Q&A: Tracy Ringolsby on the BBWAA
Tracy Ringolsby has been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America since 1976. He has covered the Colorado Rockies for the Rocky Mountain News for more than 15 years. Ringolsby had previously worked for the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram (California Angels, March 1977-July 1980), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle Mariners, July 1980-July 1983), the Kansas City Star-Times (Kansas City Royals, August 1983-February 1986), and the Dallas Morning News (Texas Rangers, March 1986-1989, and the national baseball writer, 1990-1991).
Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming and a graduate of Cheyenne East High School, Ringolsby and his wife Jane live on 80 acres northwest of Cheyenne with their four horses. Tracy has attended the University of Wyoming in pursuit of the degree he promised his father when he quit school to begin a career in journalism. And what a career it has been. Ringolsby, 56, served as President of the BBWAA in 1986 and was selected by his peers as the recipient of the 2005 J.G. Taylor Spink Award. A co-founder of Baseball America, Tracy has been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research for 28 years.
Ringolsby, who currently sits on the Board of the BBWAA, agreed to conduct a hard-hitting Q&A with me to discuss the organization's policies and procedures in the aftermath of the brouhaha created by the decision to expand membership to baseball writers whose primary forum is the internet. As was the case three years ago when I first interviewed him about his Hall of Fame ballot, Tracy answered every question thrown his way.
Rich: The Baseball Writers Association of America recently voted to open up its membership for the first time to web-based baseball writers. How long has this been in the works and why did the organization decide to allow such writers at this time?
Tracy: It is an issue that has been discussed for close to nine years. As the internet presence grew, and it became as much about reporting news as merely an outlet for opinions and research, the need to address internet writers grew.
Rich: Correct me if I'm wrong here. The admission of internet writers has not only been discussed for a number of years but it was voted down as recently as a year ago. Is the BBWAA guilty of flip flopping or just being slow to accept change?
Tracy: Not at all. The vote a year ago would have included mlb.com on the grounds that the writers are representing the official websites of the teams. When that failed, a revised proposal was adopted that excluded mlb.com, and it passed easily.
Rich: Did the BBWAA establish any guidelines for the admission of internet writers?
Tracy: The same basic guidelines as for newspaper writers.
Rich: Can you share those basic guidelines with us?
Tracy: Off the top of my head, they require a member to work for a newspaper that regularly covers a major league baseball team. Membership is open to full-time employees who are beat writers, feature writers who are primarily involved in baseball coverage, columnists, a cartoonist and an editor from each publication.
Rich: That seems like a strange mix for the Baseball Writers Association of America. "Baseball" and "Writers" should be the operative words here. What's the rationale for allowing columnists, cartoonists, and editors?
Tracy: It probably goes back to the days of formation, but I wasn't alive when the bylaws were written and can only assume the intent. Baseball was by far the premiere sport at that time, and columnists and cartoonists focused on the sport, as did an editor. Ironically, in today's media, most sports sections have assistant sports editors who deal directly with individual sports so I would assume that feeds into the setup. Have some of those areas outlived their purpose? I'm sure they have, but when you set precedents you live with them. It is one reason why whenever I have been involved with a chapter I have been very much in support of a one-year waiting period before applications can be made.
Rich: The BBWAA approved 16 "new" members (out of a total of 18 nominees). However, 14 of these 16 had previously been members, adding to the cynicism of many outsiders who feel as if this was just a token attempt to show progress by a staid organization and that the BBWAA is just another good ol' boys club.
Tracy: Cynicism I think is the correct word. What you have seen is that internet companies have moved to bring in people from the print business to be their reporters and to handle the day-to-day information that they are supplying. As a result, the bulk of those who would have an interest in joining the BBWAA, by their nature, would be former members. I think what the cynics overlook is that if it was merely taking care of the good ol' boys, why was there ever a question about the membership? Many longtime BBWAA members left the organization nearly a decade ago to pursue their current jobs, such as Peter Gammons and Tom Verducci, and, in fact, they have spoken in the past on keeping the membership from expanding because they did not want the organization to lose the focus of its true purpose.
Rich: According to the bylaws, the purpose of the BBWAA is to: (1) insure proper facilities for reporting baseball games, (2) assist in clarifying baseball scoring rules, (3) sustain cooperation and fellowship with the baseball writers of the minor leagues, and (4) foster the most credible qualities of baseball writing and reporting. Have these bylaws changed over the years?
Tracy: Not that I am aware of.
Rich: Bob Dutton, President of the BBWAA, in an interview with fellow Kansas City Star writer and BBWAA member Joe Posnanski, said, "I think it’s easy to see the association exists, primarily, to assist the coverage of baseball print reporters at big-league parks." I have a problem with that statement. I don't see the word "print" in the subsections of those bylaws and only one of the four purposes has anything to do with covering games at big-league parks. It seems to me that the bylaws are actually more accommodating to internet writers than perhaps the Board of Directors and the general membership would care to believe.
