The pros and cons of barring reporters from the clubhouse

Associated Press

UPDATE: After publishing this story several BBWAA members have contacted me both privately and on Twitter to take issue with both the premise — that MLBPA intends to cut clubhouse access — and some of the views I offered in the piece. With respect to the views, well, sorry. They’re my views on the matter. One particular bit — the stuff about why the BBWAA let in — was something that was told to me by multiple people. I appreciate that there were non-strategic reasons for it as well (many in BBWAA agree with me that keeping people out was a bad thing) but there are members who view it differently.

As for the premise: the reporter, John Perrotto, just tweeted that he’s making a correction to his story, which seems to negate it:

If so, well, OK. I’m keeping the story up because the conversation about the benefits of clubhouse access are still valid. Especially considering the broader issues about access and teams’ and leagues’ desire to limit is remain relevant.

9:41 AMYesterday’s story from John Perrotto that MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark was miffed at the way the media handled the Dexter Fowler Orioles/Cubs saga included something of greater interest and applicability in the world of baseball media: news that the union wants to ban reporters from the clubhouse both before and after games in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Rather, Clark would prefer that three players from each team be made available in an interview room after games. Where that all ends up is unknown at this point, but that’s what Clark will likely start with in negotiations.

I get it from the players’ perspective. The clubhouse is their home. It’s one of the only places where they can truly relax and unwind and, given how much more plush and comfortable clubhouses are now compared to the way they used to be, they’re far more useful places to relax and unwind. Players likewise spend way more time there than they used to due to the fact that they work out more and prepare and interact with training staff more than players did in the past. Finally, because their privacy as celebrities in a smart phone world is so compromised compared to how it once was, the clubhouse truly is a sanctuary of sorts. Listen to any player talk about how they view the clubhouse and this comes through loud and clear. They’re human beings who like and want their privacy and they’d ideally like more of it.

The media, understandably, bristles at the notion of their access being curtailed. And they don’t just bristle. To some extent they’re already working to head this off. Back in December, after years of keeping reporters out of the Baseball Writers Association of America due to alleged (and spurious) conflict of interest claims, the BBWAA let them all in. I’ve been told by people familiar with the decision that the primary reason for it was to either (a) give the owners, who indirectly employ the writers, reason to push back against the players’ demands for reduced media access or, at the very least to; (b) ensure that writers don’t get preferential treatment and are forced to endure the same access restrictions as their counterparts in the BBWAA.

Whatever the politics of the competing positions, and whatever it means for the players’ and the reporters’ day-to-day existence, the question that matters the most in all of this is what restricted access means for fans who consume sports media as a means of getting insight into the game. Let’s talk about that, shall we?

On the one hand, it’s easy to say that barring reporters from the clubhouse before and after games won’t make a huge difference. Ballplayers are extraordinarily well-trained to give cliche and non-revealing answers to most questions these days. A large part of the actual news which comes out of the clubhouse, as opposed to empty, column-inch filling quotes, comes from either official team releases or, more significantly, managers being interviewed in their daily availability in either their office or in the dugout during batting practice. If you watch the daily baseball news cycle you’ll notice that the lineup, word of a player’s injury status, decisions about upcoming rotation shuffling and the like are all reported by a team’s media contingent at about the same time and most of it comes prefaced with “[Team’s manager] says . . .” This is not stuff gleaned from player interviews at lockers inside clubhouses.

Postgame player quotes can be a bit more revealing — they’re reacting to something very specific which just happened — but’s it’s likewise the case that there is some serious commonality across reporters’ stories in this regard, with the same quotes from the same players serving as the key takeaway. The reason for this is understandable too: in most cases there are only so many heroes, goats or key players in any given game. Reporters are bright and know who to talk to after a game and it’s usually a small handful of dudes. Clark’s plan to make three guys available after each game reflects that.

On the other hand, barring access will have some long term negative implications for fans. While, in light of the above, I think it’s safe to say that doing so wouldn’t cause us to lose a whole lot in terms of day-to-day reporting — they’ll still be “playing them one day at a time” and will still be “just trying to execute pitches” — we will eventually lose the kinds of stories that are insightful, interesting and fulfilling. The deep dive profiles and the sorts of analysis pieces that are derived from good reporters knowing players well and perceiving changes over time. The stories about team controversies that are sourced from players and provide their point of view as opposed to that of team management’s.

We’d lose those because they all require familiarity between reporter and player. And, more significantly, trust. In almost all cases that trust comes from the player seeing that reporter in the clubhouse every day and learning, after many mundane interactions, that the reporter will treat them fairly and not twist his words. Or, in some instances, that the reporter will go out of his or her way to avoid reporting some minor negative thing that might get some clicks for a day but is ultimately of no consequence. These interactions, over time, create something of a relationship and are what will lead a player to trust the reporter enough to talk more about his life or about what’s going on behind the scenes at some point. Those conversations are what lead to the best stories we as fans read, even if they don’t happen every day.

I’m not sure if there is a happy medium here. Reporter access may be a zero sum game. Ideally, if a reporter is working on a more in-depth feature the club will grant him or her access to players on an individual basis to make up for the fact that the reporter can’t just chat up a player at his locker a couple of hours before a game, but that’s a formalized interaction that does not lead to that trust I just talked about. And, to be honest, I presume that clubs won’t grant significantly more supplemental access anyway. While players may come to trust certain reporters over time, in a vacuum they’d probably prefer not to get too familiar anyway. The media-athlete relationship can sometimes be useful for the athlete, but it’s mostly a one way street benefitting the media and, eventually, fans, not the player.

All of this will be fascinating to watch unfold in the coming year. Both in terms of the actual negotiations and in terms of how media coverage of sports teams changes if and when reporters are pushed farther and farther away. There could be some hidden benefits to reduced access in that, necessity being the mother of invention, reporters will look to different avenues of reporting on the game and will look to provide different perspectives. Most days I think minimizing the role of the athlete in his own coverage would be a pretty good thing and would reduce various inhibitions some in the media have due to their need to maintain access and good relationships with players and clubs. Some of the best reporting or analysis about sports comes from people who aren’t in locker rooms every day and some of the best insight about sports comes from those who seek to demystify or break down the usual athlete-fan relationship rather than perpetuate it.

But there will be a loss too. At least in the short term. And it will be one which, necessarily, impacts the way we as fans consume the game.