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November 23, 2008
Baseball coverage has changed over the years, and with nearly three decades in the business, John Blake has experienced much of that evolution firsthand. Recently hired as the executive vice president of communications for the Texas Rangers, Blake is returning to Arlington after spending the last three seasons as the vice president of media relations for the Boston Red Sox. After graduating from Georgetown University and initially working in public relations and media information for the Baltimore Orioles from 1979-1984, Blake served as the media relations director, VP of public relations, and then senior VP of communications for the Rangers from 1984-2004.
David Laurila: Next season will be your 30th in a media relations capacity at the big-league level. What has changed over that time?
John Blake: Well, it's changed. I've always said that it has changed a lot, and in the last few years it has changed even that much more dramatically. When I first started, the whole coverage of baseball was really newspapers. It was your baseball beat writers. You had your a.m. papers, your p.m. papers; you had a lot more papers than you have today. That was basically the thrust of the coverage in the clubhouse, and for the players, managers, and coaches, it was a much more familiar situation. In a lot of ways, I think it was a lot more enjoyable in terms of relationships and the trust that players had with writers. Obviously, it then escalated into more TV coverage, cable, and radio talk shows; that whole area escalated, so you had a lot more media around. It became more focused on us getting guys for live shots and us getting guys for radio interviews. The whole dynamic kind of changed. And also, the players, and everything, were moving into a different economic scale, which is part of it as well.
And then the real thing, David, is the internet. To me, that has changed the whole thing, maybe even more dramatically than, say, from 1979 to 1999. That's just because the news cycle, which used to be 24 hours, became basically immediate. When a newspaper writer had a scoop, it wouldn't appear until the next day's paper. Now, the newspapers, on their websites, will run it pretty much instantaneously, and then everybody reacts to that scoop, rumor, or whatever you want to call it. That puts us a lot more on the offensive than it would have even five years ago, I think. That has changed the way that everything works. The players have to react quicker to news and rumors. There's so much out there, in so many different blogs, and we-at least I-certainly spend a lot more time reacting to that, as opposed to... I don't know if 'proactive' is the right word. In this market, you don't need to be as proactive as you do in some markets. But it's just changed the way that the whole thing works.
DL: How many people cover the Red Sox on a day-to-day basis?
JB: Well, the Red Sox are at the upper end of the scale. I would probably say 75 to 80 on a daily basis, in our clubhouse. Per game, just an average game, total media coverage would run, I would guess, around 125 to 150. And that would almost double for a Yankees series, sometimes. In the grand scheme of things, other than the two New York teams, there's really no other comparable situation in Major League Baseball. And it will be interesting to see how that changes. There are papers that have covered this team [Ed. note: the Red Sox]-we're covered right now by over 20 daily papers for home games. It's going to be very interesting to see, over the next couple of years, how that starts to fall off. Hartford is dropping out, and the Courant has covered us, home and away, [but] they're not going to cover us at all next year. The Lowell Sun is dropping out on their coverage; Nashua dropped out this year. So a lot of these papers, for economic reasons, are starting to fall by the wayside in terms of their coverage; they're just going with wire stories. And, again, on the TV side, economics have played a big role in the extent of the coverage here. Whereas, even a year ago, local TV stations, for the playoffs, may have sent six to eight people on the road with us for the division series and ALCS. This year it was two, and Fox didn't go at all; Fox 25 didn't do any coverage in either round, on the road. Still, I guess you could say that the Red Sox are blessed to have the kind of coverage that they do, because most teams don't have nearly the same level.
DL: You're moving on to Texas. What will the coverage be like down there?
JB: Having worked there for 20 years, it will be significantly less. There are two major papers, and you don't have nearly the suburban papers there that you do here. This is a very unique market. I grew up here, and when I came back, I was still surprised at the number of papers that cover this team on a daily basis. It's unprecedented in any other part of the country. New York doesn't even have it; there are about 10 papers that cover them at home. We [Boston] have double that. Texas is more the norm of most places, where you have 50 people covering the games as opposed to 150, depending on how well you're playing. And in Texas, it depends on whether it's football season or not-factors like that.
DL: What role does the internet currently play, both in terms of quality and quantity of coverage?
JB: That's a great question. The quantity is certainly very large, but the quality, I think, varies drastically. That's one of the things that kind of concerns me in my job. As I mentioned before, just the instantaneous way a rumor can spread. I won't throw anybody under the bus on this, but if something appears out there, and ESPN.com picks it up, then it goes through the whole ESPN cycle: ESPN News, ESPN First Take, the crawls, ESPN Radio, it goes through the whole thing. And if it's something that isn't true, or is only partly true, or if it's partially distorted, it is very difficult, once that gets out there, to rein it back. That's the thing. I respect a lot of the people who are writing on the internet now. There are the national baseball writers, and obviously a lot of guys who used to write for newspapers. Gordon Edes is a perfect example; he's at Yahoo.com now. There are a ton of guys out there that I respect, who are writing for the internet. But I also think that there is a lot of stuff out there that is speculative, and that kind of thing, and if it gets twisted in any way, it's really tough to put back in the can once it's got out there and made the rounds.
DL: How about in regards to access to the ballpark and the clubhouse?
