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.

The idiocy of baseball’s replay system was on full display in St. Louis last night

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 29: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals scores the game-winning run against the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth inning at Busch Stadium on September 29, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Baseball’s current instant replay system, in place since the beginning of the 2014 season, has experienced hiccups, but it has generally avoided extreme controversy or high profile failures. Last night in St. Louis, however, the replay system failed in spectacular fashion, potentially costing a team a playoff berth.

We wrote about the play last night: bottom of the ninth in a tied Reds-Cardinals game, Matt Carpenter on first base, Yadier Molina at the plate. Molina hits a ball which should’ve been a ground rule double, halting Carpenter at third. The umpires missed the ball bouncing out of play, however, and Carpenter was allowed to run home, scoring the winning run. Due to the noise and confusion of the Cardinals’ apparent walkoff win, Reds manager Bryan Price could not hear the phone call from his video coordinator telling him to challenge the play. By the time the message got to Price, he was told his challenge was too late. Game over.

The lack of a replay review in that situation was huge. The call would’ve, without question, been overturned if it were reviewed. If that had occurred, there is a possibility that the Cardinals would’ve lost that game, putting them two games back of the Giants with three to play. Instead, they were gifted a win and are now one game back with three to play. At the very least, this will cause the Giants to have to play one more meaningful game this weekend than they might’ve otherwise had to, in turn giving them one less game to rest players and set up their pitching staff for the Wild Card game. It could also, of course, prove to be the difference between them making the Wild Card game and going home after Sunday’s finale against the Dodgers.

If this comes to pass, Major League Baseball will no doubt characterize Thursday night’s events as a freak occurrence. Just one of those things that you could never predict and thus could never prepare for. If you don’t buy that they’ll admonish you that this outcome would’ve occurred the same way had it happened before replay was instituted in 2014 and, hey, we’re doing the best we can. If you’re still not satisfied, baseball will ignore you and pivot to the fans who care less about it, casting the replay failure as a charming and memorable historical event, a la Merkle’s Boner, the Pine Tar Game or Don Dekinger’s blown call at first base in the 1985 World Series. One which, however bad it seemed at the time, is poised to become just another chapter in baseball’s grand history, ready for highlight reels and preroll ad-sponsored video clips. Baseball will turn the page on this, so why can’t you?

Don’t buy any of that. Not for a second. Don’t buy the notion that this was some sort of freak play because freak plays are, by definition, unforeseeable. And while the narrow specifics of last night’s replay failure in St. Louis may not have been predicted, the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of instant replay as implemented were foreseeable from the moment baseball idiotically decided to use a challenge system to initiate replay reviews.

We sharply criticized the use of a challenge system for instant replay in baseball at the time it was adopted in August 2013. Indeed, we sharply criticized a challenge system almost a year earlier when it was merely suspected that baseball would go in that direction with all of this. The reasons were pretty straightforward. Conceptually speaking, it should not be the responsibility of managers to correct the mistakes or oversights of umpires on the field, which is what a challenge system requires. Moreover, a challenge system, and its rules limiting the number and manner of challenges, subordinates getting the call right to strategy and gamesmanship with respect to when and how to use the arbitrary number of challenges granted, and that makes zero sense when the point is to simply correct mistakes.

The problems with a challenge system were not all conceptual, however. Some were practical. In January 2013, Mike Port, who served as Major League Baseball’s vice president in charge of umpiring between 2005 and 2011, talked about how managers were the weak link in a challenge system, saying “you would be amazed how many managers, coaches, and players are not conversant with the rules.” He might’ve added, as others have, that managers cannot possibly see everything that happens on the field from their vantage point, including balls hit to the boundaries. As a result, the notion that a manager can always instantly and knowledgeably pop out of the dugout to challenge a call is unrealistic. He’s going to need some help.

Which is why every team hired a video coordinator, sitting in the clubhouse watching the plays, ready to call the manager in order to tell him when to challenge and when not to. This arrangement solved one problem — the manager’s inability to see it all — but created others. For one thing, it creates potential inefficiencies and inequalities, with some clubs inevitably having more savvy or highly-skilled coordinators, giving them an edge that fair and impartial umpiring would never have created. For another, it necessitated the use of technology — video and phone lines — and technology can always fail. Just as it did last night when Bryan Price’s phone could not be heard over the roar of the crowd in a pre-playoff frenzy.

It was a technological failure that last night’s crew chief, Bill Miller, implied could’ve been fixed if Price had “made eye contact” or something but, hey, he didn’t, so the game was over. When baseball first announced the challenge system in 2013, John Schuerholz, tasked with defending it, said that it would create “a happy balance that will retain the uniqueness and charm of baseball.” I suppose there’s something “charming” about the need for a major league manager to have to gaze into the eyes of an umpire in order to get a blown call corrected, but one would hope that, in 2016, there are better ways to handle things.

Of course it was obvious that there were better ways to handle it in 2013 when Major League Baseball came up with this dumb system. Baseball’s managers, who did not want a challenge system, knew it. Baseball’s former umpire chief knew it. Even dumb bloggers in their mother’s basement knew it. In 2013, baseball had carte blanche and the support of everyone in the game to institute a system that got calls right. They chose, however, to go with a system that, by definition, does not have getting calls right as its sole objective and by necessity limits the ability for calls to be reviewed in the first place due to managers not being omniscient and omnipresent and due to technological limitations.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of an answered phone call, a playoff spot might be too. It never had to be this way, but baseball wanted it this way. If the Giants end up sitting at home next week rather than playing the Mets in a Wild Card game, I’m pretty sure they won’t be comforted by whatever baloney Major League Baseball dishes out to tell everyone why this is all OK.

Cardinals walk off on controversial double by Yadier Molina

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after he was called out on strike against the San Francisco Giants in the top of the six inning at AT&T Park on September 15, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Update (11:09 PM EDT):

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From unlucky to lucky, the Cardinals maintained their position in the National League Wild Card race with walk-off victory over the Reds on Thursday night.

The Cardinals went into the top of the ninth with a 3-2 lead over the Reds, but saw the game tied when Scott Schebler dribbled a two-strike, two out ground ball down the third base line. It seemed as if the baseball gods had turned their backs on the Cardinals.

In the bottom of the ninth against reliever Blake Wood, Matt Carpenter drew a one-out walk. Randal Grichuk then struck out, leaving all of the Cardinals’ hopes on Yadier Molina. Molina went ahead 2-0 in the count, then ripped a 95 MPH fastball to left field. The ball bounced high and over the left field fence for what seemed like an obvious ground-rule double. Carpenter motored around third base and scored the winning run.

The Cardinals poured onto the field in celebration and the umpires walked off the field. Manager Bryan Price wanted to have the play reviewed, but when he went onto the field, the umpires were nowhere to be found. Price chased after them but to no avail. As the Cardinals left the field and the stadium emptied, the Reds remained in the dugout. The Reds’ relievers were left in a bit of purgatory, standing aimlessly in left field after exiting the bullpen. Finally, the game was announced as complete over the P.A. system at Busch Stadium. The results are great if you’re a Cardinals fan, but terrible if you’re a Mets or Giants fan.

As Jon Morosi points out, the rules clearly state that the signage above the fence in left field is out of the field of play. The umpires got it wrong.

Price, however, also took too long to speak to the umpires. Per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

If this happened between two teams playing a meaningless game, it would’ve been a lot easier to swallow, but Thursday’s Reds-Cardinals game had implications on not only the Cardinals’ future, but the Mets’ and Giants’ as well.