Monthly Archive for January, 2012

Where Nothing’s Ever Wrong: A Fan’s Inquiry Into the Role of the Baseball Rumor

"Whispering" Bill Barrett

There were two astronomically important free agents on the market this off-season, and a constellation of three more high-profile players to fill the offseason skies and guide the navigation of the fleets of baseball’s rumor mongers. Messages like naval mail scattered in the wind and filled the hours and minutes with updates, insights, and, well, rumors.

For Albert Pujols it was talk of massive Miami money, of cratering Cardinals commitment, and shortcomings in Chicago. Speculation gave way to conjecture, built on a foundation of endless assumption. Hundreds if not thousands of blogs weighed in. MLBTradeRumors posted update upon update tracking the subtle shifts in negotiation. Cubs? Cardinals? Marlins?

Then Pujols signed with the Angels, miles away from any team mentioned anywhere. My daily Internet baseball rounds revealed a tenor of surprise among the rumor elite, followed quickly by some analysis, and almost no talk of the light years of time spent getting everything wrong.

Enter Prince Fielder, about whom the star-watchers strung us along with talk of the Nationals, the Mariners, the Rangers, the Orioles. Not a mention of the team that actually signed the guy, the Tigers. The Internet was wrong again, left to mutter awkwardly to itself, recalling perhaps a stray sentence in a post two years ago that may have mentioned off-hand that the Tigers were a possible trade target for prospects, barring a strong play by etc. etc.

Of course I know that “wrong” isn’t just the right term to employ, because our “rumor” mongers use the term to couch their speculation. There is no “wrong” when there is no commitment to the lasting veracity of a statement. A source is not inaccurate to report a rumor, because a rumor somehow doesn’t exist after it’s uttered. As soon as a deal is announced, no matter how far afield from the rumor mill it may be, the rumor mongers post a quick summary of the years and dollars and move on to the next batch of hearsay.

To read back through a sequence of rumors after a Detroit or an Anaheim deal comes out of left field is to see the light of a star that died two weeks ago, to gaze at a subjectless shadow.

Given that, what role do the rumors serve? Is all of this conjecture entertaining?

I thought so, but when the hurried, harried announcement of the most recent signing by Detroit came over the wire, I felt annoyed and misled. I felt that I had wasted a good deal of time thinking about where Prince Fielder would end up, because none of it was right.

I assume, of course, that there is some kind of single truth out there worth pursuing, while the rumor mill relishes vague suggestion and endless redirection. These are, of course, the elements of suspense, of mystery, of surprise. The emotions pegged to false suggestion and redirection have compelled us for eons.

But what suspense contains that baseball rumors lack is a sense of logic, that the puzzle pieces presented early on will come together in a satisfactory–if unexpected–way. Fielder to the Tigers was not a culmination of stratified rumors and logical building points. It was a whitewash, a contract offer that immediately erased all that came before it. Jeannie Vanasco in the latest edition of The Believer teaches me that erasure can have content, the formula this offseason feels more like demolition quickly covered over with tract housing.

If we desire narrative, then the rumor mill has only promised it, then withdrawn at the moment an investment should pay off.

If there is so little correlation between the end result of a trade or free agent deal and the rumors that surrounded it, why are we paying any attention to the chatter at all? When did baseball fandom become an exercise in relentless logistical Lincoln logs?

By way of comparison: last season, I burned out on fantasy baseball. What should’ve been fun was like keeping an accounting ledger. Every day that I had to read up on starting pitchers and bench warmers felt like April 15th. I mention this not to bash fantasy baseball, which I’ve played for longer than I’ve done most anything else in my life, but to draw a parallel between the information burnout of fantasy baseball and the rumor burnout of this offseason.

Ie., somewhere along the line, in both pursuits, there grew, for me, a disconnect between raw streams of data and the game of baseball. Browsing the previous week’s stats to see what no-name fifth starter possessed a fractionally higher K to BB ratio to fill out a sagging roster was as distant from a diving grab over the middle late in a game as a speculative paragraph about Prince Fielder’s favorite breakfast spot in D.C. was from his first day in a Detroit Tigers uniform.

Why do still I read the rumor sites? I don’t derive any tangible pleasure from them that I can think of or articulate. I don’t relish some new piece of gossip or rumor. In fact I feel a little empty inside when a storyline developed over weeks suddenly goes cold and the conversation shifts elsewhere. Yet I return, and read the posts that I don’t care for that much, I relive the sensation I dislike. Yet I return.

