By Murray Chass

September 9, 2009

It is a popular game with baseball writers. It is an easy game to play. All it requires is a telephone; the number of calls is up to the writer/player. An Internet column I came across last week epitomized the practice.

I won’t identify the column, the Web site or the writer because if I did, I would be singling out someone for an industry-wide practice, and that might not be fair. Suffice it to say, however, that the columnist is not a rookie and the Web site for which he writes is not an obscure site. In other words, this is not a piece by someone who doesn’t know any better writing for a site you would stumble across only by accident.

The object of the game is to get general managers, other executives and scouts to comment on a team not connected to the person who is being asked to give his opinion. This works for soliciting opinions about players, too, as well as trades completed or contemplated.

The writer asks what each person thinks of the team/player/trade and then turns the comments into a column.

All baseball people have opinions, especially on other teams and someone else’s players. They just have to be given the opportunity to express those opinions. And, most important, they must be allowed to express them anonymously.

The writers who create these stories are only too willing to use the comments without identifying the people who uttered them because the story is more important to them than letting their readers know who said what.

The column I am citing seemed to quote 15 people, all anonymously. I say seemed because it’s possible that some of the anonymous people were quoted more than once. However, the writer gave no indication of that except in one instance, and I have allowed for that in my count.

By my count, based on the way he identified them, the writer quoted seven executives, four scouts, two team officials and two baseball men (no partridge in a pear tree). Six of those were identified as being in the National League, four in the American. The others didn’t have a league label.

No one was identified as a general manager. Perhaps the writer talked to a general manager or two, but he chose to disguise them further by referring to them as executives, which general managers are. But that’s the problem with anonymous people. Readers can’t be sure what level position they hold.

An assistant general manager is an executive. Is a special advisor to the general manager an executive? I wouldn’t think so, but I don’t know what the writer had in mind.

Here is how those who were quoted were identified, in order of their appearance:

  • One American League executive
  • A National League executive
  • An official of an AL team
  • A long time NL scout
  • One NL scout
  • One NL scout
  • One NL exec
  • One baseball man
  • One NL executive
  • An AL exec
  • The same AL executive
  • One scout
  • One exec
  • One baseball man
  • An official of one team
  • One exec

Why is the writer willing to keep all of his people anonymous? If he didn’t allow them to be unnamed, they wouldn’t respond to his questions and make his column possible. Why do they want to remain anonymous? So they aren’t in a position of speaking about another team and negatively at that.

Writers seldom seek positive comments about a team or a player. And if an executive has something positive to say, he most likely would not object to having his name attached to his comment.

What is wrong with the practice of soliciting anonymous opinions or assessments? It gives the respondents a free shot at the team – its general manager, its manager, whomever that executive or scout may not like – without fear of retaliation or condemnation. If he had to attach his name to the comment, the person wouldn’t say the same thing.

“A longtime NL scout,” for example, is quoted as saying, “They should probably get rid of the general manager and a lot of the people who have been there, and go in another direction completely. Just blow it up.”

Scouts are especially easy to seduce into making anonymous comments. They themselves are anonymous for the most part, and some are eager for the opportunity to say what they think. Ordinarily scouts are asked for their opinion only when their team’s general manager wants to know about a player on another team.

Some scouts are certain they know more than most general managers and are eager to let others know it, even if the writer is the only person who will know who made that particular comment.

By keeping these people anonymous, the writer deprives his readers of being able to judge for themselves whether their comments are valid. How do the readers know if those executives have the experience to make the judgments they are being asked to make?

The writer asks readers to accept his unwritten word that these anonymous people know what they’re talking about. If readers knew who they were, maybe they wouldn’t agree. But they can’t make that judgment because they don’t know who they are.

A question I ask in my mind is why does the writer think all of these other people know more than the official or officials they are being asked about. Are they themselves in positions where others could be asked to rate their performances?

Perhaps the most important question is this: Is there a way for the writer to write the column he wants to write without using all of those anonymous quotes? There is.

The writer can ask the same people the same questions and use their responses to form a consensus assessment, which he can report without resorting to a string of quotes from one anonymous executive/official/scout after another. Or the writer can exercise some creativity and use the comments to form his own opinion and write that.

But if he wants to use what his anonymous people have said he can write that three-fourths of the people asked said this is what should be done or 90 percent thought that was the solution. The writer is still relying on anonymous people, but he is not allowing them their individual and possibly biased say.

But writers like anonymous quotes. For some misguided reason, they think anonymity makes what they write more important than does identification of the people they quote. It doesn’t.


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