For those among us who crashed into bed at a decent hour Sunday night, Monday morning delivered baseball news so surprising that it might have initially buckled a Red Sox fans knees like a Madison Bumgarner breaking ball.
Hanley Ramirez, the electrifying and enigmatic ex-Marlin/ex-Dodger, was returning to the organization in which his professional career began more than a decade before. He was joining the Red Sox.
It was the kind of news that makes baseball’s hot-stove season such a fun and enduring annual tradition. Ramirez-to-Boston was unexpected and its merits instantly debatable, the kind of news that leaves a fan eagerly scratching out potential lineups on scrap paper in the middle of November or, if you’re a baseball Grinch, wondering what the hell the front office plans to do with this injury-prone headcase.
Of course, for those who did not doze off in the minutes before the evening officially became morning again, the pending signing of Ramirez, the three-time All-Star and sometimes pain-in-the-ass, was not something you learned when you flipped on the MLB Network while waiting for the coffee to percolate.
It was something you slept on, presuming the notion of another slugging, man-child Ramirez playing left field for the Red Sox did not keep you awake. Because the news was broken in that relatively new, real-time conventional way, with no regard for deadlines. It broke, via Ken Rosenthal, the respected national baseball reporter for Fox Sports and the MLB Network, precisely this way:
Source: Hanley Ramirez headed to Boston tomorrow to finalize deal with #RedSox.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 24, 2014
Rosenthal’s near-midnight scoop was not the only reminder of how Twitter, the social media phenomenon in which the currency of information is disseminated in 140-character increments, has changed the process of covering professional sports, particularly baseball. But it was literally the latest reminder that proper coverage now requires close to around-the-clock monitoring.
“It’s a 24-hour cycle,” said Buster Olney, senior baseball writer at ESPN and a former Yankees beat reporter for The New York Times. “It feels like it never turns off. The spigots are always on.”
The days of waiting until the next morning’s newspaper to get the scoop is as much a quaint baseball relic as a complete game from a starting pitcher. Technology has allowed fans’ desire for real-time information to approach the insatiable.
“When I was a teenager I published my own baseball magazine,’’ said Tyler Kepner, who spent a dozen years as a beat writer before assuming his role as a national baseball correspondent for The New York Times. “Now the idea of a monthly magazine now, of waiting for something to come around in a month, is hard to grasp. I still love getting Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. I still love magazines. But the whole emphasis has changed. Everything needs to be delivered in an instant.”
When CBS Sports’s Jon Heyman reported later during that frenzied Monday that the Red Sox were also on the verge of signing Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, there was a sense that the report preceded his opportunity to tell his former team he was leaving. The news broke before he could break the news.
Sandoval has agreement to go to the red sox for 5 years, close to 100M
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) November 24, 2014
giants have now been informed sandoval is going to the red sox
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) November 24, 2014
For those who cover baseball, particularly when the hot stove is reaching its boiling point, the chase never ends and the smartphone becomes a permanent appendage.
During a recent conversation, I asked Rosenthal if he has any idea how often he checks his phone for texts and Twitter updates.
“Every waking minute,’’ he said, chuckling faintly. “That part of it is really disturbing, actually.”
It’s also part of the gig. Unlike those who are anticipating baseball news, those reporting it cannot wait until morning to find it out.
#A RELENTLESS BEAT
The advent of Twitter is not the only radical change to baseball reporting in recent years, particularly for beat writers who are charged with covering the day-to-day workings of a particular team.
The advent of blogs – and newspapers’ begrudging acceptance of them – meant that there was always room for more. The newspaper had space limitations, sure, which kept the beat writers’ responsibilities to the traditional game story, tweaked once or twice for later editions, and a notebook. But feeding the ever-growing online monster?
“You could always be working,’’ said Adam Kilgore, who spent the past five seasons as the Nationals beat reporter for The Washington Post before a recent promotion to a national writer. “There’s some idea you could turn into a five-paragraph blog post and put it up there if you felt like it. It’s great as a writer because if there’s something you want to say, there’s a forum to say it. But it can also be a burden. What’s too much? What’s unreasonable for a workload?
“There’s not one nugget, no matter how boring it seems when you’re writing it, that won’t draw some kind of audience. A post on the Nationals’ 25th-best prospect? People will still read about it. Which is kind of amazing.”
Kepner cited Peter Abraham, who covered the Yankees for the Westchester Journal News in New York before coming to the Globe in 2009, as someone who was at the forefront of using a blog in an effective, reader-engaging way.
“He had a mix of news and opinion, written casually but in a professional, journalistic way, that just worked,’’ said Kepner. “If you were Yankees fan, you could get everything you needed by checking Pete’s blog. It set the bar for how to do that sort of thing with quantity and quality.”
At its worst, Twitter devolves into the former, with an overemphasis on minutiae and too-frequent forays into redundancy.
“If you follow all of the reporters on a particular beat,’’ said Olney, “a lot of times you’re getting, ‘The manager is coming out in five minutes, tweet. The manager just sat down, tweet. Here’s a picture of the manager sitting down. Here’s the manager giving an update.’ ”
“If you’re Derrick Goold and you’re covering the Cardinals for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, that has value, because there aren’t many reporters, if any, on the road with you. But if you’re in New York, you’re in Boston, you’re in Chicago and there are eight different reporters tweeting out the same thing you just wonder if there’s a more effective way to do stuff.”
