DECLINE OF INTELLIGENT REPORTING

By Murray Chass

April 24, 2014

In response to last week’s column about pitchers continuing to hurt their arms despite baseball people continuing to take precautions to prevent the injuries, a veteran member of the sports magazine business wrote:

“Great piece today. It’s about time somebody wrote it. Of course no baseball beat reporter would or could write it. They’re too busy asking inane questions like ‘How big was this win today?’ or ‘How excited are you?’ Sometimes they don’t even ask questions. ‘Talk about the game today.’ Not many of them think critically or challenge the banalities thrown at them. Sometimes it seems the beat reporter is an extension of the club’s P.R. department. That could be a future topic: the abysmal state of sports beat reporting and the awarding of so many dubious press credentials.”

Sadly I have to agree with the letter writer, but I would leave the Writing 225word “beat” off the description of the group. I try to refrain from being critical of people in my business, but they don’t make it easy to ignore them.

The Internet has only exacerbated the problem. Everybody has become a writer – here a blog, there a blog, everywhere a blog clog – there is no accountability, good grammar no longer matters, knowledge is non-existent.

In the hours before I wrote this column I was looking for something and found something else, one of the dumbest and most ignorant pieces of baseball writing I have read in years. It was a piece by Craig Calcaterra of NBCsports.com.

Calcaterra criticized Tony Clark, the head of the players union, for suggesting that anonymous comments from club executives about free agents Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales could be a form of collusion.

Clark’s comments, Calcaterra wrote, will do nothing for the players but could backfire on the union by antagonizing the news media:

“A media which will probably paint this as an attack on a free press and stuff, even if that’s not really what’s going on here. It’ll be understandable if and when the media gets angry about this, of course, in that even if it isn’t really an assault on it, it treads closely enough to make everyone uncomfortable. Every time a governing body, be it an actual political one, a sports league or what have you, tries to sniff out sources, it loses the P.R. war before it begins.”

With his comments, Clark was not trying to sniff out sources or their identification. For his part, it was enough that the executives made the comments. Clark was taking the article’s writer, Buster Olney of ESPN, at his word.

Furthermore, Clark is not concerned about what reporters might think of his comments or of him. Calcaterra apparently hasn‘t been around long enough to know that in at least the first 15 years of the union’s existence, the vast majority of the news media supported the owners, many of the reporters serving as house men for the clubs.

The obvious hostility among the reporters did not bother Marvin Miller. As he did with the players, he educated the reporters, and they were better for it. Only the Dick Youngs of the baseball-writing world did not come to understand Miller and appreciate his honesty.

But Calcaterra did not have the Miller experience so in his ignorance he wrote, “I’m not sure why Clark wants this fight. I’m not sure how he gets anything out of it of significance.”

Calcaterra obviously wasn’t around in the 1980s either when for three years the owners conspired against free agents. Not sure why Clark “wants this fight?” Can a reporter in 2014 be so shallow that he can’t figure out the answer to his own question?

Calcaterra, however, isn’t the only member of the news media who doesn’t get it. The New York Times apparently missed the significance of Clark’s comments, too. The Times, which most likely printed more column inches about collusion from 1985 through 1990 than any other newspaper in the country, ran no inches and no articles in this instance.

The Times also made little of another recent off-field baseball story, the one that told of death threats allegedly received by Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder, from thugs who supposedly were involved in his defection from Cuba.

The complex story, which was first reported by Los Angeles Magazine and ESPN, was covered in the Times in a single paragraph shoehorned into an AP baseball roundup:

“Puig said before the game that he would stay focused on baseball despite reports that smugglers who got him out of his native Cuba had threatened his life. In an affidavit in Miami, a boxer who said he defected with Puig described the smugglers’ threats of violence, which have followed Puig since he left Cuba in June 2012. The boxer, Yunior Despaigne, said the smugglers claimed that Puig owed them money.”

Yasiel Puig3 225Attempting to find out the reason for the Times’ lack of interest in both baseball stories, I sent an e-mail Wednesday to Jay Schreiber, the Times’ deputy sports editor and baseball editor. No reply was forthcoming.

A week after other newspapers and web sites reported Puig’s harrowing tale, the Times ran a story on page one of its Sunday sports section with the headline “Cuban players find warm home in Chicago chill.”

Telling of four Cuban defectors who play for the White Sox, the article was typical of the fluffy features written by the newspaper’s national baseball writer, Tyler Kepner. It does include a sentence buried deep in the story, also a shoehorned insert, about the Puig matter, mentioning death threats and smugglers controlled by a Mexican drug cartel.

Many other, if not most, major publications carried articles about Puig’s plight, including the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Toronto Sun, the Seattle Times and the Associated Press.

Yahoo Sports reacted most strongly to the Puig piece. Jeff Passan wrote a lengthy piece demanding that Major League Baseball and its union take steps to insure the safety of its Cuban players.

It’s a nice idea that the players would undoubtedly find comforting, but it’s impractical. MLB has a security force, made up to a large extent by former law enforcement officers, but it is not equipped to confront drug cartels, gangsters and thugs. Those guys are for the FBI and other federal authorities.

That is not to say MLB should not care about those criminal elements. Far more significant than the safety of a few players – and a point Yahoo’s Passan missed – is the protection of the game. If smugglers and drug thugs can get to players to force them to pay defection fees, they can get to them to affect the outcome of games.

Based on a statement issued Wednesday, however, MLB didn’t sound ultra-alarmed about the whole matter, perhaps not unlike the Times.

“We will have discussions with the Players Association,” the commissioner’s office said, “about things the parties can do to help prevent trafficking and illegal activity from occurring.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.