wrong hands gets you absolutely nowhere. Until this year, you could point to the Jacksonville Jaguars as a prime example. Even with their number one quarterback – and slew of other high draft picks all around that roster – shoddy coaching choices continued to hold them back (until they finally lucked into hiring Doug Pederson).

And the biggest problem with baseball is that Tanking has become a way of life for some of these small market teams. The Rays and A’s have figured out a sort of cheat code in their development and shrewd scouting of other teams’ prospects (who they acquire in trades for their own successful superstars who figure to be too expensive to retain), but by and large the lowest payroll teams need to get unsustainably lucky with their own prospects hitting at the same time, while taking advantage of signing under-the-radar free agents for pennies on the dollar (see the Kansas City Royals of 2014-2015, which was an oasis in a VAST deserted wasteland of seasons before and since). Tanking can provide a sense of hope, but if all you do is tank every single year, all hope is lost.

It’s especially galling in baseball because there’s so much money to be had. Yet, teams long ago discovered that you don’t really need to put in much effort on payroll to turn a profit year over year. You’ll get yours, and whatever you don’t earn, you’ll be handed thanks to a revenue-sharing system that seems quite antithetical to the American way of life. On top of that, every year that goes by, your franchise is worth more and more money. It’s the only certainty in life; not even death & taxes have it on the valuation of professional franchises in the top North American sports.

So, I understand why many people have no patience for baseball teams who tank. Or, really, any team, be it football, basketball, hockey, soccer, whathaveyou. We’re talking about billionaire owners, who’ve decided to be fucking cheapskates. Even though they do pretty well for themselves for all the limitations they’ve placed on themselves, I have zero respect for the Athletics, because all they do is hold the city of Oakland hostage in an attempt to get taxpayers to pay for a new stadium they could EASILY afford. And, if for whatever reason they can’t afford it, then they need to sell the fucking team to an owner (or a group or owners) who will actually try. Imagine what the A’s or Rays could do – with their talent evaluators and coaching throughout all levels of the organization – if they actually spent money.

But, if we take those teams out of the equation – those teams who prioritize winning below anything and everything else – I think tanking can be a good and healthy refresher for an organization. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naive as to think any team prioritizes winning above all else; these are billionaires, they’re always going to be about the money first. But, there are self-respecting owners who also want to put a good product on the field. Who want to play in a stadium they can be proud of. Who ideally DON’T want to completely alienate their fanbase. I’ll be honest, I don’t understand how A’s fans do it year-in and year-out. That organization would drive me absolutely bonkers, and make no mistake, they’ve been SIGNIFICANTLY more successful than the Mariners in my lifetime.

Getting back to my original point, though, sometimes teams get bogged down. They develop a plan and see it through and for one reason or another, the plan fails. It happens. You saddle yourself with bad contracts, old players, and you know you’re never going to get anywhere trying to fit that square peg in a round hole. See: the Mariners from 2014-2018. They had … some semblance of a plan, and they came close to making the playoffs, but for one reason or another, they just couldn’t put it all together. And they definitely weren’t going to vie for a World Series; at best, that group of veterans might’ve snuck in as a Wild Card, but likely no better. So, they tore it all down, acquired some prospects, rededicated themselves to a pitching-centric draft strategy, and now here we are. We made the ALDS in 2022, we have an elite superstar in Julio Rodriguez, we have a bona fide ace pitcher (with lots of quality arms below him), and we appear to be poised for a run of playoff appearances. While there are no guarantees in life, if everything breaks right, the Mariners have as good a chance as anyone to play for a World Series title as soon as this year. You can only say that about so many teams, even this early into Spring Training. I know we’re all 0-0 right now, but in reality, there’s always the Haves and Have Nots. The Mariners are in the Haves group, which is a rare and wonderful thing. And it never would’ve happened without a little tanking spree.

That having been said, obviously you don’t HAVE to tank to turn your fortunes around. But there’s a psychological component that’s beneficial to your fanbase. As I said up top, it can be frustrating to be mired in the middle. All too often, fans lose faith in their teams. They believe the organization has lost the thread. That they have no plan, and instead are just spinning their wheels. And, to all of our detriment, those organizations can get panicky. They see the writing on the wall – that a coach or a GM is on the hot seat – and make poor deals to try to jumpstart a turnaround. How many times have the Seahawks blundered in recent years, compounding mistakes by making even dumber moves? Until they finally did what had to be done and traded Russell Wilson. That immediately put us in a position to kick off a rebuild, even as we improbably succeeded with Wilson’s erstwhile backup. My lack of faith in that backup has no bearing on reality, where we’re one great draft away from potentially building a championship contender.

Which leads us down another tangent. Sometimes, when you have smart people running your organization, what looks like a tanking season turns out to be something much more special. Like the 2022 Seahawks. In those cases, you thank your lucky stars you’ve got people in charge who know more than everyone else.

For all the teams who don’t win a championship – all teams but one, every single season – keeping hope alive is the name of the game. For those teams not already in an open championship window, tanking is a vital tool. It shouldn’t be your everything, but in small doses – with a quality plan in place to see it through to the end – it can mean the world.

In that respect, I’ll always be in favor of tanking. Young, hotshot draft prospects are always going to be more exciting than over-the-hill, overpaid former all stars. Building from the ground up – and succeeding with your own homegrown guys – is the most satisfying experience for a sports fan. Oh sure, I’ll take a championship any way I can get it. But, it’s not about AH championship. It’s about many years of championship contention. It’s being the next dynasty. It’s winning now and forever until the end of time. And when the end comes, blowing it up and starting all over with a new crop of high draft picks!

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