Frank Deford

Frank Deford laments the passing of journalism that Frank Deford likes (and which hasn’t passed)


The legendary Frank Deford spoke at an awards ceremony on Friday, and during  his acceptance speech he lamented what he believes to be the death of sports journalism.

He was somewhat vague on what he thinks is causing the death, but he goes after sports writing that is primarily about statistics and “texting,” suggesting that he believes internet writing, sabermetric-style analysis and social media based stuff like Twitter are killing sports writing.

This, he says, is creating a class of readers and reporters who are “optionally illiterate.” Those who can read and write weighty things, but choose not to.

And what is lost?

Like everyone else, I have no idea what’s going to happen to the future of our profession. The great thing about sportswriting is that it’s about storytelling. The drama, the glamor …. I don’t want to see sportswriting be overwhelmed by statistics. I want to read about the heart and blood of athletes and their stories, which has made sportswriting so special.

I worry who is going to pay for the expensive stuff. The long, expensive, investigative pieces, the enterprise journalism. The work that matters more than anything else and justifies the whole experience as journalists.

I understand what Deford is talking about, but I think he (a) misidentifies who the consumer of sports media is; and (b) identifies a false choice with respect to what sports media can be.

Deford has obviously enjoyed the hell out of his career, but since when is sports reporting — or any reporting — about that which “justifies the whole experience as journalists?”

Of course it’s more fun to write an in-depth piece on an athlete or a game that conveys a storyline. A story that communicates pathos. Which tells a rich story. Which requires travel to big events and meetings with exciting people. That makes a reporter’s job fun!  But it’s the readers who matter, right? What they want is what is important, not what the reporter wants, correct?

Statistics and recaps may bore the hell out of Frank Deford, but based on the consumption patterns of readers — and just how many more eyes are reading more things about sports on the Internet these days than ever subscribed to Sports Illustrated — I’d say that the readers like that stuff just fine. Maybe quickly wanting to learn what will help his fantasy team better during his lunch hour renders a given reader “optionally illiterate,” but it also gives that reader what he wants, and that’s the whole point of any consumer product. And, yes, sports media is a consumer product.*

But that leads to the second part: giving the reader tweets, texts, blurbs, charts or blog posts with that less-glamorous, less-drama-filled content does not mean that the reader cannot also enjoy the writing Deford thinks is disappearing. The investigative stuff. The in-depth features. The things that only a reporter with good access, brains, skills and the ability to tell a good story can provide. It may not be considered the flagship of sports writing like it was in Deford’s heyday, but there’s still an awful lot of that around. Amy Nelson and Jeff Passan do it for online outlets. There are still a lot of others who do it too. And, actually, it’s one area where there is a tremendous opportunity for growth in sports media.

I’ve written about this before, but there is a future in substantive sports media, and it’s not about the bits and pieces that get tweeted today. What we’ve come to call “commodity news,” which teams and leagues themselves are taking over. So much of what I suspect Deford hates actually falls under that category. That day’s lineup; official quotes from players and coaches; other things that can be easily disseminated and more effectively controlled by the team’s increasingly sophisticated media arms and which have turned so many reporters into tweet-first, think-later spokespeople, largely against their will.

The media can and should let the teams and leagues have that stuff, because it does nothing to help any given newspaper, blog or website to simply regurgitate things that will be all over the place in seconds. Rather, the media will do better by concentrating its resources on providing content that differentiates it from the competition. This can be in-depth and investigative stuff. It can be opinion writing like we do a lot of here at HBT. It can be gossip like Deadspin. It can be unique statistical analysis like Fangraphs. Anything, really.

The point is for the writer, newspaper or website to put their particular stamp on the product to make readers want to get it from them specifically as opposed from any old place. Once that unique voice or angle has been established, the opportunity for the money, which Deford specifically worries about, arrives, because you’ve created a unique product that people will come back to. One that can’t be easily repeated or replicated or undermined. All it takes is the will to commit to a given model and stick with it even if the immediate financial benefits aren’t apparent. Online media is maturing. Eventually it’s gonna shake out and there will be winners and losers. Making your outlet a winner requires it to have a plan now.

And the end result of that: a world in which people can read their fantasy updates, their statistical analysis, their in-depth reporting, their rumor mongering, their human interest features, their texts, their tweets, and their long form whatever from anyplace they want.

Not a world like Deford fears in which it’s either this or that, either good or bad, either glamorous and drama-filled or “illiterate.”