Tracy: That is called selective reading, Rich. The organization specifies membership is from newspapers which cover major league baseball on a regular basis, and those bylaws that you are referring to are a follow up on the purposes for the newspapers covering baseball. The membership felt in the changing times it was important to include internet writers in the mix.
Rich: As far as I can tell, Amy Nelson of ESPN and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo were the only newly approved writers who had never been part of the association. First of all, is that true? Secondly, doesn't that seem a bit odd to you?
Tracy: That is true, as far as I know, and no, it is not odd. Amy is not only considered a baseball writer by ESPN but is listed in the Commissioner's media guide as one of the ESPN baseball writers, which would give more credence to what her role at ESPN is. Wetzel is a columnist for Yahoo, and the BBWAA guidelines provide for admission of columnists.
Rich: As has been widely reported and discussed, Keith Law and Rob Neyer were the only two candidates who were denied admission. Can you explain why Keith and Rob were not approved?
Tracy: There were questions about their roles at ESPN, the actual coverage they provided and if BBWAA membership was necessary for them to do their jobs. While I felt both should have been admitted, I do think it is interesting that in submitting the names of writers to be included in the Major League Baseball media guide, ESPN had five different areas in which it was listed and ESPN did not submit the names of Neyer nor Law. The other thing, the BBWAA was not created as a social club. It was designed to work on coverage issues that writers faced. Over the years there have been added items that BBWAA members are involved with but those are added items, not the intent of the creation of the organization.
Rich: Were there questions about the other 16 candidates or were there questions about Keith and Rob only?
Tracy: Actually the questions were not directly about Keith or Rob. The questions were about their coverage aspects. I guess you could get in a debate over what is the difference between covering baseball and writing about baseball. There also was a feeling of trying to avoid setting precedents. I would have to say, however, that to say anything was about any individuals in particular would be unfair. There were concepts discussed, not people. I'd be willing to bet if we discussed the membership on the basis of who was liked or disliked we would have had some serious debates over every candidate (I'm just sort of kidding). Personalities, however, cannot be considered in this type of decision because we are setting precedents for the long-term in terms of membership requirements and there is a need to be careful on matters like that.
Rich: Right. However, Law and Neyer are similar to Wetzel in that all three are baseball columnists. Dan was granted membership but Keith and Rob were not. Does that really make sense?
Tracy: They are not similar from what was said by their employers. As pointed out earlier, ESPN has five different vehicles listed in the Major League Baseball Media Information Directory and neither Law nor Neyer are listed as a baseball writer by ESPN in any of those categories.
Rich: Out of curiosity, what are ESPN's five different vehicles?
Tracy: According to the MLB Media Guide, ESPN is listed under news organizations, publications for both ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia and ESPN the Magazine, television networks, and radio networks.
Rich: With respect to attending games, there is no specific number in the BBWAA's constitution. As such, why did Mr. Dutton and others draw a line in the sand with an arbitrary minimum number of games as a reason for inclusion or exclusion?
Tracy: I think it was a means for trying to provide a guideline. When I first joined the BBWAA, a writer – if he was not a columnist, cartoonist nor editor – had to cover 100 games a year to be eligible. Some chapters have sterner enforcement than others. In Detroit and Colorado, for instance, a writer from a newspaper has to cover baseball for a full year before his membership is considered. That is designed to avoid giving membership to someone who is just passing in the night and doesn't truly cover baseball. Other chapters are more lenient.
Rich: What is the current guideline in terms of number of games?
Tracy: In Colorado, writers have to cover the team on a regular basis.
Rich: You mentioned that Gammons and Verducci were welcomed back to the BBWAA. They are recognized among the best and most popular baseball writers in the business. They performed their jobs as capably as ever the past ten years or so when they weren't part of the BBWAA. Why do they now need to be members "to do their jobs?"
Tracy: This isn't a question of Gammons and Verducci, but rather what they do for their employer. The jobs they do involve being at ballparks and covering the events on a regular basis. And let's face it, there was a segment of the BBWAA that did not feel that any internet writers needed to be members.
Rich: My understanding is that the general membership was presented with a binary choice to either accept the 16 new members or not accept any of them. Is that true?
Tracy: That is not true. The general membership was told it could vote on the applicants individually or as a group, in accordance with the recommendation of the Board of Directors. The membership voted to have the group vote. None of the votes on any of the matters were unanimous.
Rich: Let me ask the question differently. Sixteen of the 18 nominations were recommended for approval by the Board, correct? And the general membership voted to approve all 16 as a group, right?
