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

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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.    

There is no need to lament the loss of “The Great Hollywood Baseball Movie”

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Today in the New York Times Jay Caspian Kang writes about what he calls the loss of “The Great Hollywood Baseball Movie.” About how there are few if any big baseball movies anymore. Movies which traffic in baseball-as-metaphor-for-America with Jimmy Stewart (or Kevin Costner)-types playing characters which seem to transcend time, elevate our emotions and rack up the dollars at the box office.

It’s a bit of meandering column, with just as much time spent on Kang’s seeming dissatisfaction with modern baseball and baseball telecasts as his dissatisfaction with baseball cinema, but he winds it up with this, which sums his argument up well enough:

Baseball’s cinematic vision of Middle America no longer means what it once did. The failing family enterprise and the old, forbearing white — or Negro Leagues — ballplayer now remind us of an extinct vision of the country and the growing distance between Middle America and the coasts. The attempts to update the archival, sun-kissed, Midwestern vision — whether on last year’s “Pitch,” the Fox TV show about a woman pitching in the majors, or “Million Dollar Arm,” the 2014 Disney movie in which Jon Hamm goes to India to convert cricket bowlers into pitchers — are canceled or bomb at the box office.

You won’t be surprised that I take a great deal of issue with all of this.

Mostly because it only talks about one specific kind of baseball movie being AWOL from cinemas: the broad works which appeal to the masses and which speak to both the past, present and future, often with a hazy nostalgia in which love of baseball and love of America are portrayed as one and the same.

It’s worth noting, though, that such films are extraordinarily rare. There was a brief time when such things existed and did well at the box office — the 1980s had “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “Major League” in a relatively short period of time — but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Baseball movies are almost always niche flicks. Biopics made of recently deceased stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Weird slices of life like “The Bad News Bears” or “The Sandlot.” Quirky comedies that are baseball offshoots of larger cinematic trends like “Little Big League,” which was just the latest in a series of “kids doing adult things” movies popular at the time. Or “Rookie of the Year” which is essentially baseball’s version of one of those body-switch movies that come and go. Or “Mr. Baseball” which was just a fish-out-of-water comedy like any other.

We still get those kinds of smaller baseball movies fairly often. They’re still pretty decent and still do pretty decently at the box office, even if they’re no one’s idea of a blockbuster.

“Moneyball” was done well and did well, not as a mass appeal movie, but as one of many business/Silicon Valley flicks that have popped over the past few years. “Sugar” was a great movie, but a small movie, exploring a culture about which most people aren’t aware and basically serving as a character study. “42” is just an updated (and much better) version of those old biopics of baseball stars. “Everybody Wants Some” may be the quintessential niche baseball movie in that it’s a story about characters which just happen to have a lot of baseball in their lives. “Bull Durham” was like that too, but it just came along at the right time to become a massive hit. As many have noted, baseball was more background than plot in that movie, even if the background was amazingly well done. I’d argue that most good baseball movies use baseball like that rather than put it squarely in the foreground.

There will likely always be baseball movies, but they will almost always be smaller ones, not large blockbusters or Oscar bait with an epic sweep. Most baseball movies are like baseball itself in that they lack a grand consensus. Baseball is not The National Pastime anymore — it’s just one of many forms of sports and entertainment available to the masses — so it follows that the movies which deal with it will likewise not have that massive cross-market appeal.

I think that’s a good thing. Smaller baseball movies more accurately reflect the sport’s place in the culture. To portray baseball as something larger than what it actually is opens the door to a lot of artistic and cultural dishonesty and runs the risk of creating some really bad art.

I mean, have you seen “Field of Dreams?” Bleech.

The Yankees set up “The Judge’s Chambers” cheering section for Aaron Judge

New York Yankees
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The Yankees aren’t well-known for going all-in on goofy, fan-friendly fun. While some organizations are happy to jump on new and even silly or ephemeral trends for the yuks of it, the Yankees have tended to keep things rather businesslike when it comes to promotions and things. They’ve always played the long game, assuming — not always unreasonably — that their brand is best defined by the club’s history and greatness and quiet dignity and stuff.

Aaron Judge and his breakout rookie season is changing things. His fast start has caused fans to dress up in judge’s robes and stuff, so the team is having fun with it. They’ve set up a special section called “The Judge’s Chambers,” complete with a jury box vibe:

 

Fans will be selected to sit in the special section, which is in section 104 in right field, right behind where Judge plays, and will be handed foam gavels with “All Rise” written on them. To be selected at the moment it’d help if you wear one of those judicial robes with Judge’s number 99 on the back or his jersey or an English judge-style powdered wig. Going forward, the Yankees will also use the section for groups and charity events and stuff.

Judge is on a 58-homer pace right now. It’s unlikely he’ll keep that up, but he certainly looks like the real deal. And, for the Yankees and their fans, he’s giving them the chance for some real fun.