Modern Baseball Writing

May 23, 2017
                                                        Modern Baseball Writing

 

Rob Neyer

 

 

When you hear someone talking about a Golden Age of something, usually they’re full of shit. Not always. But usually.

 

I say usually because usually it’s called the Golden Age for one of two reasons: merely because the something is old; or because that’s when whoever’s calling it a Golden Age were kids, or fell in some love with the something. The Golden Age of comic books falls under the former heading; the Golden Age of baseball, the latter.

 

The problem with dubbing something the Golden Age is that most things, or least most of the things we care much about, just keep on getting better. Movies. Television. Comic books. Dental anesthesia. So we can say we’re in the Golden Age ... but then tomorrow (if we’re honest) we gotta say, "Oops, I mean this is the Golden Age."

 

Baseball writing’s like that, I think. Baseball writing’s changed a ton in the last decade or two, which is actually what I’m here to write about. But I also should say this, straightaway: While I have many complaints about the current state of baseball writing – because, you know, I’ve got complaints about everything, except for the wife and the kid – whatever’s missing today in quality is more than compensated by quantity and (especially) variety.

 

But hey, don’t trust me! Here’s John Perrotto – who first covered the Pirates (for the Beaver County Times) nearly 30 years ago – on the state of baseball writing: "I think it’s tremendous, better than ever. I think it’s better for the fans, better for the game."

 

Baseball writing is tremendously healthy, and (in related news) I will happily argue that there’s never been a better time to be a reader of baseball writing.

 

Still, while only the foolish long for "the good old days," it’s also foolish to believe that nothing has been lost; that everything is better than it used to be. I think we’ve gained more than we’ve lost. Probably a lot more. But that doesn’t mean nothing good has been lost.

 

Many of the old rhythms simply don’t exist any more ... and those old rhythms might have resulted in better journalism. For example, as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, in most cities there were morning and evening newspapers. As Perrotto told me, "When I started, we were an afternoon paper; I would hold my breath that the morning paper didn’t have it. Then when I was at morning paper, I’d have to hold my breath that the afternoon paper didn’t have it!"

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Most cities now have just one newspaper (and some of those newspapers don’t even publish every day). And with the loss of all those newspapers – and yes, some morning newspapers are gone, too – there’s of course been a loss of many, many good-paying jobs; according to the Pew Research Center, newsroom jobs fell by 42 percent from 2000 to 2014. And there have been real job losses even at the papers that haven’t gone under. When current A’s beat writer Susan Slusser started at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996, that paper had more than 20 full-time sportswriters on the staff; last year, she told me, that number was down to just 13.

 

There are fewer young writers with good salaries and benefits, and fewer editors to teach them. Meanwhile, that morning-afternoon dynamic has been replaced by ... well, there really isn’t much of a rhythm at all. Thanks, Twitter! "When I started in daily newspapers more than 20 years ago," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold told me last winter, "a newspaper would have three deadlines, maybe four. You used to script your day by the deadlines. Now the metabolism is very different; now your whole day is geared around perpetual deadlines. You know, news could break at 3pm and you don’t say, ‘Okay, that’s cool. I’ll write it when I wake up in the morning.’ "

 

And while deadlines might sound onerous, deadlines and their attendant rhythms gave writers time to breathe, to write, to think.

 

"I think something’s been lost," Goold says, "when you prioritize speed over accuracy, speed over context. That’s not to say that accuracy and context don’t exist. I’m just saying that they don’t always coexist with speed."

 

Speaking of time, most (if not quite all) writers now spend at least some time interacting with their readers. "That started with e-mail," Perrotto told me, "which made everyone more accessible. But even more now with Twitter."

 

"I do welcome the interaction," Goold says of Twitter, "and I do think it’s brought increased accountability. But I don’t work for Twitter. Twitter does not pay my bills. Twitter does amplify my newspaper and its product."

 

Twitter also takes energy, both temporal and mental. I was in an ESPN meeting once, with all those big-name baseball writers you know and love, and there was some serious angst as they described the pain of getting a scoop, only to sit on it for an extra few minutes and see a competitor break the news on Twitter.

 

Why all this matters, I don’t exactly know. But I can tell you that sports reporters still attach a great deal of importance to "having the story first," even if it’s really just a "fact" rather than an actual story. Maybe that’s how they figure on justifying their salaries. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. But I know that when Ken Rosenthal or Tim Kurkjian or Jon Heyman is the first to report that some .230-hitting slugger just signed a four-year deal for $63 million, within about six minutes hardly anyone else remembers who had it first. Let alone cares.

 

Twitter might actually be the single least interesting thing that baseball writers do, if only because most of them don’t seem compelled to actually be interesting on Twitter. Unless you’re interested in links to their stories (fair), and routine play-by-play (please, no). Granted, Dodgers beat writer Andy McCullough can’t help being witty, whatever he’s doing. But he’s part of a tiny minority.

