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.

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.