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March 1, 2011

Span and Sain and Pray for Rain

It Happens Every Spring

by Emma Span

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So, did you hear that Joba Chamberlain gained a few pounds? Or that Luis Castillo did not report to camp early? Or what Mark Buehrle said about Michael Vick? Or that Brandon Phillips is tweeting now? How about what A-Rod said about his Super Bowl popcorn-feeding photo op?

(screenshot from Twitter feed)

(Image courtesy @rebeccapbp)

I’m guessing you did.

Spring training, particularly the first few weeks, has always been light on real news just when fans are starting to crave it most—which is why this time of year we get a lot of  fluffy character detail, weight analysis, and stories about how every player rehabbing anything is feeling great and can’t wait to get back out there. But this is the first year I can recall being so completely inundated with it, and it’s making me think that something’s got to give, either in the way sports news is reported or the way it’s consumed.

Sportswriters aren’t doing anything wrong in mentioning these things, and as I remember from my own experience covering spring training, there aren’t too many alternatives. The only real breaking news that comes out of major-league camps at this time of year is injuries, rotation order, and DUIs; it’s nice to focus on the color while everyone’s tuning up for the season.

The problem is that it's just about impossible to get “a little” of any kind of sports coverage now. We don’t just read about something in passing, we read about it seven times in quick succession, then we read everybody else commenting on it, and then other people commenting on all the comments—until we’re sick of hearing about it 15 minutes after it was first reported. Things get a little better once the actual games start, but only a little, as any “controversy” that erupts on the field will still be immediately poked, prodded, and reheated until it enters its twitching death throes.

I realize this is a bigger issue in New York, Boston, and other big media markets than it is in, say, Milwaukee. And that it’s a bigger issue for people like me who feel compelled, professionally, to keep up with every nugget of news. Still, anyone who spends a decent amount of time online following baseball deals with it to some extent. I was interested enough to read that C.C. Sabathia had dropped weight by giving up Cap’n Crunch—I was less interested to read about it a fourth or fifth time, and then to read about how everyone was writing about it. And now here I am… writing about reading about everyone writing about it.

I don’t think this can be healthy.

It seems to me this situation came about partly because of changing technology (specifically, blogs and the mixed blessing and curse that is Twitter), but it’s also the nature of spring training and the way reporters are set up to interact with clubs. I covered spring training only once, in 2007. I know that everyone hates it when sportswriters complain and I do understand, but the fact is, I found it to be something of a mixed bag. The couple of hours I got to watch baseball were lovely, but that was a fairly small percentage of the gig, and much of the rest was awkward and frustrating. There is nothing awful about driving all night across Florida just to get blown off by Curt Schilling—and I’ll certainly take it over selling mittens shaped like bear paws at New York’s outdoor holiday markets, which I have also done—but there’s nothing joyous about it either.

One reliably fun part of spring training, at least early on, is getting a look at the prospects and new players you haven’t seen before. But if you’re not a trained scout, there’s only so much you can tell from looking at someone in a spring training game or drill. For instance, I distinctly remember wondering whether it would perhaps be going overboard to compare Mike Carp to a young Jason Giambi. (In case you're not familiar with Carp: Yes. It would.) The games themselves are so meaningless that players and even managers often asked nearby reporters who the opposing pitcher or team would be that afternoon.

I spent a week with the Mets and a week with Yankees, most of which was spent standing around the locker room, listening to other reporters gossip and waiting for Paul Lo Duca or Alex Rodriguez to stop by their lockers so that I could try to ask them something they hadn’t been asked 600 times before. I did have a few interesting interviews, but the ratio of good quotes to awkward standing around was something like 1:87. I was the only woman in the Port St. Lucie locker room that week, and that may have made it slightly extra-awkward, but really, I think regardless of your gender or sexual preference it is always going to be a little strange to stand around at work for hours surrounded by half-naked dudes who, though usually polite about it, mostly wish you would leave them alone. My clubhouse highlight was probably watching Juan Padilla do card tricks for Ramon Castro and Chan Ho Park.

Part of that is my fault, for not going out and finding more compelling stories; but part of it is just the way sports writing is structured, with the teams guiding what’s accepted from the writers. When you cover a team, you’re expected to be in certain places at certain times and to ask certain kinds of questions; investigative reporting on any subject more touchy than trades, injuries, or a disagreement between a player and a manager is usually left to reporters in other fields. It’s not as if fans want a hard-hitting expose about their team every day, nor should they, but I was always slightly uncomfortable with the way my press pass felt as if it came with a tacit agreement not to offend or embarrass anyone too badly. No one ever said as much to me in so many words; it's just The Way Things Are Done. Since I had no desire to embarrass anyone, anyway, and was not privy to too many wild secrets, it didn’t affect my writing much, but I never liked the feeling that it could.

The week I was at Mets camp, the big story was that Duaner Sanchez had overslept. Press conferences were held. Everyone wrote about it, and many of us blogged about it. Personally I oversleep on a nearly daily basis, but this was the Luis-Castillo-arriving-to-camp-on-time of its day. I remain grateful that this was before Twitter and so, mercifully, I did not have to live-Tweet the entire saga. Willie Randolph deliberately made it a big newsworthy event by sending Sanchez home for two days (I presume this was an attempt to assert his authority over the team; obviously that went well). But it was also the natural result of 20 guys waiting around for something to write about. Most beat writers do good work, within the strictures of the job. The issue is that now we’re watching all of them do that job, all at once, and often it’s just too much coverage for the frayed scraps of real news that emerge.

I love technology. I love the internet, I love blogs, and I love Twitter, and neither my career nor my social life would be the same without them. So this is by no means an anti-technology screed or a yearning for a simpler, ink-stained era. I also believe that given the option, more information from more varied sources is a positive thing. But we’re at the point where the technology has evolved faster than our methods for using it. For a while, when fans and then beat writers started blogging, we were getting more and better information about teams. But now instead of continuing to get more information, we’re getting the same information over and over again. It was only thirteen years ago, but I think about how much fun I had watching the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race in 1998—and, if it happened now, how utterly sick of it all I’d probably be by August.

I realize the obvious solution here is to read fewer blogs and newspapers and follow fewer people on Twitter—to generally take in less information, or at least more focused information. I imagine that over time, we’ll find better ways to consume all of this, so that once again we can chuckle over CC Sabathia’s breakfast cereal choices and then move on, instead of having it become a meme within 10 minutes and passé within 20. If I weren’t writing about baseball, maybe I would have done this already—just pick a beat writer or blogger from each team, and let the rest go unread.

And, of course, this is an area in which analysis-driven sites like BP have an advantage. There are fewer people writing about a given subject, and much less repetition. And if that is your main area of interest, you will probably have an easier time of it—another argument for rational analysis over the “human interest” side of things (a side that frequently ends up being fairly inaccurate anyway). For me, though, they’ve always complemented each other: the latter is pretty meaningless without the former, but the former doesn’t hold my interest without the latter. And so I want to read everything, even if it makes me crazy, which at this point seems likely. Especially if Hank Steinbrenner keeps talking to the media.

Emma Span has written for the Village Voice, the New York Press, Slate, and The Daily, writes regularly for Bronx Banter, and is the author of 90% of the Game Is Half Mental: And Other Tales From the Edge of Baseball Fandom, published by Villard in 2010. She lives in Brooklyn.

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

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