Designated HitterFebruary 09, 2006
A New Way To Look At Baseball Journalism
By Will Leitch

Like probably most of the people who read this site, I spend way too much time reading about baseball online. These days, my job requires it, but even before that, back in the angry, scary, dead-fluorescent-light of office life, the vast majority of my time was spent ignoring spreadsheets and pouring through this site, and Baseball Prospectus, and Hardball Times, and Baseball Think Factory, and even, if I was feeling frisky, Tommy Lasorda's MLB Blog. I can't get enough, and I suspect you can't either.

I liked to imagine little personalities for all my favorite online writers. Jim Baker seemed like the overeducated grad student who was smarter than everyone else in the room but also was cool enough to tell me what I'd missed on Conan the night before; I envisioned him wearing tweed. Joe Sheehan, inexplicably, seemed like a leather-jacket wearing badass, a guy who would either break down Torii Hunter's flaws or crack some guy's skull in a bar fight, doesn't matter which, bring it on, whaddya rebelling against, whaddya got? It was quite the shock to see him talking to Brian Kenny on ESPN News and learn that he's the bearded, scholarly type. People always look different on television, I guess.

Well, at least Neyer was the way I thought he'd be.

Anyway, watching the world of traditional media slowly transmogrify - if I might use a word I learned in an Ingmar Bergman class - itself into the world of blogs. More and more newspapers are finally catching on to what the rest of us have always known; it is impossible to overstate how bored people are at work. You're seeing beat reporters starting little online tidbits on their paper's Web sites, and you're even seeing columnists trolling around message boards. (Bernie Miklasz at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is particularly good at this, though deep down, you know he'd still rather be following Springsteen.)

And here's the thing: The blogs and online tidbits are, without fail, more fun to read (and more informative) than the game stories they're purportedly paid to produce.

If we may go away from baseball for a moment, since it has been so dreadfully long since a blasted game has been played, I would like to submit Mark Tupper, sports editor of the Decatur (Ill.) Herald & Review as an example. Tupper has been covering the Illinois men's basketball and football teams for nearly two decades, but he doesn't have the stodgy, turgid, curmudgeon style that longtimers are often prone toward. He understands what fans care about, and he writes in a conversational, intelligent and lively style. No one knows more about Illinois basketball, and he's a joy to read.

Well, he is on his blog, anyway. His game stories aren't boring, exactly, but they fall prey to the same verse-chorus-verse, inverted pyramid, statement-playerquote-statement-playerquote formula that has made anyone with a modem switch to blogs. Tupper seems to recognize this, quoting the imminently quotable Bruce Weber speak for him most of the time. Game stories by beat reporters never fail to remind us that most athletes, no matter how much we might like to be, are not inherently interesting people and rarely have much of note to say. Sorry. Don't kill the messenger.

But in the blog, Tupper tells you what's really going on. Take a story last month, from when Illinois lost at Indiana in what the kids like to call a "heartbreaker." Tupper's game story had the usual clichés and mealy-mouthed prattle about "falling just short" and "moral victories." In the blog, written quickly and from the gut (Tupper usually files blog entries directly after the game is over), Tupper gets to the point: "the sad truth is that Illinois missed a great chance." This was absolutely true, and not something Tupper could write in a straight game story. The difference was palpable: One story gave you factual details that anyone watching the game could have figured out on their own; the other told you what happened.

So, to baseball. In a long season, much of a beat reporters' coverage is nothing but game stories. But the inertia of the process leads to the same bland story structure:

A: Team won/lost
B: Manager muses on victory/loss
C: Key player comments on his play(s)
D: Dictation of events surrounding key plays in game.
E: Manager/player points out that the game is just one of many and will, in fact, be repeated tomorrow.

This is not to say that beat reporters are lazy; far from it. It's just that the world of newspapers, when compared to blogs, does not give them the freedom (or, more accurately, the space), to delve into what actually mattered in the game, accounting for context, complexity and ultimate impact. Baseball blogs are the most fun sports blogs to read because great ones have multiple entries every day, and they provide perspective and talking points; they are great because they assume you have already seen the game. We are no longer in the days of radio; if you have MLB.TV, or even freaking cable, you can watch every game. We do not need reporters to tell us the facts; we need people to tell us what it means. Or, more specific, to ask us what we think it means.

