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Blah, blah, blah and the future of baseball beat writing

Apr 20, 2011, 11:02 AM EDT

Duvall Natural

Did you see Andy Martino’s game story from the Mets-Astros in the New York Daily News?  If not, here’s how it started:

Blah blah blah blah rain blah blah blah Niese blah blah Astros blah blah Mets got spanked. Blah blah, 6-1. We really don’t know what else to tell you about this one. But we will try:

He goes on to keep up that tone, providing the game information but couching it in terms of “well, if you must know I suppose we’ll tell you about this miserable game.” I highly suggest you read it all.

Guess what? I love it.

Not that it’s perfect on its own merits. I just love the fact that Martino it trying to take the game story in a new direction.  Which I feel is essential to the the future of baseball beat reporting.

Traditional game stories are all but dead.  Oh, they’re still dutifully written by many, but they’re almost completely irrelevant now.  Their original purpose — to paint a picture of a game people missed with a thousand words — has been supplanted by the actual pictures. Highlight packages on ESPN or on the web. Or at least by fewer words in the form of contemporaneous blog posts, tweets, or what have you.  The game stories that appear soon after a game ends are almost pointless given how bare-boned they are (you can do better with an inning-by-inning recap of the scoring plays).  The ones that show up the next morning’s paper are better — they have quotes and stuff — but they’re too late.

At least they’re too late if all they’re providing is a mere factual account of the game’s events.  Which, if I ran a newspaper, would be the last thing the beat writer would be in the business of doing. Rather, I’d have them turning the daily game story into an editorial platform rather than a reporting platform. I’d have them create a daily product that is infused with not just the facts of the game but with their analysis — their personal analysis and opinion — thereby making the game story from a given writer a unique product and thereby making that writer’s work far more important to both readers and to the newspaper or website that employs them.

And don’t think for a minute that the current crop of beat writers — the vast majority of them a smart and savvy bunch — couldn’t do it.  I mean think about it: the one thing that the beat writer has over everyone is that he or she is with the team every day from February until October. They know the vibe of the team inside and out. They know when someone is dogging it, when someone is hurt but not saying it and when players aren’t getting along.

The beat writer will tell you that they hear and see tons of stuff that they simply can’t report, and I get that.  But why not use that flavor — if not the specific facts — to create a season-long editorial creation about the state of the team?  As of now newspaper columnists pop in and out with their takes a couple of times a week, but those are different people than the beat guys. They’re former beat guys — you tend to graduate up to becoming a columnist in the newspaper business — who may have more experience but are farther away from the team and the game on a day-to-day basis. Instead of leaving it to them to provide the 10,000 foot overview on Sunday and Wednesday, why not have the beat guys do this every single day?

There a lot of different forms this could take, but my first thought on it would be to do something that could work for both the web and print edition: a contemporaneous opinion-based riff on the game. A live blog, as it were, which could go on the web in close to real time (MLB doesn’t like that though, so we’d have to figure out how to do it) but which can be cleaned up and enhanced a bit before the hard copy deadline.  This nuevo game story would read like a live blog, but would appear the next morning. Before you scoff, remember, Bill Simmons has made a hell of a career out of posting “live blogs” after the fact. It could read like this:

“Bottom of the First

Girardi had Jeter bunt with Gardner on first and nobody out. In a 0-0 game. This makes very little sense. A sacrifice is essentially a one-run strategy. You absolutely do that if it’s the seventh inning of a tight game and you’re about to face the back end of a tough bullpen. You don’t do it in the first inning when, one would hope anyway, you plan on scoring more than one run.  When Gardner was stranded at second — where he may have gotten anyway given that the weak-armed Jason Varitek was behind the plate — I bet Girardi wished he had that extra out.”

You put together a dozen or two of those plus some introduction and some final thoughts and you have a piece that would be easy to write each day. It wouldn’t have to be comprehensive because it could run alongside the box score or a capsule scoring recap or what have you (and remember: people already have the basics from the web or TV).  The story would give readers something they couldn’t get elsewhere, however: the voice of a guy they’ve come to trust over the past couple of years telling it like it is, informed by his close-to-the-team perspective.