Peter Gammons, the dean of baseball writers who became a cult figure while reinventing how to cover the beat while at the Globe in the halcyon ‘70s, said he sympathizes with those of the current generation who have so many more additional duties than he did.
“Oh, it’s a lot more difficult in a lot of ways,’’ said Gammons, whose lyrical, letting-you-in-on-the-secret coverage spawned a generation of New Englanders to desire to become baseball writers, a group dubbed the Gammons Youth by former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
“Game stories were my passion. I loved being able to make a deadline and then come back up, to write 1,500 words on one game. It was competition. It was a real joy. Now, I feel sorry for the guys who, you know, have to tweet the lineup, that sort of thing. And the manager’s pregame press conference in a way keeps everyone away from the players for a certain amount of time. He’s like the president’s press secretary.”
Comparing conventional baseball coverage to how reporting functions on Twitter is like comparing a raw but hard-throwing pitcher to a cagey veteran. The new kid might be faster, but his command isn’t as good. The immediacy of twitter inevitably leads to inaccuracy.
““It’s a great tool for getting information and a great tool for dispensing information,’’ said Olney. “You have to remember that and not the five-percent frustrating level between the tone of Twitter – it’s the twin of anger in a lot of cases – and certainly over time you can’t worry about how everyone uses it, because you’ll drive yourself crazy.
“But let’s face it,’’ he added, “accuracy is a natural casualty when you’re dealing with 140-character reporting. I do think there are a lot more mistakes made because it’s fire first, ask questions later.”
Rosenthal feels the same way. “There’s a level of inaccuracy there that is different than what those of us of a certain age grew up with. And that’s bothersome to me. But fans don’t even care. They’re so quick to move on to the next thing. It’s a different time and a different standard. I’m not sure it’s ever going back. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t.”
Rosenthal noted that accuracy often comes in segments on Twitter, with the full story revealed during the stages of reporting. “When we first learned that Giancarlo Stanton was negotiating a long-term deal to stay in Miami, the numbers were reported as, what, 10 years and what, $300 million, something like that, and it turned out to be for 13 years and $325 million,’’ Rosenthal said. “The details were learned over time in the process of reporting, but the urgency Twitter demands meant the story had to get out there before all of the information was available. It comes in pieces now in a lot of cases.”
Sometimes, trying to assemble those pieces is a frustrating waste of precious time, at least when a false rumor finds its way onto Twitter.
“I’m having dinner at home with my wife, getting ready to watch a movie or whatever, and a rumor pops up on Twitter about [Nationals pitcher] Jordan Zimmermann and the Cubs,’’ said Kilgore. “So you have to start texting people, emailing people, finding out what’s going on there, if anything.”
Turns out it was nothing but a source of agitation for the reporters who had to chase a dead end. “Five minutes after it was on Twitter the Zimmerman thing was shot down, and boom, it’s over,’’ said Bob Nightengale, USA Today’s national baseball writer. “It used to require so much time to make sure it’s right. Now stuff just gets thrown out there.”
Rosenthal cited a similar example of a report that caused a brief buzz before being proven false. In fact, it may be the same example, though he did not confirm that it was also the Zimmermann-to-the-Cubs fiction.
“I don’t want to give you the specific example because I don’t want to embarrass the writer, but there was a situation recently that began when something was reported and it was as strongly denied as it could be,’’ he said. “And I was talking to some younger writers, and I said, ‘Guys, when this happened when I was younger, when I was starting out … I don’t know if you’d get fired over it, but you’d certainly get in trouble. And now it’s just, eh, another day, let’s go. It’s just different. It’s different.”
#GET THE PAPERS
That biggest difference, besides arguably a decreased demand for instant accuracy from readers? There’s not as much who’s-got-the-scoop? suspense nowadays among colleagues and competitors.
Baseball reporters who covered the beat for a newspaper all acknowledge, no matter which generation they’re from, having a similar fear. That the other reporter from the paper across town would have news in the morning paper that you did not.
KILGORE: “You wake up and find out you got beat and you’re ass is kicked the entire day and you don’t even want to get breakfast. Your day is ruined. Now your ass is kicked for five minutes, it’s not going to matter that much, there’s time to make up for it.”
KEPNER: “I still remember the satisfaction of getting a clean hit in the morning paper. That was a cool feeling and anyone who was on a beat back then remembers that feeling. That never really happens anymore. I understand how things are evolving, and that’s cool. But this makes the shelf-life of a scoop much shorter.”
GAMMONS: “Before, if you had a story in the paper that’s wrong, you’ve got to wear that thing for the entire day.”
NIGHTENGALE: “Tim Kurkjian [of ESPN] told me this story. When he was living in Dallas, he got all three papers delivered to his house. And you’re squinting at them when they show up on the doorstep like you’re looking at a report card. ‘OK, there’s nothing on A-1 [the front page], so if there’s a scoop, it’s not that bad.’ Then you go to the sports section. ‘OK, nothing above the fold, nothing on the front-page. Good, good.’ Then you dive into the section to see if there’s anything smaller you might have missed. It was a process.”
