Ever see an entire industry have an existential crisis? It was the baseball media around and during the MLB Winter Meetings.
It is important to note that the baseball media faces the same obstacles and challenges as the rest of the media everywhere. We all work for Google, from the most established journalist with Pulitzers coming out of their ears to a barely functional alcoholic like me. While being “first” has always been important, it is now extremely important, which means that much must be sacrificed in the efforts to be so. Even if you’re just a reader, you’re familiar enough with keywords and SEO and all the other things that journalists over a certain age didn’t originally sign up for. It’s the way the world is now, and in every industry everyone has to adapt to it with the tides, but that hardly means it’s seamless.
All of this was put into a particularly boiling cauldron with the biggest free agent in baseball history, who ended up signing the biggest contract in baseball history, as we all followed “As Shohei Turns.” Or didn’t turn, given the secrecy around the courtship of Shohei Ohtani. People wanted The Bachelor, they got The Hunt For Red October. But just tweeting or writing, “No one’s saying anything,” isn’t going to satisfy the bosses, so there were bound to be a few who went for the downs and ended up looking like morons.
MLB beat writers have gone off the rails
It started with Buster Olney’s breakdown that Ohtani didn’t do his job for him, which he ended up doing without Olney anyway, because he can and has easily announced his own signing. Then there was a Friday spent following a Big Ol’ Jet Airliner that took every baseball fan too far by either buying into Ohtani flying to Toronto to do… well, no one was sure, because players don’t fly in to sign contracts and they can get medicals done anywhere, or fans have loudly declared that it’s all a big no-no. Which it ended up being. Sure is something when Jon Morosi has to sit out a full-scale apology.
It ended today with Bob Nightengale in USA Today to take responsibility for his own part in all this, while he has put the whole industry on the brink of being tools of agents everywhere. The growing influence of agents has certainly bent many parts of all sports, and especially in this one where they are allowed to tell reporters anything but teams. And now that every team has become so guarded in what they give to the press and the public — with entire departments whose sole purpose is to control what message gets into the bloodstream — it’s easy to see how reporters have become addicted to the ether too huff- soaked cloth that agents constantly supply them with.
At least Adam Schefter is clear about what he is. Baseball media wasn’t quite ready to do either, though Nightengale is certainly sounding the call.
In fact, baseball media has been at war with itself for some time now, starting with the analytics revolution where a whole generation of thinkers from different places lured fans to a new way of watching and analyzing the game, while those raised loaded with GMs in hotel lobbies clung to the old ways that were proven wrong. It’s not much of a surprise that front offices, increasingly staffed by people hailing from the Prospectus and Fangraphs world, have something of a frosty relationship with a media that used to treat them as intruders and frauds because they challenged how the game was covered. and discuss.
Now, baseball media must deal with the fact that players can, and often do, go around them to communicate with the fans. Every player has an Insta or Twitter or Tik Tok. Shaq said many years ago, “We’re all media now.” Ohtani told the world he signed with the Dodgers himself yesterday. That’s kind of how it goes now.
MLB media has been off its game for a while
But all this just doesn’t happen on the media. We only have to go back to last winter when everyone was breathlessly declaring Carlos Correa a giant and a met before they failed their physical, and “Arson Judge” a giant too. Everyone looked terrible. The Mets and Giants looked like they were trying to get out of something while still getting the credit by at least looking like they wanted to spend big. Correa looked like he was using a trash can as a leg. Reporters looked like frauds. But they couldn’t wait for medical issue, could they? The SEO overlords wouldn’t have it (and note the Dodgers haven’t said anything yet).
Media members have certainly become pawns. Agents use them to drive up the price of their free agents and increasingly trade opportunities as it becomes the channel for those more and more. You can see how it went wild in European football in the summer, where agents run the show even more than here.
Where does the traditional baseball media fit in now? Players are so heavily coached and scrutinized by PR staff now that post-match quotes are rarely worth the time. Analytics is now handled by so many different outlets with multiple methods to cater to any type of fan. The “insider” role, as we have seen, is basically just a tool of agents. Local reporters are strapped for access they can’t live without, but don’t dare challenge anything that might upset the team. And even when they do the job the way it’s done, like with Orlando Arcia mocking Bryce Harper after Game 2 in the NLDS — which gave that series a whole new spice that fans loved and is one of the specialties of reporters – Atlanta’s players and organization couldn’t stop wetting themselves over it, and you can get everyone’s access next season is going to be different and guarded.
It’s a different world. No one knows where they fit in now, and apparently the only thing left to do about it is until we all figure out what’s next.
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