If a beat writer does this 162 times a year — or if he provides sharp, opinion-oriented game stories in another form — it would give him a chance to develop hobby horses and running jokes. If it was done well it would be a unique product that readers would seek out every day. People don’t reach for a specific paper as much as they used to because the news has become so commoditzed. People would seek out something like this, however. That’s good for the paper. It’s also good for the writers personally, as it would provide them a chance to set themselves apart from the crowd and cultivate a personal brand. Best of all: it would give the reader a fresh, informed take on the game which the current brand of off-the-shelf gamers really don’t provide.

Andy Martino will probably take a lot of crap for his Mets-Astros gamer today.  It’s misplaced crap, however, because I think it’s exactly that sort of thing that could constitute the future of baseball reporting.

  1. dianagram - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    Last year, I offered up a game recap in haiku:

    http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2010/04/24/haiku-california/

    • wendythurm - Apr 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM

      I do daily recaps of all MLB games/stories in haiku form. Call it MLB 11 Haiku. Check them out: http://hangingsliders.com

      More to Craig’s point, tho, Andrew Baggarly, the Giants beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News, pulls off what Craig suggests. Between his game stories, notebooks, and post-game blog posts, Giants fans get so much more than a play by play with a few quotes. His writing is so textured and full of depth that he was able to take his season’s work from 2010 and turn it into a fabulous book after the Giants won the World Series. Find him @extrabaggs on twitter.

  2. Matt - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    The best part of the link? At the bottom of the article talking about how blah the game was, and the season already being bad in April, was a link to buy Mets tickets online.

  3. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    My only question here is, what if you ARE the Mets beat writer under your proposed idea? The theme will be negative all year long, which for me is entertaining, but won’t their fans dislike that? If every day’s recap was written like the one you link here, Mets fans will be more suicidal than they already are. My God, the Cubs? Their could be a 102-year running theme and joke for those daily recaps.

    And the best part of the Mets/Stros recap? The end where it says “buy Mets tickets”…awesome.

    • schrutebeetfarms - Apr 20, 2011 at 2:00 PM

      I love the idea in general but it wouldn’t work for a beat writer. The problem being that if you criticize the team, the players, managers etc. won’t offer the access needed to actual do any reporting with quotes. As much everyone says they don’t read what people write about them, they all do and they all take it poorly if anything is critical.

      It would be a superb idea though to have someone do it, just not the beat reporter.

      • mgflolox - Apr 20, 2011 at 2:49 PM

        I agree with what you are saying, but as I said below, almost all players are so media savvy now, that they know how to produce bland quotes on demand. The beat writers seem to think that access to the clubhouse gives them some elevated status, but I frankly don’t care that some player says that so-and-so is a great competitor, and I just happened to put a good swing on that pitch and it found a hole. I have a full-time job, plus a wife and kids to neglect, so I can’t dig it up myself, but I’d like to see how many times the same basic line is uttered by different players about different games over the course of the season. I’d bet there would be very few original or interesting statements made during the year.
        Also, what if these jock sniffers were actually focused on reporting rather having access to these clichés during the McGwire Andro flap in the 1998 season? Instead, what we have is a bunch of sanctimonious, self-righteous bullshit from the same people who whiffed on the story in the first place.

  4. Jonny 5 - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    Martino has obviously been reading the ATH comments section. And then had an Idea, an “awful” idea. Martino got a wonderful, awful idea.

    Why the hell would you bunt Gardener anyway? He’s too “stealy” to be bunting over unless you need a run to go ahead later in a game. I’m with Martino on this.

    • jimbo1949 - Apr 20, 2011 at 12:32 PM

      RIF The part about the Yankees was hypothetical BS.