Rich: OK. If I'm not mistaken, that means the seven-person Board – which consists of you as well as Bob Dutton (President), David O'Brien (Vice President), Jack O'Connell (Secretary), Bob Elliott, Paul Hoynes, and Phil Rogers – made a recommendation not to approve Keith and Rob. Is that right?
Rich: As with the "yay" vote on the 16 candidates who were approved, the general membership followed the Board's advice and voted "nay" on Law and Neyer. Correct?
Tracy: To split hairs, the membership voted yes on the recommendations of the board.
Rich: Understood. How did you vote?
Tracy: I voted against the Board's recommendation. It was my feeling that all of them should have been admitted. Had we held separate votes on each I would have voted for each. When it was decided to have a mass vote, I voted against it because I did not agree with the proposal. Trust me, this isn't the first time I have voted in the minority.
Rich: Did the membership know that the Board was split?
Tracy: I would assume they did. If there were questions we allow them and none were asked. In the board meeting there were several discussions on matters, including questions about full-time employees and contract employees. Then there was a discussion on the actual coverage requirements. An area that wasn't discussed and may need to be addressed is a difference between covering baseball and writing about baseball. I'm not sure what direction that discussion would take and I do not know if it really matters, but it is an avenue that probably needs to be addressed as the media world changes.
Rich: Absolutely. Thanks to Bob Dutton releasing the badge list earlier this month, we now know that there were approximately 780 active members of the BBWAA as of May 2007. At least 16 more were added at the Winter Meetings. That works out to about 32 per chapter and 27 per team. Maybe the BBWAA has been *too* inclusive over the years, at least with respect to the print media.
Tracy: It isn't about how large the organization is, but rather that the members are involved in regular coverage of major league baseball. I'm not one who feels there is an urgency for size if applicants are not full-time employees involved in regular coverage of baseball.
Rich: Whether these so-called active members are truly active and covering major league baseball on a regular basis is certainly an issue that could – and should – be debated.
Tracy: I don't think you ever stop needing to re-evaluate members to make sure they remain eligible for membership.
Rich: Once a writer is granted membership, does one remain a member as long as he or she continues to pay dues?
Tracy: It is not supposed to work that way. The writer should still have to meet the requirements mentioned above. If they don't, the membership should be dropped. I know several instances of writers who covered baseball for several years, left to cover something else, and when they returned to cover baseball they had to reapply for the BBWAA and they started back at year one in terms of seniority. The Hall of Fame vote and gold card eligiblity, for example, require membership for 10 consecutive seasons.
Rich: Of course, the actives don't even account for all of the members. How many inactive or "lifetime" members are there above and beyond the roughly 800 who are considered active?
Tracy: I couldn't tell you that, but I would say that number is limited. To receive a lifetime membership a person had to be an active member for 10 consecutive seasons, and then needs to apply for that type of membership. It does not provide full membership rights, and in fact there is a specific stipulation that those members, if working on a story, have to contact the local team PR people to make arrangements for access. The lifetime or gold card membership is not active membership.
Rich: Well, by definition, there must be at least 200 retired members. There were 545 Hall of Fame ballots turned in last year and only 300-and-some active members with 10 or more years of experience who were eligible to vote. I know some employers don't allow their employees to cast ballots. Therefore, the number of lifetime members has to be a couple hundred at a minimum. Other than voting for the HOF (which the association itself admits is incidental to being a member), what is the purpose of maintaining this category of membership?
Tracy: To me, it is a manner of respect for long-time members. It allows them to remain a part of the BBWAA, although they are not active and do not vote in matters other than the Hall of Fame, which in reality is an area in which they should be well versed because they have a past history with the game.
Rich: I don't have a problem with that per se, although I'm still confused about the merits of columnists, cartoonists, and editors whose main job was/is not writing about baseball. There seems to be an inconsistency here. On one hand, we're told that membership is only for those who attend games on a regular basis because they need credentials to get into the press box and the clubhouse. On the other hand, we've learned that there are numerous members who never really covered baseball at all. Am I missing something here?
Tracy: I must be missing something. Can you tell me the numerous members who never really covered baseball at all, other than columnists, cartoonists or editors, who have membership under their own job description? I'm not aware of those folks.
Rich: We must not be on the same page. I'm not referring to the beat writers. Instead, I'm actually talking about columnists, cartoonists, and editors. For example, John Feinstein is a top-notch sportswriter, but he's not really a baseball writer.