JB: I think that I'm probably still pretty conservative on that. We don't credential bloggers. You have to work for a website of a reputable news or media organization-certainly, the ESPNs, CBS Sportsline, and all of those. [Boston radio station] WEEI has obviously made a big push into the internet market, having hired two baseball writers to cover the team. NESN is probably next to come along in this market, in terms of strengthening their baseball coverage. Certainly, those kinds of people I'm going to allow full access. Major League Baseball's rules are a little in the gray area on that. But my thing, going forward, is going to be that if you are providing us with day-to-day coverage that is reputable, and for a news-gathering organization, I'm going to credential you. Bloggers that don't have that pedigree, probably not.
DL: What, specifically, is mandated by Major League Baseball?
JB: The only place that MLB can dictate is postseason; they're in charge of credentials for postseason. And most clubs, I think, kind of use that as a guideline for how they issue credentials. That's the MLB guideline, that internet sites working for reputable news-gathering organizations are credentialed. With WEEI.com, in that particular case I went to Major League Baseball and told them that those guys need to get full access for postseason, because they cover us on a regular basis, just as NESN does.
DL: How about well-established websites that don't cover a specific team, but rather the game on a national level?
JB: Again, that's kind of a club-by-club decision. I think it depends on the situation; it depends on daily versus feature, or whatever you want to call it. Those are just calls I've had to make depending on the number of people in the clubhouse, and factors like that.
DL: Do you think that most people have a real understanding of what goes into your job?
JB: People in the media probably do. I'm not sure about people on the outside; they might think this is all glamour. The Red Sox are challenging. There is a daily challenge here, just because of the numbers and the passion and intensity of the situation. Tito [Terry Francona] talks about it all the time, like how every game here is like the seventh game of the World Series. Players notice it. And I think that the fan intensity often carries over into the intensity of the media coverage. There is an insatiable hunger here for coverage of the Red Sox. There is no other paper in the country that writes seven stories on a game like the [Boston] Herald does.
As part of that, it is incumbent on me, with what I do, to hopefully provide the access, and to also provide the opportunity for people to do their jobs. Saying that, I also have to walk a very fine line on what we deem as being too much for the players, and if it goes over that line. And that's a tough line to walk sometimes. My goal, at the end of the season, is to have a team that is as cooperative with the media as they were on the first day of spring training. I think that we've been fairly successful at doing that, for the most part; our team is pretty good. I try very hard to measure that over the course of the season, and to make sure that the players understand it. There are also times where I'll say, "You don't have to do this." I'll back off a little bit because of the intensity. That's the way I've always tried to do the job, to walk that fine line between what the media needs are and what the players need. It can be a tough line to walk sometimes.
DL: What impact did Manny Ramirez have on your job?
JB: It was a bunch of different impacts. He didn't speak to the media from spring training 2006 essentially until he hit the walk-off home run in Game Two of the ALDS in 2007. So really, in that period, everybody just kind of left him alone. During the postseason a year ago, and basically until June of this year, he was very much available. Then it all kind of went haywire; it became an issue, especially that last week, when he was talking. And if he was willing to talk, it was a situation where we had to let him talk. I'm never going to censor a player. I'm not sure that it was in his best interest to talk as much as he did, in the days leading up to when he was traded, but we kind of just measured it. He was very good, and very available, during his chase to 500 home runs, and that was kind of fun. But then, for whatever reasons, the whole thing kind of turned. And you just deal with it, you deal with it the best you can. There's damage control, and things come up, and you deal with all of that the best you can.
DL: Why did you leave Texas for Boston, and why are you going back?
JB: I was out of Major League Baseball when I came up here. I was working for Nolan Ryan, actually, for his minor league team in the Austin area. I had known Charles Steinberg, who was here in Boston, for a long time; he was our intern in Baltimore when I started there in 1979. I had grown up in this area, the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed like a good opportunity. As far as going back to Texas, I wasn't looking for a job. But it was a situation, for me, where this was pretty much a day-to-day baseball job, with full-time travel and everything else. I've worked with Nolan Ryan, and known him for a long time, and he came after me. And like I told people when I came up here, I probably would not have done a day-to-day baseball-media job anywhere else except Boston. And I'm saying the same thing [now] as I'm going back: I probably wouldn't have left this situation had it been any other team besides Texas. A lot of that is family reasons, and for the fact that I'm not going to have to do the day-to-day grind quite as much. I'm not going to have to travel as much. Hopefully, I'll be able to be more involved in policy, and that kind of thing. And it will be a challenge, because that's a team that's been down for seven or eight years, and they're not really a major player in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. Their attendance has been down, and I think I can help them run that back up.
DL: Buck Showalter, the Rangers' manager at the time, was reportedly responsible for you leaving Texas. Can you comment on that?
JB: I had been there a long time, and Buck and I did not see eye-to-eye, necessarily, on a lot of things. He had different ways that he wanted to do things from a baseball-media perspective. Buck is no longer there, but looking back, I certainly don't regret what happened, because it gave me a chance to do some other things. I had been there a long time in that role, and sometimes change is good.
DL: Within an organization, who dictates the way in which the team is covered? Is it primarily the manager, the front office, or the media relations department?
JB: It varies per team, it varies a lot. For the most part, in the time that I've been doing this, my kind of role has been primarily dictated by the team president or general manager. That was true during my whole time in Texas, and it's certainly been true in Boston. Here, I've reported to Larry Lucchino, and had a direct working relationship with Theo. But again, and I've said this over and over, it was probably a good time for me to get out of [Texas]. Now it seems like the right time to go back.