*I am aware that there are those who like to think of the press as The Fourth Estate. That it speaks truth to power and all of that stuff. Well, that’s admirable and it may be what has been taught in J-school for the past 40 years or so, but the notion of the press being some greater institution than a mere business is a relatively recent, relatively short-lived and approaching obsolete one. There have always been examples of great journalism rising above mere product and serving a social good — and reporters should clearly strive to write good important stories — but as an overarching purpose of the press, that notion flourished in the 60s and 70s and has been dying pretty slowly for several years.

And it hasn’t been the bloggers and tweeters that killed it. It’s the people and companies who own the newspapers that have done so. If you don’t believe this, ask why your local paper is smaller than it used to be and the newsroom emptier than it used to be. Papers themselves believe that they’re for-profit businesses, and they act accordingly. We pretend that’s an aberration at our peril.    

Wait, what is the non-tender deadline again?

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For the next day and a half you’ll hear a lot about the non-tender deadline and/or players being tendered or not tendered a contract. Here, in case you’re unaware, is what that means.

By midnight on Wednesday teams have to decide whether to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. If they do, the team retains control over the player. Now, to be clear, the team is not simply “tendering” the player the actual contract specifying what he’ll be paid. Think of it as more of a token gesture — a placeholder contract — at that point the team and the player can negotiate salary for 2016 and, if they can’t come to an agreement over that (i.e. an agreement avoiding arbitration) they will proceed to submit proposed salaries to one another and have a salary arbitration early in the spring.

If the team non-tenders a player, however, that player immediately becomes a free agent, eligible to sign anywhere with no strings attached.

Basically, the calculus is whether or not the team thinks the player in question is worth the low end of what he might receive in arbitration. Or, put differently, if the guy isn’t worth what he made in 2015, he’s probably going to be non-tendered.

MLB Trade Rumors has a handy “Non-Tender Tracker” which lists the status of the couple hundred arbitration eligible players and whether or not they’ve been tendered a contract. We’ll, of course, make mention of notable non-tender guys as their status for 2016 becomes known over the next day or two.

Mariners interested in free agent outfielder Nori Aoki

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New Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has kept pretty busy in his short time on the job and Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports that free agent outfielder Nori Aoki could be his next target. The club recently pursued a trade for Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna, but the asking price has them looking at alternatives.

Aoki, who turns 34 in January, has hit .287 with a .353 on-base percentage over four seasons since coming over from Japan. He was having a fine season with the Giants this year prior to being shut down in September with lingering concussion symptoms.

The Giants decided against picking up Aoki’s $5.5 million club option for 2016 earlier this month, but he should still do pretty well for himself this winter assuming he’s feeling good.

Report: Johnny Cueto is believed to be looking for a $140-160 million deal

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It was reported Sunday that free agent right-hander Johnny Cueto had turned down a six-year, $120 million contract from the Diamondbacks. He’s hoping to land a bigger deal this winter and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick has heard some chatter about what he’s looking for.

Jordan Zimmermann finalized a five-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers today, which works out to $22 million per season. Arizona’s offer to Cueto checked in at $20 million per season. A six-year offer to Cueto at the same AAV (average annual value) as Zimmermann would put him at $132 million, which is still a little shy of the figure stated by Crasnick. Of course, Cueto owns a 2.71 ERA (145 ERA+) over the last five seasons compared to a 3.14 ERA (123 ERA+) by Zimmermann during that same timespan, so there’s a case to be made that he should get more. Still, he’s the clear No. 3 starter on the market behind David Price and Zack Greinke.

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, and Cubs are among the other teams who have interest in Cueto. One variable in his favor is that he is not attached to draft pick compensation, as he was traded from the Reds to the Royals during the 2015 season.

Report: Around 20 teams have contacted the Braves about Shelby Miller

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The rebuilding Braves have already been active on the trade market and they might not be done, as CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that right-hander Shelby Miller has been a very popular name. In fact, around 20 teams have checked in.

Nothing is considered close and the Braves have set a very high asking price, mostly centered around offense. They asked for right-hander Luis Severino in talks with the Yankees and would expect outfielder Marcell Ozuna among other pieces from the Marlins. The Diamondbacks and Giants are among the other interested clubs.

Miller is under team control through 2018, so there’s not necessarily a sense of urgency to move him, but anything is possible with the way the Braves are doing things right now. The 25-year-old is coming off a year where he went 6-17, but that was about really rotten luck more than anything else, as he had a fine 3.02 ERA and 171/73 K/BB ratio over 205 1/3 innings. The Braves gave him the worst run support of any starter in the majors.