Where am I going with this? I envision a world with two different kinds of beat reporters covering each team. (Except for the Devil Rays; nobody covers the Devil Rays.) One is involved in fact gathering; who's hurt, who's dealing with contract problems, who's tussling with Tony LaRussa because they have a disagreement about the relative value of cute puppies. And another to actually watch the games, without knowing the players personally, without dealing with sports information, without having to jump through all the demoralizing hoops required of those who cover our games.

Newspapers have a chance to take the power back; they can cover their teams without access, without having to suffer through the now-obviously-broken relationship between reporters and the players they cover. And they can provide their readers much better coverage. It's a matter of breaking loose of the chains and embracing the way this is all inevitably going.

We online sports fans have been enjoying this forever. We have no problem with everyone else joining the party.

Will Leitch is the editor of and author of the young adult novel Catch.


You learned transmogrify from an Ingmar Bergman class, and not from Calvin and Hobbes like the rest of us?

I think you are about 80% right. So I'll focus on the 20% in which you err.

There are a lot of really smart baseball minds out there. There are a lot of really good writers out there. There is little overlap between the two. Unfortunately, neither blogs nor newspapers do an adequate job of indentifying this boolean category.

Newspapers are flawed because they are too hierarchical -- the "expert" is determined by a cast of editors and publishers, not by the marketplace for ideas. And of course, there's the column-inch restriction.

Blogs mitigate these concerns greatly, but at a great cost. First, bloggers need to constantly update their site. At a minimum, we're talking 300 columns a year, usually for free.

Second, they have to have a flair (or budget) for site design.

Third, they have to have the ability and time (or budget) to promote their blog.

For the vast vast majority of us, this is not feasible. These can be mitigated by joining bigger operations, but that can't be done at will.

You need to be added by a hierarchical power. Take this site for example (with apologies to Bryan and Rich) -- there are a lot of great writers who have DHed, but one cannot simply walk in off the street and post. They need the go-ahead of Bryan and/or Rich.

While that's more likely to be acheived than the OK of the sports editor at the New York Times or, we've once again replaced the ideas marketplace with the selection of a distinct few.

ggood point about the hierarchy. Im sure Im not the only one who has conversations at happy hour that mirror PTI on ESPN, regardless if we saw the show or not, and I for one cant stand to watch "Around the Horn" because of the sheer stupidity of certain established 'expert' panelists(*cough*Marriotti*cough*). Also, I think a lot of us who have sports blogs probably dream at night of a Tom Landry style hat with the PRESS pass sticking out of it as well. Mostly because we love the sport, think we know everything and thirst for what we dont, but there is also a sort of prestige that comes along with it. I think baseball is pretty unique in that the beat writers and radio commentators get romanticised as well. Whats 'major league' without Eucker? Cobb, 61*, even Field of Dreams, plenty of baseball movies have writers in prominent roles. And really, wouldnt want to be a conduit to the masses for such a great game?
Back to the point:
Heres another really good example of what you wrote about though, where a tribune writer started a blog to accompany his column:
specifically, check out his january 31st blog, "Its a Cubs town, ok?" he got 69 responses!
the reaction was so large he had to write on the topic again on feb 2, with another 30+ responses after that. The following post about the superbowl? zero. Sure some replies were radical Cub fans and boarderline fundamentalist Sox fans, but there was a lot of well thought out things declaring why he was wrong or backing his play.

2 - Let me address all the problems with blogs that you've brought up:

A)Constant flow of free content. The easy solution is to run a blog with multiple writers. It's like a band, only writing about baseball. The "free" part is something that no one has adequately addressed yet. Is advertising-only a viable long-term solution? Or is a limited-subscription model?

B)A budget for site design can be essentially nothing. For blog I help write, we ponied up about 300 bucks. If you have multiple people doing it, again, like a band buying a mixer, it's very doable to hire a professional.

