Duvall Natural

Blah, blah, blah and the future of baseball beat writing

25 Comments

Did you see Andy Martino’s game story from the Mets-Astros in the New York Daily News?  If not, here’s how it started:

Blah blah blah blah rain blah blah blah Niese blah blah Astros blah blah Mets got spanked. Blah blah, 6-1. We really don’t know what else to tell you about this one. But we will try:

He goes on to keep up that tone, providing the game information but couching it in terms of “well, if you must know I suppose we’ll tell you about this miserable game.” I highly suggest you read it all.

Guess what? I love it.

Not that it’s perfect on its own merits. I just love the fact that Martino it trying to take the game story in a new direction.  Which I feel is essential to the the future of baseball beat reporting.

Traditional game stories are all but dead.  Oh, they’re still dutifully written by many, but they’re almost completely irrelevant now.  Their original purpose — to paint a picture of a game people missed with a thousand words — has been supplanted by the actual pictures. Highlight packages on ESPN or on the web. Or at least by fewer words in the form of contemporaneous blog posts, tweets, or what have you.  The game stories that appear soon after a game ends are almost pointless given how bare-boned they are (you can do better with an inning-by-inning recap of the scoring plays).  The ones that show up the next morning’s paper are better — they have quotes and stuff — but they’re too late.

At least they’re too late if all they’re providing is a mere factual account of the game’s events.  Which, if I ran a newspaper, would be the last thing the beat writer would be in the business of doing. Rather, I’d have them turning the daily game story into an editorial platform rather than a reporting platform. I’d have them create a daily product that is infused with not just the facts of the game but with their analysis — their personal analysis and opinion — thereby making the game story from a given writer a unique product and thereby making that writer’s work far more important to both readers and to the newspaper or website that employs them.

And don’t think for a minute that the current crop of beat writers — the vast majority of them a smart and savvy bunch — couldn’t do it.  I mean think about it: the one thing that the beat writer has over everyone is that he or she is with the team every day from February until October. They know the vibe of the team inside and out. They know when someone is dogging it, when someone is hurt but not saying it and when players aren’t getting along.

The beat writer will tell you that they hear and see tons of stuff that they simply can’t report, and I get that.  But why not use that flavor — if not the specific facts — to create a season-long editorial creation about the state of the team?  As of now newspaper columnists pop in and out with their takes a couple of times a week, but those are different people than the beat guys. They’re former beat guys — you tend to graduate up to becoming a columnist in the newspaper business — who may have more experience but are farther away from the team and the game on a day-to-day basis. Instead of leaving it to them to provide the 10,000 foot overview on Sunday and Wednesday, why not have the beat guys do this every single day?

There a lot of different forms this could take, but my first thought on it would be to do something that could work for both the web and print edition: a contemporaneous opinion-based riff on the game. A live blog, as it were, which could go on the web in close to real time (MLB doesn’t like that though, so we’d have to figure out how to do it) but which can be cleaned up and enhanced a bit before the hard copy deadline.  This nuevo game story would read like a live blog, but would appear the next morning. Before you scoff, remember, Bill Simmons has made a hell of a career out of posting “live blogs” after the fact. It could read like this:

“Bottom of the First

Girardi had Jeter bunt with Gardner on first and nobody out. In a 0-0 game. This makes very little sense. A sacrifice is essentially a one-run strategy. You absolutely do that if it’s the seventh inning of a tight game and you’re about to face the back end of a tough bullpen. You don’t do it in the first inning when, one would hope anyway, you plan on scoring more than one run.  When Gardner was stranded at second — where he may have gotten anyway given that the weak-armed Jason Varitek was behind the plate — I bet Girardi wished he had that extra out.”

You put together a dozen or two of those plus some introduction and some final thoughts and you have a piece that would be easy to write each day. It wouldn’t have to be comprehensive because it could run alongside the box score or a capsule scoring recap or what have you (and remember: people already have the basics from the web or TV).  The story would give readers something they couldn’t get elsewhere, however: the voice of a guy they’ve come to trust over the past couple of years telling it like it is, informed by his close-to-the-team perspective.

If a beat writer does this 162 times a year — or if he provides sharp, opinion-oriented game stories in another form — it would give him a chance to develop hobby horses and running jokes. If it was done well it would be a unique product that readers would seek out every day. People don’t reach for a specific paper as much as they used to because the news has become so commoditzed. People would seek out something like this, however. That’s good for the paper. It’s also good for the writers personally, as it would provide them a chance to set themselves apart from the crowd and cultivate a personal brand. Best of all: it would give the reader a fresh, informed take on the game which the current brand of off-the-shelf gamers really don’t provide.

Andy Martino will probably take a lot of crap for his Mets-Astros gamer today.  It’s misplaced crap, however, because I think it’s exactly that sort of thing that could constitute the future of baseball reporting.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
Getty Images
12 Comments

MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.