OLNEY: “During the course of the day, you’d always build up to a crescendo. You’d get up in the morning, you’d get the papers of your competitors. When I worked in Baltimore, it would be the Washington Post. You’d look at what that person had, then you’d come up with a game plan for the day before you talked to your editor. Or when I was at the New York Times, I would be telling them the Daily News had this, the Post had this, I didn’t have that, and this is what I’m going to do. You sort of build up that during the day. Now everything just changes hour to hour and it’s one steady stream.”
Olney still checks the papers, online anyway, but for a different reason: he aggregates and links up the best stuff for his daily morning column on ESPN.com. But it has been quite some time since major baseball news did not leak out before being revealed in the morning papers. Nightengale figures it’s been about a decade by his recollection
“The last time I remember anything breaking in that way was when Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers [in January 2001],” he said. “It was in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, written by T.R. Sullivan.
Nightengale is told that it was his news-breaking tweet in the moments before the the 2009 trade deadline– he had the scoop on the Red Sox’ acquisition of Victor Martinez — that served as the ah-ha moment regarding the use of the medium for this reporter.
The Red Sox are about to acquire Victor Martinez from Indians
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) July 31, 2009
Naturally, he doesn’t remember. “No, I actually don’t,’’ he laughs. “But I think that’s a case in point where, if I’d broken it in the paper, I’d remember it better. You don’t really remember the Twitter stuff.”
Ask these guys if they could do their job without Twitter, and invariably they cite one who actually does. “I guess it would be possible because Tom Verducci doesn’t have it and he’s better than any of us,’’ said Kepner.
Verducci, the exceptional long-time Sports Illustrated writer who also works as an analyst for Fox and the MLB Network, does not use social media. But he also comes at it from a different perspective. Chiefly a long-form writer, he “doesn’t really deal with the day-to-day stuff,’’ said Rosenthal.
Verducci could not be reached for comment; he is out of the country working on a story. But he did explain the reason for his quiet boycott of Twitter to the author Jeff Pearlman in an interview in January 2013.
“I love noticing the small details within a game, for instance, and sometimes you look around in the press box and you can count the heads that are down—playing solitaire, checking their fantasy football team or buried in Twitter,’’ he said. “Whatever works for you.”
If anyone has the credentials and credibility to complain about the effect Twitter has had on baseball coverage, it is Gammons. But he does not. It works for him. Sometimes he even catches himself wondering how his job would have been different had Twitter existed during certain seismic days in baseball history.
“It is very different. I was thinking about June 15, 1976,’’ Gammons said. “That was the day the Red Sox bought Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi from the A’s. The Yankees bought Vida Blue. [All three players were sent back to the A’s when commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the deals in the best interest of baseball.] And the Orioles and Yankees made a 10-player blockbuster trade. Can you imagine how all of that would have played out as it was unfolding? It would have been chaos. I had stayed up all night because of course there was a morning and afternoon Globe. Most of the stuff I was writing for the afternoon globe, which meant staying up all night. It was very different. Things now are so immediate.”
In the age of instant information, there is less time than ever to build that essential rapport with the people a reporter is covering. “Everything is more at an arm’s-length now than it used to be,’’ said Olney. In the ‘70s, Gammons could show up in the clubhouse at 1 p.m. for a night game and there was no restriction on access. Often, he would travel on the team charter to road series. He was familiar and present, and it allowed him to build trust.
“I remember flying back on the plane from California, I think it was 1979, and sitting next to [Red Sox pitcher] Jack Billingham,’’ Gammons said. “He was having a tough time of it and he said, ‘You know, I’m not sure I could pitch in the big leagues anymore. No one’s said anything to me, so I guess I could keep going, but I don’t know.’ So we land and I’d already gotten in my car and gone home, and he was told to stay around for an hour. He got released. I should have picked up on the clue.
“People refer to me as an insider now. I don’t feel that way. I’m like more on the doorstep now. It’s nice to be virtually be 70 years and not have to be on alert around the clock like Ken [Rosenthal] has to be. So I get pertinent information – Ken’s stuff just pops up on my phone, I don’t really know how — and it leads to me to other things. It’s just part of the business I’m in now.”
As if breaking the Ramirez news and various other stories in recent years isn’t confirmation enough, Rosenthal recognizes that Twitter is a major part of his business now. But it took him some time to give in.
“A few years ago, I was resisting Twitter myself, and the site MLBTradeRumors.com said, you know, if you don’t get on Twitter, we’re not going to credit you because we’re not going to follow your every story. It was the reality. There’s no way I could do my job today. No one would ever know I wrote a story. Ever.”
It was then that Rosenthal dropped off the call. After a moment of confusion and silence, the MLB Network public relations person who arranged the interview hopped on the line and explained that he had just received a call he had to take.
Understood. There was no time for goodbye. The news wasn’t about to wait. The cycle never stops. And the reporter who sleeps is inevitably the one who will be left with the lament of having to second a competitor’s scoop, probably sometime after sunrise.