Am I addicted? The anticipated rush rarely materializes. I repeat the same act expecting a new result. I search out a non-existent thrill.

I realize now that what I love is news. I am fascinated that Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, and that Pujols eschewed the Cardinals for the West Coast. I want to know where, when, and why. Too often, rumors pass for information, and a confident writerly tone projects credibility where instead creativity forms the core of the message.

The last thing I want to do is deride something that baseball fans enjoy. If speculation tickles your fancy, who am I to steal your thunder. All I can do is talk of my own experience as a fan, and me, I need a break. Leisure gave way to compulsion, without compulsion giving way to satisfaction.

Just in time, too, as the brightest stars are charted and Spring Training is will spring up from the horizon soon. The daytime glow of real baseball will dry the winter’s rumor-dampened sod.

Open Book Baseball: An Interview with Alyson Footer, the Houston Astros’ Sr. Director of Social Media

Footer: "We want to be as much of an open book as we can."

Baseball is known for clinging to old paradigms, and hugging out-moded–ahem, traditional–viewpoints on media, culture, technology, and copyright. Some figures in the baseball media even pride themselves on their vintage-inspired view of the game.

Alyson Footer is no such figure. The Houston Astros’ Senior Director of Social Media has embraced the creative power of new media with enviable depth and enthusiasm, transitioning from veteran MLB.com/Astros.com beat reporter to full-fledged social media specialist as smoothly as Craig Biggio shed his catcher’s gear and took up the middle infield.

Footer’s blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is equal parts access and analysis, with a panoply of in-depth posts that are as likely to spotlight a backup catcher’s favorite flavor of ice cream as analyze the task ahead of a new GM or owner. With an interdisciplinary sphere of influence that expands to Twitter and Facebook, she is the voice of the Astros in those spaces that we, our readers, and our baseball blogging friends happily frequent.

Footer was nice enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss her role in the baseball multiverse, and to talk about talking about baseball.

(Ed. note: any links added below were added by me.)

TED

Your title is Senior Director of Social Media of the Houston Astros, and the tagline on the header of your blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is “Your behind-the-scenes, all-access pass to all things Astros.” Could you describe your role with the Astros?

ALYSON

Several years ago, the Astros saw that major corporations were creating Social Media departments, designed solely for the purpose of marketing their brand to the younger generation. With the decline of newspapers and the emergence of Facebook and Twitter, the Astros realized they could better utilize their time and money by steering away from traditional advertising and shifting the focus to new media.

The role of Social Media Director spans in a lot of different directions. We have two main Twitter accounts: @astros and @alysonfooter. The Astros handle is more for marketing and promotional purposes, whereas my personal Twitter handle is interactive. I communicate directly with the fans and answer as many questions as possible. I also offer a behind the scenes look at the team through comments, photos (TwitPics) and videos (TwitVids).

Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process.

I also blog regularly. The blogs serve a few purposes: they offer insight and analysis to team decisions and transactions, they provide a behind-the-scenes view of the everyday goings-on of the team and they provide info regarding upcoming events and promotional initiatives. We cover off the field and on the field activities on the blog and include pictures and videos to accompany the blogs. Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process. We want them to feel as if they’re there with us even when they can’t be. We want to show our players and coaching staff in a very real way. We want to be as much of an open book as we can. The Astros are a part of the city of Houston, in good times and bad, and the players are important to our fans. The more we can show them as real people, the more fans feel connected. Social Media allows for fans to get closer to the players than ever before. We have a bunch of players with their own Twitter handles who communicate directly with the public. It’s great for both sides.

TED

How have the players responded to the change in media presence and the sense of increased access? Is there a generation gap between the veterans the younger players?

ALYSON

I would say there is a little bit of a generation gap between the veterans and the younger players, but I think it’s in a good way. The really young players coming up don’t remember a world without the Internet. They don’t remember when newspapers ruled the roost. They don’t know from the old days when media contingents were small and didn’t include web sites, bloggers and 300 cable and radio stations.

Today’s players are tech savvy and online savvy and they like to engage in Social Media. Last Spring Training, we had one player on Twitter. By the end of spring, we had about five. That total has nearly doubled and I expect that by the time the season is over, more than half the roster will be tweeting. I think it’s great. The players really enjoy it and it’s a great way to market themselves. They enjoy the back and forth with the fans and everyone benefits from that.