C)I figure that if you have the time to write for your blog in the first place, then you're probably reading blogs, and you're probably commenting on blogs, and PRESTO! There's your promotion, in your signature every time you comment somewhere. Strike up an online relationship with other bloggers through your discussions that you're carrying on anyway, and you get put in the sidebar. I still believe that if a blog's design isn't bland or hideous, quality will ultimately attract readers and hits.

D)Finally, even in my Band Model for Blogs, there is a hierarchy, because that's how people work. My blog has an editor in chief, just like a band usually has a leader, because sometimes we just need a decision, and because he started the blog and therefore deserves the big C on his jersey.

That said, I am just some guy off the street commenting on a column. Here's my voice on Baseball Analysts. The power of blogs, as pointed out above, is in the feedback, the great discussion. A newspaper column, once published, is static, whereas a blog post is defined by its comments as much as its original text.

"This is not to say that beat reporters are lazy-far from it."

Boy, if they're not lazy, they sure are fooling a lot of people. Name the reporter on almost any beat who doesn't essentially write the same story his colleagues write-regardless of the topic.

Bruce Weber is about to be quotable? Presumably you meant, "eminently" quotable...

I'm with John Salmon on reportorial laziness -- crack a dictionary on "lazy" and you'll find Bill Plaschke's picture beside it. Tired

Some reporters could be better at their job, some are lazy thinkers, but reporters as a rule aren't lazy in the effort department. They working very hard to stay current, and the pressure for scoops is intense. The post-game interview is a small part of the job.

Whether they are getting the most insight out of that effort ... well, probably not.

I think blogs represent a transformative step in sports coverage - thinking outside the box has arrived - but blogs are still very much dependent on mainstream coverage. The ideal of a blogger/reporter who takes the best of both worlds is certainly achievable. But stepping back, I think we can be happy that the alternatives exist.

My biggest problem right now is that I don't think most newspapers understand blogging. Many look at blogging like teams look for No. 5 starters in February. They settle for filler instead of going for diverse, original thought.

Jon, I had some long conversations with people about this today, and thought about experiences studying journalism in college, and what I think needs to happen is for somebody in an editor's role to just say, "Screw it, we don't need to be objective. We just need to be honest." The problem with mainstream reporting today is that everyone buys into objectivity=honesty, when, in reality, it's just as easy to see when a columnist such as Bill Simmons, one of the most subjective guys out there, someone who is even less of a journalist than the average newspaper columnist, is not being honest. I would love to see a newspaper in a minor league town try a "columnist following the team" model instead of a beat reporter. Sports might be the best place to start breaking down the myth of objectivity, since so much of sports journalism is openly subjective, anyway. As opposed to general news reporting, which is mostly subjectivity cloaked in the literary device of objectivity.
I remember taking a journalism course in undergrad when the instructor got legitimately angry when I insisted that she explain to me exactly why "I saw the juror fall asleep" was unacceptable to write, as opposed to "The juror fell asleep." IMO, the first sentence might actually hold more sway, because the speaker is explicitly putting his/her own reputation and trustworthiness behind it. If the juror did not actually fall asleep, that person's word becomes tarnished.
The third person convention is a charade, linguistic sleight of hand, obscuring biases that can't be entirely swept away. There is a place for the straight game recap, but that place is in a diminished role, and intended for people who could not watch or listen to the game, likely because they're outside the market. For the people who saw or heard the game, I agree that they would be better served by loosening arbitrary restraints on what beat writers can say.

it is quite interesting to see the close relationship that you have given in the two typoes of wrttings.i too agree to the most that with u and respect your piont of view but i think you have taken beat reporters too negatively and have called then lazy caps but according to my [point of viww the repoters are not at all lazy they give a lot of hard work to present there views.
i sincerely appreciate ypour close study and analysis of the journalism and sports journalism. i even apprecitate that you have given excellent views on baseball blogs and the game and moreover the interest and excitement that the game involved is also beautifully described.

Good point about Calvin & Hobbes. Who's ingmar Bergman? What did he ever transmogrify?