 

Which isn’t to say beat writers -- who by the way, now represent a small percentage of "baseball writers," at least if you include ill- and unpaid bloggers -- aren’t doing interesting work. Because many of them are. "I think it’s just different, Goold says. "I feel that, increasingly, writers are looking where their strengths are. Beat writers are doing different things." Goold, for example, co-hosts a weekly podcast about the Cardinals, which I am sure would be essential if I were a Cardinals fan. There are some tremendous young (or youngish) beat writers out there, skilled reporters who also write with verve, like Andy McCullough, Pedro Moura (Angels), Nick Piecoro (Diamondbacks) and Alex Speier (Red Sox). Just scratching the surface there, by the way. Those are some guys I’ve actually met, and admire.

 

Is baseball writing "better" than it used to be? On average? I don’t know. I don’t think baseball writing’s analogous to (say) television drama, which seems almost infinitely better than it was when I was growing up.

 

What I’m fairly certain about? Today there’s more baseball writing than ever before. Yes, even with the loss of all those newspapers. There are 30 major-league teams with their attendant newspapers and fan-centric blogs and MLB.com writers, plus the various sabermetrics-oriented sites, plus the various scouting/prospect-oriented sites, plus the generalist sites like ESPN.com and their competitors … which means there are some hundreds of folks writing about baseball, with many (though not most) of them getting paid real money to do it.

 

It’s not all good. There are team-centric, unpaid bloggers and writers for mainstream, or wanna-be mainstream sites, some of them even making decent money, who do little more than regurgitate passages from other sites’ stories, maybe adding a few sentences of "analysis" that add nothing of value. All that "content" does is crowd good writing and original analysis out of the sports space.

 

But there are also low- or little-paid bloggers, especially those writing about their favorite teams, doing tremendously interesting, entertaining work. Work that just 10 or 20 years ago simply would not have existed. The fact that there’s so much more baseball writing means more lousy writing, deficient in both style and intelligence, but also more excellent writing that enriches our lives and, at the same time, demonstrates to editors and team executives that talented people come from all sorts of places.

 

Which is why there’s never been a better time to be a reader of baseball writing, but also why there’s never been a better time to be an aspiring writer of baseball writing. As Goold says, if someone writes to write about baseball, "they don’t have to find a magazine or a newspaper. Now there’s an infinite number of ways to make your way into baseball writing. And if you’re good, you can build an audience."

 

That’s true, I think! It’s also tough darts for an old guy like me. As Perrotto says, "So many of the younger writers are willing to work for free, and young readers are more likely to enjoy those younger writers." I suppose that’s true, too; I mean, the first part is definitely true, as younger writers tend to have lower expenses, fewer children, etc. And yes, younger readers are more likely to share sensibilities with younger writers. On the other hand, don’t they keep telling us that younger fans don’t read nearly as much? Who is reading baseball content in 2017, anyway? I don’t believe anyone’s ever answered that question in a systematic way.

 

If I were (still) running a baseball site, I would love to know the answers to those questions. Then again, maybe the point shouldn’t be giving the readers what they want; maybe the point should be giving the readers what they don’t know they want, but will come to love when you give it to them. And while there’s hardly an organized effort to do that, the effect of today’s scattershot baseball journalism is essentially the same: If there’s something you want, or will come to want, it’s almost certainly out there. Gloriously so.

 

 
 

COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

OldBackstop
I think when you are talking about TV shows, the "writing" is subsumed by the acting...on the upside and the downside. It is difficult for me to assess a shows writing sometimes if the execution overwhelms or underwhelms it. Some great shows that I thought had great promise never got beyond a year or two....I can't think of an example, it's late...but I suspect you can.
1:26 AM May 28th
 
jonkroll
That's exactly what I meant, Steven. And I am a proud provider of that vapid shit! (which financially allows me to also do some of the quirky quality material).
5:53 PM May 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
What I think you're saying, jonkroll, is what Rob is saying in his conclusion: "the point shouldn’t be giving the readers what they want; maybe the point should be giving the readers what they don’t know they want, but will come to love when you give it to them."

