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.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: