Why do we obsess over the trade deadline?

Jim McIsaac

It's disappointing more often than not, so why do we bother getting excited over it?

The best thing you can say about the trade deadline is that it turns the chicken shit that is the July news cycle into chicken salad. I mean, we just spent months obsessing over a British infant. Times are slow. The second-best thing you can say about the trade deadline is that your favorite team might add a player that helps them win a title, but they probably won't. With younger players being signed to team-friendly deals more and more often, there are fewer NBA-style expiring contracts available each year, and the pool of players up for grabs is slimmer and less relevant than ever before. So why do we still care?

There are only a few deadline deals that had a demonstrable effect on the playoffs in recent history, but the roles of Cliff Lee, Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran are now played by Matt Garza, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy, fine players in their own ways, but with obvious warts. Relief pitchers have always been a common target in the second tier of players, despite their inherent unreliability. We all saw what Matt Thornton did on Wednesday, getting knocked around with the same sound and fury with which we welcomed him to the team on Twitter, television and the radio.

Role players can be giants in a postseason story, which a Vine of Dave Roberts stealing second proves beyond a reasonable doubt, but even if Roberts' steal was the sine qua non of Boston's amazing 2004 comeback, it was really just the first step. A lot had to go right for us to remember the steal the way we do. More than anything, the trade deadline is our chance to live up to the Boy Scouts' motto and be prepared, one last check around the house once the bags are packed before we head off into the blue, but it's a seller's market. Trying to match up the correct player with the correct situation two months down the line is like trying to pin the tail on the donkey on the Green Monster.

Nonetheless, if there's one thing Red Sox fans love, it's trade rumors - just check the comments on any of our trade deadline series posts. What the trade deadline lacks in substance, it makes up for as a mental exercise for fans, the baseball equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle to keep your brain sharp. Not all news days are created equal, and all we can do is apply our considerable brainpower to the situations we have. To quote an extremely well-timed New Yorker article on the genius of the active brain:

Fresh neural trails are generated whenever we experience something new-learn the tango, try a liverwurst canapé, take a different route to work. Repeat the activity and the pathway will be reinforced. This is why London cabbies, whose job requires them to memorize a mesh of twenty-five thousand streets and thousands of landmarks, were found to have larger hippocampi than the city's bus drivers, who are responsible for learning on a few routes. (The hippocampus plays a major role in memory.) The ability of the brain to establish new connections is called plasticity, and brain fitness exercises are predicated on this mechanism.

All of this explains our obsession with the trade deadline, especially the smaller deals, which are far more difficult thought exercises than the larger ones. The question of how much a deal really improves a team versus how much expected value we're giving up is harder to judge as the pieces get smaller and smaller, a Sunday crossword puzzle compared to a Monday one. The most important part of the trade deadline is the end date: Once it's time to flip your Goats in Trees calendar to August, it's over except for the waiver-wire deals, which is like doing a su doku were you need to ask a new person for a pen to fill in each number. It's hardly worth the trouble. Focus on a small point for too long and it's a sign of madness, but using the July trade deadline to work out your brain in the summer is how we stay limber during the long, long season. The Sox' trades may not help them in a demonstrable way in September and October, but overthinking them now is the only way we, as fans, make it that far in the first place.

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