Tracy: Rich, I do believe he actually covered baseball briefly at the Washington Post and then became a columnist at the Post. I cannot swear as to what his exact position was. It does, however, seem that when Tom Boswell moved into a columnist role, Feinstein was involved in the coverage of the Orioles for the Washington Post. That aside, as I said there are provisions for columnists, cartoonists and an editor. I'd have to know the ones you are referring to in regards to the "numerous'' members who never really covered baseball. In reality, many of the columnists did at one point cover baseball as a beat. Have there been oversights in some instances or guys who might have slipped by for some reason that I do not know or can't explain? I would imagine so. Does that make it right? No. Does that mean there should be oversights in the future? No.
Rich: Unfortunately, this isn't the forum to go over the qualifications of each and every member. That said, I appreciate your time and willingness to discuss the purposes of the BBWAA and the guidelines for membership. I think we have covered a lot of ground in our Q&A. You've been a member for over 30 years – and a highly distinguished one at that – and, believe me, I applaud your efforts to open up the membership to baseball writers whose medium is the internet. I think more reforms are needed, but this is a good first step.
Tracy: There are always things that need to be fined tuned and addressed. This year's decision on internet membership was a step in that direction. Do things need to be adjusted? Certainly. The sad part was the decisions this year were turned into a personal issue by some and I can honestly say personalities weren't involved in the decision-making process. It was more a concern of trying to avoid setting precedents and wanting to obtain further information in some cases.
Rich: I hope that the BBWAA continues to revisit rules that appear to be somewhat antiquated in the spirit of advancing the profession while doing what's best for the game, including making its awards and Hall of Fame balloting as relevant as possible.
Tracy: I think any profession has to constantly look to move forward. I would say the intent is to make sure that the BBWAA awards and Hall of Fame balloting remain as relevant as they are. I don't see where they can not be considered as relevant as possible. If they were irrelevant there would not be as much attention focused on them. I do think, however, that any selection process will have its flaws because it is rarely, if ever, unanimous and those with dissenting opinions usually make the most noise. What I am proudest about with the Hall of Fame voting – and it was being done long before I cast my first vote – is that the discussions center on who should be in unlike Hall of Fames in other sports where there is a lot of time spent trying to justify who was selected.
Rich: Speaking of which, who are you voting for this year?
Tracy: Alphabetically, Bert Blyleven, Dave Concepcion, Rich Gossage, Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell. The biggest debates for me were Tim Raines, who obviously was overshadowed by Rickey Henderson, but also if you take Vince Coleman's five top years, I would say he outperformed Raines, too, and I don't see Coleman as a Hall of Famer.
The three I wrestle with are Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy and Jim Rice, in that order. I just see them overall as very similar players, and I have a very difficult time putting a marginal defensive player (Rice) in the Hall of Fame. I know there are a couple who are in, but I didn't vote for them and rather than considering them precedents I would rather consider them isolated incidents. The same with Don Mattingly. As much as I admired him as a player, I just don't see his numbers for a corner bat opening the door to Cooperstown. I'm also one of those who doesn't project what could have been. If a career is cut short, I consider that the career because we don't know what would have happened had the player remained healthy. Murphy is probably the best example of that. Had his career been cut short by four years I think he would have had strong support because people would have made their statistical projections and his career numbers would have been better than they actually turned out to be.
Rich: You sent me an email last year, saying that you had come around on Blyleven. I commend you for being open minded on the subject and changing your vote. My next project is to have you see the light on Raines. I would be remiss if I let the comparison to Coleman go by without comment. Yes, they both played left field, led off, and stole a lot of bases. But, other than that, the difference between Raines and Coleman is like night and day. Raines hit .294/.385/.425; Coleman, .264/.324/.345. That's 141 points of OPS. Over the course of their careers, Raines got on base twice as often and had twice as many total bases as Coleman.
I know you referenced their top five years, but the truth is that Raines (.334/.413/.476 with an OPS+ of 151) was a much better player than Coleman (.292/.340/.400 with an OPS+ of 104) at their respective peaks, too. I don't think the five-year numbers are much different. We agree on Coleman. He's not a Hall of Famer. But we disagree on Raines. I believe he is very worthy. I hope you keep an open mind on Raines and give him a closer look next year.
Tracy: That's probably not the only one we disagree on. Raines will have to get in line for me, behind Dawson and Murphy and Rice, while I still try and sort those three out. I know there is support for each of them, but I guess what I have the hardest time dealing with is why Rice's support seems stronger when I would put him third out of the three, and I'm not convinced yet on any of the three. Now that's where a vote gets difficult because I have so much respect for the people that Dawson and Murphy are that it is hard not to put them on my ballot.
Rich: Thank you for taking the time to go over these issues, Tracy. I appreciate your candidness in explaining the BBWAA's policies and procedures and for sharing your personal views on these subjects.
Tracy: Hopefully, it will provide some insight. I don't think anyone felt that the decisions this year were the end alls in dealing with the internet, but rather a first step.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at the Baseball Think Factory/Baseball Primer Newsblog.]