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Times' Dodger coverage: It's low, in the dirt

OUTSIDE THE TENT

An occasional column in which The Times invites outside critics to yank the red carpet out from under a Southern California newspaper whose website just launched something called "The Envelope."

November 06, 2005|Matt Welch | Matt Welch is associate editor and media columnist for Reason magazine (reason.com) and maintains a weblog at mattwelch.com.

YOU COULD forgive sports columnist Bill Plaschke for crowing in last Sunday's paper. After all, the man he'd been trying to run out of town for 20 months, Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta, had finally been fired the day before by owner Frank McCourt -- probably, at least in part, because of Plaschke's tireless efforts.

"McCourt, ever sensitive to the Los Angeles media, changed direction," ESPN's Peter Gammons reported.

"The McCourts can't deal with the media pressure," a Dodger insider explained to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick.

As every long-suffering sports fan in this town knows all too well, "the Los Angeles media" is unfortunately synonymous with the Sports section of the paper you are holding. Especially its two loud-mouthed, value-subtracting columnists, Plaschke and T.J. Simers.

The two have had it in for DePodesta since his first day on the job. Plaschke greeted the new GM by calling him a "computer nerd," "webmaster," "General Manager.com," "Bill Gates," a "kid who relies on equations" and "speaks in megabytes" ... and that was just in his first column. Simers immediately declared that the "Dodgers Come Up Short on New General Manager," and he has spent the time since vacillating between "Google Boy" and "Computer Boy" for a nickname. (The Times' Sports section, apparently, is still produced via typewriter and carrier pigeon.)

Taunts and strong opinions come with the territory -- they're columnists, after all! -- but in their zeal to discredit DePodesta and the management philosophy he represents, Plaschke and Co. forgot a fundamental journalistic duty: to have some idea about what they're talking about.

In his Oct. 30 column, Plaschke asserted that DePodesta, "when with Oakland, had been the most invisible No. 2 executive in the game."

When DePodesta was with Oakland, he was a prominent character in Michael Lewis' controversial book, "Moneyball," and a frequently named candidate for GM jobs.

Plaschke also snorted: "To fill shoes once worn by Branch Rickey and Al Campanis, should McCourt really have hired a 31-year-old who had never been to Dodger Stadium?"

Rickey became a manager (which back in 1913 meant general manager as well) ... at age 31! Brian Cashman, the New York Yankees GM with three World Series rings and eight consecutive playoff appearances, took over the job at age ... 30! Theo Epstein, also 31, just stepped down as Boston GM after three consecutive playoff appearances and a World Series victory of his own.

But those are just details. Plaschke apparently never bothered to learn the well-documented basics of the philosophies discussed in "Moneyball," so he could write howlers such as this one on Oct. 4: "It's a vision that has yet to result in a playoff series victory in the three places where it is prominently pushed -- Oakland, Los Angeles and Toronto." Every baseball beat writer in the country (including the Times' own capable Bill Shaikin) could tell you that "Moneyball" tenets played a big role in the 2004 World Champion Red Sox, who employed the movement's godfather, Bill James.

In his first column after DePodesta's hiring, Plaschke made the absurdly inaccurate claim that "[Kirk] Gibson's unconventional numbers probably wouldn't have fit the A's system," when in fact Gibson's high on-base percentage would have fit in particularly well in Oakland's (or anybody else's) system.

Reading Plaschke, you'd be convinced that DePodesta's only baseball knowledge came from playing computer games in his underwear. "[J.D. Drew] was the double sixes in Paul DePodesta's giant game of Strat-O-Matic, the scroll wheel on his baseball iPod," Plaschke mused on June 24 (yes, he actually writes like this). "He was the ideal player for those who study the sport at a keyboard and play it in a basement."

Actually, DePodesta played baseball in college. Plaschke? He wrote for his campus newspaper.

The worst part isn't that the columnists' complaints about DePodesta are wrong, it's that they're often right. (Or at least, that I agree with them.) The young GM was painfully lacking in people-management skills and made a bunch of questionable moves. But if Southern Californians want an intelligent discussion of these issues, one where the truth matters more than either clumsy insults about "spreadsheets" or smooching Tommy Lasorda's behind, they know where to go: the Web. Maybe that's why Plaschke hates the Internet so much: People there are doing his job, only better.

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