If you have a bunch of providers competing for smaller, niche markets, you can offer quirky, quality material that may catch on with a wider audience, but if you've only got a few providers, they must compete for the lowest common denominator market, which results in lowbrow vapid shit on all (3 or 4) platforms.
9:26 AM May 24th
 
jonkroll
Great piece. On TV writing - it's CLEARLY better than it ever has been because it's useless to only evaluate it based only the shows of the "big three" (or four). And a lot of the shows on cable and streaming services are just stellar. The two biggest positive influences on today's "golden age" of TV are a) the increase in buyers which allows for diverse content and more competition and b) the advent of reality TV, which attacked the predictability of TV writing that dominated content in the '90's (which consisted mostly of procedural dramas and multi-camera comedies). Sure, there's still plenty of crappy content. But with the wealth of choices, it's easier than ever to ignore.
8:54 AM May 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
We're really getting off the topic of Rob's fine essay here, for which I apologize, but Bill's quip below reminded me of the reason the boat in Gilligan's Island was called the S.S. Minnow: it was the producer's idea of a response to FCC Chairman Newton Minow calling TV a vast wasteland. (See the final line of Minow's wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television_and_the_Public_Interest) Basically, Minow had asked if TV was required to be such crap, and his obvious answer was, No, it wasn't, it could be a terrific resource for educating and entertaining the public in an elevating and socially productive way, if we wanted it to be. Plainly, we didn't. We voted with our dollars to support the Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island and every vapid piece of ludicrous, mindless dreck they could come up with. And we've spent the lat few decades decrying the mindlessness of the average American citizen, to which I say: Duh! Ya get what ya pay for.
7:45 AM May 24th
 
matt_okeefe
I agree, The Good Wife was great. As for what's on now, The New Girl is an excellent comedy, as is The Good Place (from Michael Schur of Parks & Rec aka Ken Tremendous).
11:18 PM May 23rd
 
mskarpelos
Rob, where are you writing now? I mean besides an occasional submission to Bill James Online. Are you just writing books now?

I used to read you regularly when you were at SBNation. I also very-much enjoyed your JABO podcast with CJ Nitkowski when you were at Fox sports.

Your SBNation column concerning the Ozzie Guillen suspension over his comments about Castro was my favorite piece of non-fiction writing from the past 10 years. It's simple, declarative opening sentence captured perfectly my view of the Cuban-Americans lobbying for Guillen's ouster. Who indeed "speaks for the victims of Fulgencio Batista?" I'd really like to see more columns like that. If SBNation no longer wants that kind of writing, I sure hope you can find some other venue for it.

I pay $3 per month to subscribe to Bill James Online. I figure I'd pay at least $2.50 for a subscription to Rob Neyer Online. Think about it my friend. You have enough fame within the Sabermetrics community that I think you could monetize your writing on your own.


6:18 PM May 23rd
 
wovenstrap
Fringe is Fox, the other two are from "the three old networks."
5:36 PM May 23rd
 
wovenstrap
The Good Wife ended last year -- that is the only network show I would be confident saying had good writing. Fringe, a few years back, had some strong sci-fi stuff going on. Maybe Hannibal. That's it. I'm out.
5:35 PM May 23rd
 
Gfletch
Oh, okay...well, then I certainly like House of Cards, Grace and Frankie...certainly we have shows produced for netflix that are of a quality that used to be reserved for the best movies.
5:02 PM May 23rd
 
bjames
Is there actually ANY good writing on the three old networks? I'm not aware of any. Pretty sure that's not what Rob and others are referring to.
4:56 PM May 23rd
 
Gfletch
I will never get serious about my netflix consumption.
4:43 PM May 23rd
 
bjames
Fletch. . .you need to get serious about your Netflix consumption, Dude.
3:34 PM May 23rd
 
bjames
Say what you will, you will never convince me that Gilligan's Island isn't great TV writing.
3:33 PM May 23rd
 
Gfletch
TV writing? A mixed bag, then and now. Certainly the production values are higher, but the writing...quite a lot of what I see today just ain't that good. Does it make a drama superior because they play 'meaningful' songs in the background while the characters stand around looking grim (oh, I get it, this guy must be thinking profound thoughts)? Is the sitcom 'Mom' really better than Mary Tyler Moore or Barney Miller? (It ain't.)

Sure, there was lots of complete crap on television when I was growing up. (Lost in Space, or any of the Irwin Allen cheapouts). But for the most part I think the acting was [i]better[i], the writing was about as good, but in addition to the higher production values, todays show do have much more frequent commercials.


3:31 PM May 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
And TV writing was abysmal when we were growing up--not witty, not wise, often not even original. So that's a very low floor to rise above. Sportswriting, OTOH, was often better than it seemed--literate, intelligent, insightful at its best.
12:42 PM May 23rd
 
doncoffin
Carly Simon, "Anticipation:"
"And stay right here 'cause these are the good old days"
9:05 AM May 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
Hurts my feelings when a whippersnapper like you calls himself "an old guy." Other than that, great piece.​
7:34 AM May 23rd
 
pgaskill
Rob, you are truly one of the greats. Thanks for this article too, but I'm referring to all the stuff you've written in the past.
7:23 AM May 23rd
 
 
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