A New Way To Look At Baseball Journalism
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
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.