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May 25, 2004

6-4-3

Leaving the Shore

by Gary Huckabay

I found out about Doug Pappas' tragic passing on Friday. There were phone messages on both my cell phone and home phone from a number of people, all with a more serious tone to their voices than you'd really like to hear. None of the people actually left the momentous news, but rather some version of "Give me a call the second you get this message." Moments later, I checked my e-mail, and a barrage of messages with the header "Sad News" scrolled up my screen.

Doug Pappas had passed away. My friend, a colleague for whom I have immense respect, and all-around good guy, had departed from us too soon. My initial response was the same during those horrid times when another friend had died; it sounds strange, but my first impulse is to give him a call and find out what was really going on. It can't be right, you know? This has got to be some sort of misunderstanding, right? Doug's only 43, in good health, and a standup guy. Must be someone else. There's definitely a big ball of confusion out there, and this is completely out of left field. I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach and stolen the air from the room, but I knew it was a mistake. Had to be.

It wasn't. And we are all diminished because of it. Doug's particular chosen role was a particularly difficult one--to call the powerful on the inaccuracy or dishonesty of their public statements. That's not easy. Over the years, Doug came out and publicly pointed out the inaccuracies, contradictions, and misleading nature of Major League Baseball's financial disclosures. He did his homework, explained his position, made sure that the MLB functionary's agenda was understood by the public, and stood by his work. It was an often thankless and misunderstood role, but the public interest was well served because Doug was willing to vigorously undertake it.

I humbly submit today a short list for all of us to follow when listening to any public statements about MLB's business from any team or OCB representative.

  1. Listen to what's said and what isn't said. Reports have a nasty habit of becoming simplified when repeated by mass media. Read statements and denials. What do they actually say? As often as not, they're carefully crafted statements with nuances that vanish when replayed on Headline News, and give the more crafty wordsmiths the illusion and effect of saying something without having the courage to actually say it.

  2. Get information from disinterested parties. It's no secret that people and organizations will happily disseminate information that advances their agenda. From time to time, such information will be selective and misleading. Who's more likely to give a complete and accurate assessment of a club's balance sheet--the PR director for the club, or Forbes magazine?

That's a pretty short list. There are a number of good things that come from it, and I believe it'd make Doug happy if we all did this, all the time, and shouted about it from the highest rooftops for all to hear. That's what Doug did, and often, the semblance of enlightenment in a mainstream media story about baseball's finances came from Doug himself. We have to pick him up here.

The mainstream media in the U.S. has largely abandoned those tenets of journalism for which journalists were once held in high esteem. Today, the press consists primarily of glorified stenographers with access, who seldom undertake the hard work of following up a story. When presented with verifiable stories that require the use of arithmetic, today's journalists are all too quick to fall back on secondary sources who specialize in creating some form of "amicus brief" for the court of public opinion, always eager to push their own ideology, no matter what the numbers might indicate. Today's correspondent or talking head might ask two pundits a question about where the sun will rise tomorrow. One will respond that "The Sun will rise in the East tomorrow." The other, who might work as a fellow for the non-partisan Center for Sunshine, Freedom, and Child Advocacy, will respond with "Tomorrow will be the one day the Sun will rise in the South." The journalist, rather than critically evaluate the respective merits of the two statements, will proudly broadcast a teaser for the story: "Will the Sun rise in the East tomorrow? Experts disagree!" The media's bias, no matter what it is, is nowhere near as loathsome as its newfound timidity.

Doug Pappas didn't work that way.

Doug went to the trouble of actually doing the arithmetic, and was often surprised and disappointed at how few people followed his lead. During one of his trips a couple of years ago, Doug joined me, Oakland A's TV Broadcast Executive Producer Mark Wolfson, and about 40 rabid baseball fans for pizza at Rocco's in Walnut Creek. We spent nearly three hours talking about the business of baseball; Doug talked about the public statements and face of baseball finances, Mark talked about the broadcasting side and some of the intrigue and nuances of the relationships MLB has with its various rightsholders, and I talked about decision-making processes and negotiations and how they related to front offices. Where Mark had his perspective and style, and I had mine, I learned a lot that night from Doug about restraint and perception. He was fond of saying "Draw your own conclusions" when it came to MLB's sometimes ridiculous public statements about its finances. And because of that, his ability to do the research and present the facts in a way that required no overt advocacy, he had the kind of credibility that made him unassailable on the point of motive. Not to say that various owners and the MLB front office didn't try.

But talk of all of this stuff doesn't begin to describe the loss we feel. Before he was a great writer and staunch defender of rationality, Doug was a friend that I'd gotten to know pretty well over the years. When he'd stay at the house, he'd argue law with my wife, and we'd disagree about movies. He stayed awake an extra half hour because he didn't want to displace our dog from the bed in the guest room. (We never claimed to be great hosts, and Odin does love the bed.) We'd talk on the phone about Prospectus stuff, and what were supposed to be three-minute calls talking about business turned into 30-minute calls talking about any number of things, including how lucky we both were to work with the people here at BP.

What he didn't know is that I was way luckier than he was, because I got to know and develop a friendship with Doug Pappas.

Goodbye, my friend.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

Related Content:  Freedom Of The Press,  The Who,  Doug Pappas,  Finances

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