by Hugh Gilmore
Recently fired Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. grew up in the Rhawnhurst section of Philly and should have been perceived as one of us, but he never was. He’d even been a batboy for the Phillies when he was a kid, but fans never saw him as a local guy. He wasn’t. Something was always a bit off about him.
That something was his language. It was fuzzy, so it seemed deceptive. Maybe he spoke a different way at home, or when playing cards with his buddies, but whenever he said something official his words sounded like double talk. His vocabulary bulged with the big, flat, dead words of a public relations expert.
His tone ignored the humble roots of the only sport whose heroes sit and spit tobacco juice and pumpkin seeds on the dugout carpet while waiting their turn to bat. The players’ locker room is the last stronghold for adult millionaires who still think its funny to spray shaving cream at one another.
Ruben Amaro Jr. went to William Penn Charter and Stanford. In college he did not major in business, as one might suspect of someone who tried to turn the muscular English language into creamed corn. He majored in human biology. Afterward he played professional baseball for a handful of years, some of them with the Phillies. When he finished playing, he went to work for the Phillies organization, worked hard and became general manager, the person responsible, among other things, for hiring and firing ballplayers who might help the team win a championship. What we got from Amaro instead was bad teams and dead speeches.
Let’s cue the tape here and offer samples of Ruben Amaro Jr. sound bites: “Aaron had a very consistent year … and he has found his niche with us as a valuable piece of the bullpen mix.” Translation: He pitched well enough, so we signed him as a relief pitcher.
Amaro in a May, 2015 interview on CSN Philly.com: “These guys having success is good for us on all fronts, whether they stick with us and continue to be part of what we’re trying to do moving forward or whether we utilize those assets to improve our club. Them doing well can only help our club.” Attempted translation: “It’ll be easier to trade some of these guys if they get some hits.”
From an August interview with Mike Sielski on Philly.com: “We took a pretty analytical approach as far as what we saw with these guys and where the trends might be. Naturally, as players get older, their ability to function at the same level can dip.” Translation: We finally figured out that our older players are past their prime.
In firing beloved manager Charlie Manuel, Amaro said they were “making a managerial change.” Charlie, famous for his plain speech, said: “Let’s make this clear: I never quit nothin’. And I didn’t resign.”
Charlie Manuel’s speech habits delighted fans because he spoke plainly and always seemed to be speaking honestly. Though he talked to management every day, his speech was never corrupted by phrases like “put a product on the field,” (get good baseball players) or having “pieces that can move us in the right direction” (players who win).
Such abstract language puts a 10-foot wall of cotton batting between the ball club and the fans. It hinders mutual understanding. Heck, it keeps the club executives from knowing their own thoughts. People lose sight of their objectives when they resort to speaking in abstractions. Noisy, loyal, passionate, traditional followers of the team get referred to by them as “the gate,” or the “fanbase.”
The smell of popcorn and hot dogs is noticed only as ancillary income from comestibles. The feel, look, and atmosphere of the stadium gets spoken of as its “ambience.” The heart of baseball is ignored when every aspect of it is described in language taken from a quarterly report to the stockholders.
In that respect, for all his obvious brains, Ruben Amaro Jr. never learned to speak bilingually. He had the language of the boardroom down cold. But he couldn’t speak to the fans. His mind seemed trapped in a place where he could never stop analyzing how his product should be described in the “entertainment business” marketing kit. He was like a drama critic who never really sees what is happening in a play because he’s so busy writing the review in his mind. The problem with such public-relations-speak is that its creators might wind up believing the crap they say. And lose the ability to see what’s happening before their eyes.
People like that think that cleverness with language can help them fool the masses. They think that flattening bad news can make it acceptable. Euphemisms don’t fool anyone, however. Nor does double speak. They simply make the speaker seem to be foolish, or worse, a liar.