      • Jonny 5 - Apr 20, 2011 at 4:00 PM

        No WAY! It was really real dude. That’s why I commented on Martino commenting on the Yankees, even though he writes for the Mutts. JIMBO. ;) Sometimes I try to be funny but no one gets it. So It’s not you, it’s me.

  5. BC - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:40 AM

    My Mets stink on ice. +1000 to Martino.

  6. cur68 - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    I remember the old ‘describe the game’ style writing. I used to read the Expos game summaries in the paper every day. I really miss that. My favorite writer had to have been Bill Bryson Sr, who wrote for the Des Moins Tribune. I found him when researching for a paper I was being forced to write for under grad; it was totally beside the point of what I was supposed to be doing but I must have spent 5 happy hours reading his stuff. He was amazing. Like his son, he could paint a picture in words.

    Andy Martino’s work is pretty funny. It must suck having to write about futility day in day out. Like being a weather man @ the North Pole; “More snow. And cold. Again. Tomorrow? Repeat. For the next 7 days? The winds gonna blow but all else will be the same.”

  7. spudchukar - Apr 20, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    Time for the Mets to “Get Low”.

  8. Mark Armour - Apr 20, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    So, Craig, are you saying that you think there is no value in telling the story of the game from the point of view of someone who is there at the game? I am not so sure. Would not there be some value in writing the story of sitting there watching it unfold–pitcher is laboring, crowd getting restless, sun going down, frustration mounting, tension building (or not building), etc.

    This is what guys like Ring Lardner used to do. Or Roger Angell. Those guys are good, obviously, but one of the things that was so great about Angell is that he wrote so simply, but never strayed from the game. “I am sitting here and this is what I am seeing…” I miss it.

    • Mark Armour - Apr 20, 2011 at 12:32 PM

      And, yes, I do think someone could do that for 162 games. Talk about what you are doing, who you are with, what is unfolding. No opinion is needed.

      I also think your method would work too. Different writers would do different things.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Apr 20, 2011 at 12:40 PM

        Oh, I think there’s a great value to that and I’d love to see it to (the color and flair can, in and of itself make it a unique product rather than opinion). But we don’t see that anymore. Not much. We get tick-tocks of the game as opposed to actual writing.

        This whole screed assumes that we’re not going to return to the day of high prose in the game story. Which may not be a safe assumption, though the increasing tyranny of the deadline for the early edition and the greater number of night games makes such an endeavor far more difficult than it used to be. It’s certainly an assumption I’d love to see challenged.

  9. Mark Armour - Apr 20, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    To me, that commentary is the missing piece in the world of baseball media. We have lots of intial opinion, lots of blogs which riff on others opinion, and lots of highlight packages, but not a lot of on-the-spot what-was-it-like-to-watch-this-game going on. To me, this is the actual value of a beat reporter, something that the proverbial guy in the baseball can’t give. The guy in the basement can right the “and then Reyes doubled to left” stuff, but not the sights-and-sounds stuff.

    Call me old fashioned, but it doesn’t seem terribly hard. You just have to focus on the game, and only the game, for 3 hours.

    • Joe - Apr 20, 2011 at 1:10 PM

      So no Yankee/Red Sox games.

  10. mgflolox - Apr 20, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    I think this is the basic problems with newspaper accounts of games. The beat writer jots down a few relevant facts about the game, gets some mostly boring quotes from players “Taking it one game at a time, had a good feel in the bullpen, had a good batting practice, blah blah f-ing blah”. Really, how often does any player or manager actually say anything remotely interesting? And the writers can’t always tell the whole story of the games or teams because they’re afraid players and managers won’t talk to them. In my opinion they all trot out the same tired, old BS anyway, so who needs it?

  11. kingkaufman - Apr 20, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    I suggested something very similar to this about TWENTY YEARS AGO when I was working for the San Francisco Examiner. It was an afternoon paper, and we had beat writers writing game recaps that would appear, for all intents and purposes, in the late afternoon the next day — the paper actually started coming out at 9 a.m., but most people read it on the afternoon commute or after they got home from work.

