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Baseball is caught in Web

October 04, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN | ON BASEBALL

You heard all about it, in this newspaper and others, on talk radio and television and all over the Internet.

The Angels had celebrated their division championship by pouring beer and champagne over the jersey of Nick Adenhart, the rookie killed in April by an alleged drunk driver, and everyone had an opinion.

Tim Mead, the Angels' vice president of communications, was stunned by the wave of reaction. Surely, he thought, someone would ask him for the answer he considered essential to forming an opinion: Had the Adenhart family objected to the celebration?

The family had not, he said, but no one asked.

This is not to say any opinion was any less valid, or any less heartfelt. But the episode illustrated the democratization of baseball coverage, with the decline of newspapers and the rise of the Internet leaving teams adjusting to an era in which information and opinion is a click away while fewer reporters show up at the ballpark every day.

We're not pining for the almost laughable nostalgia of the old days. When Tony La Russa managed the Oakland Athletics in the late 1980s, he forbid team officials from revealing platoon splits -- a player's batting average against left-handers and against right-handers -- so an opposing manager could not read that information in the newspaper.

Those statistics are freely available today, on the website run by Major League Baseball.

It's the best website among sports leagues, by far, and a cash cow for owners. It's one-stop shopping for fans, pun intended: find out how the Dodgers did, see what Joe Torre had to say, then click to buy a Matt Kemp jersey or tickets to see Manny Ramirez play.

The emergence of mlb.com coincided with the fall of the newspaper empire. In 1990, eight newspapers assigned reporters to cover the Dodgers, every day, home and away. Today, The Times is the only one.

"You hope story lines aren't missed," Mead said. "That's my concern."

The latest news on lineup changes and injury updates can be yours -- via Twitter, blog or website -- as soon as Torre or Mike Scioscia concludes his pregame media briefing. When the Dodgers and Angels start the playoffs this week, you can watch the postgame news conferences, live.

The bigger stories -- unrest in the clubhouse, looming personnel changes, increases in ticket prices, Adenhart's father and teammates opening up about their late son and friend -- generally emerge after players, managers and executives develop trust in reporters over time, a sense that potentially delicate information will be put in the proper context.

"The story lines will always require the attention of individuals who are able to cover the club on a daily basis and establish relationships with everybody involved to get a clear understanding of what's going on," Mead said. "You never want to lose that."

The Orange County Register used to have a reporter assigned to the Dodgers every day.

To save money, the Register and the Los Angeles Daily News agreed to share baseball beats, with the Register covering the Angels and the Daily News covering the Dodgers.

Then the Daily News decided it could no longer afford a reporter assigned to the Dodgers every day. The Register, scrambling for Dodgers coverage, occasionally relies on information provided by the Dodgers website.

"In the old days, if the Dodgers had something they wanted everybody to know about, they would issue a press release or tell the reporters there," said John Fabris, the Register's deputy editor for sports. "Now they write it up and put it on their website."

For all the good work that mlb.com does, the website cannot shake that perception, that Bud Selig and his teams call the shots.

When Lyle Spencer, who covers the Angels for mlb.com, broke the story of the Scott Kazmir trade, the Tampa Bay Rays saw the story and incorrectly assumed the Angels had tipped Spencer. The Rays were enraged because they had not yet told Kazmir, and all of a sudden mlb.com reported the trade had "fallen through," when it had not.

Why should you care?

Maybe Fabris is onto something. The new media world is one of Web hits, driven more by opinion and breaking news than by game recaps and injury updates.

The national websites leave game coverage to the ubiquitous Associated Press, relying on as few as two reporters apiece to generate hits with trade rumors, insider gossip and anything related to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps newspapers can save a few more bucks by outsourcing daily coverage to mlb.com, which produces 100 stories every day, and shifting resources to independent commentary and analysis.

"We're open for business," said Dinn Mann, executive vice president of mlb.com. "We do recognize the need exists in some cases."

(Mann said he has no agreement with the Register. Fabris said he would make sure mlb.com content is properly attributed.)

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