Newsroom

A brief aside about the role of sports writers now and in the future

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Skip this post if you don’t care about  media stuff.

[waits for those people to leave]

OK, now that all of us reading this are people who do care, I direct you to a sharp column by Jason Fry over at the National Sports Journalism Center (you may also know Jason from the Wall Street Journal or the Faith and Fear in Flushing Mets blog).

The subject: the inanity of media’s continued insistence on getting a story first.  But the key point isn’t the “speed is bad because speed makes reporters sloppy” thing you see so often these days.  The key point is one I’ve thought about for a long time: that for much of the sports news we consume, who got it first is irrelevant, whether they got it right or not.

The kind of news Fry is talking about he refers to as “commodity news.”  The expected facts that come as a matter of course regardless of who is doing the reporting. Fry uses the day’s lineup as his primary example, but there are others. We all know Cliff Lee will sign somewhere. We all know that the manager will name a starting pitcher for Game One of the NLCS.  We all know that that night’s game is going to be won and that its descriptions will be disseminated in the form of a game story soon after it’s over. Here’s Fry explaining why it doesn’t matter who reports that stuff:

When it comes to basic information everybody’s going to have, all I care about is that it gets to me. Which individual source put that information into the combined news flow? The question is so unimportant that I’m unlikely to remember the answer five minutes later. Maybe not even five seconds later … Being first with commodity news no longer registers with readers — and readers, ultimately, are the ones who pay the bills, to the extent bills are paid at all in our era.

Fry believes that teams are going to start reporting all of the commodity news on their own soon enough anyway, so why bother trying to get the scoops? Heck, they are already to some degree, they just don’t call it “reporting.”  I’ve been in a few clubhouses and at a few media-heavy baseball events, and there’s always a table full of press releases and random information pages that, whether you know it or not, are available to average fans at MLB.com or wherever already. Even big time player signings are going to soon be reported first by teams.  I joke about Ruben Amaro being a ninja, but really, he’s just one step closer to bypassing Jon Heyman as a news clearinghouse than all of the other GMs. They’ll get there soon too.

Fry says, and I agree, that the key for media organizations is to move away from emphasizing and repackaging such widely-disseminated commodity news and to pay more attention to other, more nourishing forms of reporting:

Exclusive reports, investigative journalism, and thoughtful long-form features can’t be quickly matched or hollowed out by a competitor’s summary or retweet. There sportswriters still have a chance at a window of exclusivity and creating something that will stand out from the news stream and be remembered by readers – with credit where it’s due.

One other area of opportunity Fry identifies is very near and dear to my heart because it’s what we try to do with HardballTalk:

Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information.

Since I started blogging four years ago, I have considered that to be my mission.  I’ve had a couple of minor scoops, but who cares? Others had the news three minutes later.  What I value and what I think our readers value is how we try to put the news in context. To show its significance. To offer some insight, sharp opinion or humor to it in a way that makes hearing about news factoid x, y, or z at HardballTalk better than hearing about it elsewhere.  We don’t always succeed at that — we’ll occasionally do a lazy link regurgitation post, usually late in the day when we need a cup of coffee — but the intent is to always stamp the news with our own unique take.

I’ve been in media seminars when such an approach was derided by traditional media types sarcastically as “value-added blogging.”  The implication: that the real work is getting the near-fungible news nugget and that the sort of opining we and other bloggers do is lazy free-riding.  As Fry argues, however, and as readers’ media consumption habits make clear, the opposite is true.  No one cares where the factoid comes from. People care about what it all means and will read stuff from people who will help them figure that out.

I’m not very good at predicting the future, but from where I’m sitting now I foresee one in which there are fewer media professionals collecting the rote postgame quotes, writing the de riguer game story and tweeting that day’s lineup and more of them intelligently parsing the quotes from the postgame interview, composing a critical analysis of the game that just ended and not giving a diddly durn about that day’s lineup until they begin to fill out their scoresheet for that night’s game.

Getting there will be difficult. Newspapers and their reporters don’t like change.  But they don’t have a choice in the matter. The readers will decide what kind of coverage is critical and, ultimately, profitable.  Just as they always have.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.