    There was no Interweb then, but there was TV, and by the next morning even, everyone who cared about the game had seen the highlights either on the 11 o’clock news or on ESPN. But our beat writers had all kinds of knowledge and access and insight. And instead they were writing about how Jones singled smith home from second on a 3-2 pitch. Which everyone saw the highlight of last night. I used to say, not just about sports but about the whole paper, that we had to start thinking like a daily newsmagazine. People already were getting the news from TV. What we could do was provide analysis and context.

    The editor, Phil Bronstein, who now fashions himself a wise old new media sage, basically told me to shut up because I didn’t know what I was talking about.

    At this late date, when there IS an Interwebs, it’s nothing short of amazing that all these beat writers are still churning out gamers. AP and maybe MLB.com are more than enough to provide the quick gamer with details, so we can read it within a few minutes of the last out to flesh out the box score and scoring summary, and to write it “thru” with quotes within an hour or so. That army of beat writers around the country are just duplicating efforts and wasting opportunities.

    • Mark Armour - Apr 20, 2011 at 1:52 PM

      It is true that mlb.com and AP are writing game reports, but they are often not leveraging the value they could provide by being at the game. Were I in the press box, I would say to myself: “Millions of people are watching this game on TV or on MLB Gamecast, and all of the highlights and play-by-play is available to my readers instantly. What value can I provide given that I am sitting here in this seat, or by walking downstairs to the clubhouse?”

      Sure, I can opine on strategy, but that does not leverage the value of my circumstances. I can do that in my pajamas at home. How can I use my value?

      • kingkaufman - Apr 20, 2011 at 2:03 PM

        But the thing is, Mark, I do want SOMEONE to write a simple gamer. If the software program that’s been in the news recently can tackle that gig, fine.

        The vast majority of the time, I look at a box score and I can get the basic story of the game, but sometimes I need some explanation. I want to be able to click over, even if the game just ended a few minutes ago and see, in narrative form, how it went down.

      • Mark Armour - Apr 20, 2011 at 2:39 PM

        Could the gamer you wish for be written by someone watching on TV? I agree that the traditional gamer is fine and has value. There are many times that I will read a play-by-play account and say “WTF happened there?” The game account will tell me.

        I also believe the newspaper beat writer has a role to play, but not the game account role. And not really the opinion role, because, again, that can be done by anyone with a typewriter. The sights-and-sounds role is a gaping hole though.

  12. kingkaufman - Apr 20, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    Yeah, Mark, that gamer could be written by someone watching on TV. A few years ago a Giants beat writer for the Sacramento Bee got busted for doing that. He was turning in game stories by watching the game on TV and then harvesting quotes for the write-thru from the Web (if I recall the story correctly).

    Aside from the lying to your employer thing, I didn’t think there was any problem with covering the game that way.

  13. schmedley69 - Apr 21, 2011 at 12:07 AM

    I read a lot of Andy Martino’s stuff when he worked for philly.com blogging about the Phillies, and I always got the feeling that the guy didn’t like his job and that he would rather be working for Green Peace or something. I can respect that, but it kind of sucked for us fans who were looking for good insights into the team. When the guy writing the blog doesn’t give a crap, why bother reading it? Doesn’t look like he’s changed much since then.

  14. dcjeffreys - Apr 21, 2011 at 6:05 AM

    Craig, it’s great that Martino’s shenanigans have given you an outlet to share an idea such as this that has real merit.

    Unfortunately, it seems your thought process that creativity was Martino’s intent is misguided. To me this reads like a guy who’s already bored 17 games into the season and can’t think of an actually creative way to present his gamer. Some of the drivel on Martino’s Twitter confirms that assertion. It’s a shame really, too. There aren’t many greater jobs out there than getting paid to write about sports. For Martino to exhibit a lack of appreciation for that and, in essence, mail it in, then get some unjust praise makes this writer cringe.

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