press hat

Media paying for athlete interviews? Not likely. But watch this stuff closely anyway.

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Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated retweeted an interesting story from the UK involving Newcastle United of the Premier League. You can read it here. The upshot: Newcastle has sent around letters to newspapers telling them that they will no longer be able to interview players unless they pay the club for privilege to do so.

The plan is being widely mocked, it seems, and is not likely to actually go though. Really, the story appears to be more of one about how Newcastle is crazy and out of touch. And that may be, I have no idea. But I think that, even if no one is going to be paying Newcastle for player interviews, the idea of it all is not completely irrational or even all that unrelated to other developments in the sports media landscape.

I’ve touched on this stuff in the past: sports teams and leagues are, increasingly, entering the news business. They are, ever so slowly, trying to squeeze out the traditional media when it comes to breaking news about themselves. They have their own TV, radio and internet news operations. Just the other day the Dodgers hired Jon Weisman, a longtime Dodger blogger/writer, to head up their publications and web content. More and more stories are coming from team releases than old-fashioned reporting than ever.

At the same time, leagues and teams are squeezing traditional media outlets.They are getting increasingly strict with unaffiliated media outlets in terms of how many pictures they can use, how much game footage, and how much one can tweet or blog while events are in progress. Where they can stand before and after games and things like that. As independent credentialing organizations like the Baseball Writers Association of America see the percentage of their people covering games drop compared to people dependent upon the leagues and teams for credentials, the influence and control those teams and leagues theoretically have over coverage only increases. Put all of this stuff together and the notion that the teams and leagues — and not the traditional media — are increasingly controlling the news about them is inescapable.

No, I do not believe that Major League Baseball or its clubs would take an extreme step like Newcastle United is trying to pull off. The people involved are not that clueless about bad P.R. And, frankly, baseball and its clubs are run by pretty nice people for the most part who aren’t likely to try to alienate people who, for the most part, write and report things that do not offend their sensibilities.

But let’s be perfectly clear: there is no strictly business or structural reason preventing them from doing this. The reasons they aren’t going to do it are rooted in manners and tradition, not impossibility. If they wanted to, they could charge for the privilege of interviewing players and someone — maybe not current newspapers who have ethics, but someone — would pay. Short of that they could do stuff like throw the media out completely and release postgame quotes — nicely filtered by p.r. professionals — from players. They could release all of their own injury reports and game stories. They could have their own opinion writers offering analysis. They could host their own team blogs. While they still need the ESPNs and FOXs and NBCs of the world to pay them big money for broadcast rights, they could insist that those rights only cover images from the game. They could so totally control the message, the news and the image if they so choose and they could get away with it, I bet. Wait, I don’t even have to bet.

They could because the economics of sports have done a total 180 since the current conventions of press-team interaction began over 100 years ago. Back then the Mudville Nine needed the press to cover them because otherwise people wouldn’t know what was happening. It was just as much subtle advertisement as it was news. Teams had, like, five front office employees and they were run like used car dealerships. These days they are highly-sophisticated organizations with public relations, marketing and advertising departments which dwarf the size of the city’s entire media contingent covering them. The teams don’t need the press to cover them. The press needs the teams for content.

Which, as I’ve said before: I’m pretty OK with. Yes, I’m here in Orlando this week covering the Winter Meetings and yes I’ve gone to the World Series and stuff. But the vast majority of the content we do here at HardballTalk — and the vast majority of stuff produced by other baseball writers that is interesting and vital — is largely formed outside of that day-to-day press-team interaction which is becoming increasingly constricted. It’s opinion writing and gossip like we do here or in-depth and/or investigative reporting that today’s best reporters do outside of the official postgame presser. Indeed: the most talked-about thing written in baseball over the past month was Geoff Baker’s article about the dysfunction in the Mariners’ clubhouse in the Seattle Times. He got what he needed for that away from the ballpark, where the team’s press operation couldn’t touch him or his interview subjects. It was way more interesting than anything said during the 30-50 officially-sanctioned press availabilties here at the Winter Meetings this week.

Let the teams and leagues continue to exert control over the uninteresting things we’d all know about anyway. The lineup. Who went on the DL. Which player is playing them one game at a time and which player would like to thank God for that catch he made in the corner of the end zone. Let the media increasingly work outside of that construct. Let us criticize, analyze and opine and do things which serve our readers and viewers in ways that cannot be controlled by the subjects we cover.

And if the Yankees one day decide to charge admission to the clubhouse? Let us laugh at them and tell them to pound sand.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.