Last year, I met some of the Texans players and they said the entire team was on Twitter. I find that fascinating.

TED

You spent a lot of time as a reporter for MLB.com. What were the cultural or technological forces that led to your switch to Social Media, and how has your approach to baseball coverage and storytelling changed with the change in roles?

ALYSON

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

I covered the Astros for eight years for MLB.com and I loved it. When the Astros created a Social Media position in 2009 and approached me about it, it sounded intriguing. I loved reporting but at the same time, I was doing so much with blogging and Facebook and Twitter that it seemed like a natural transition. As much as I liked the Social Media side of things, my reporting duties took up all of my time and that left very little time for anything else. The idea of doing Social Media full-time was intriguing. And I was able to continue blogging, which was important, because I didn’t want to give up writing. I was ready to move into a different genre. It was a nice transition and I’m glad I made the move.

I try to stay away from straight news reporting, because that is now the job of Brian McTaggart, who replaced me at MLB.com. Because my blog lives on the Astros web site, I didn’t want to be covering the same news stories as Brian. That would be counterproductive. So what I try to do is find off-the-field, more human interest stories to write, and I’ll also reference Astros.com stories a lot and provide some insight or analysis. There are times when Brian and I do overlap, but I think over the course of three years it’s been pretty minimal.

TED

The Astros are in a time of major transition right now. What challenges does this present for you, and how have you had to adjust your approach from covering a regular winner to a rebuilding young team with new ownership?

ALYSON

It’s challenging only because when your team isn’t doing well, a lot of the fan base is unhappy. It’s a lot easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work. So I try my best to explain things in as much detail as I can in terms of the direction the team is headed and what the plan is over the next several years. Fortunately, the new ownership group and front office has a very clear vision as to how to become a contender again, and they have a plan that they will not only implement immediately, but they’ll stick to it as well. That’s hugely important.

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

Other than that, the challenges are minimal from a big-picture perspective. Teams ebb and flow. I’ve been here 15 years and over the course of that time, the Astros have done a little of everything. They won 102 games in ’98 and two years later ended up losing 90. They’ve won a pennant. They’ve lost 106 games. They’ve taken division and Wild Card races down to the wire. They’ve been eliminated before Sept. 1. It’s been all over the map. I approach my job the same every day and hope for the best for the team.

TED

You are a fantastic storyteller. Was there something about baseball that compelled you to contribute your talents to the game? What have you learned about storytelling as a baseball reporter and social media director?

ALYSON

Well, thanks very much for the nice comment! I do love the storytelling part of this job. Even when I was at MLB.com I’d try to find the weird and wacky every once in a while and report on that. I remember one time, half the team spent an offday playing ping-pong at Orlando Palmeiro’s house. They had a fierce tournament and had plenty to say about it the next day in the clubhouse. I was writing it all down and a colleague said, “You’re writing about this?” I live for that kind of stuff – the off-the-wall, random events that inevitably happen over the course of a six-month season (seven and a half months, if you include Spring Training).

I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried?

I’ve always loved baseball, but more than that, I’ve always loved the personalities and characters of the game. I don’t spend much time poring over stats – I find a lot of it boring, to be honest – but there’s so much that goes on around a team, and so many great, smart, funny, polarizing players that have come through Houston and so many fantastic stories that the fans have never heard. I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried? My general rule of thumb is, if I find something funny or interesting, it’s likely that others might as well. It sounds pretty primitive but it has served us well. And now that there’s a way to share these items with the world, why wouldn’t we?

TED

With the Astros’ 50th Anniversary celebration going on this year, there must be a font of new and old stories coming down the pipeline….

ALYSON

I certainly hope so! We have a slew of old players we’re inviting back for the season-long celebration this year and I would imagine there will be some interesting tales told! I’ll be listening.

TED

There will be a ton of old school Astros looks rolled out in 2012. Which Astros throwback uniform are you most excited about?

ALYSON

If you mean what throwback uniform would I be most likely to tweet or blog about, it would be the rainbow jerseys. I wasn’t here for that era – I got here in 1997 – but Houston fans absolutely love the rainbow look, especially the orange. That’s what I hear from fans more than anything – bring back the orange!

From a sentimental and personal standpoint, my favorite uniform is the blue and gold shooting star that they wore in the late 1990s. That’s what they were wearing when I first arrived to the team and I have some wonderful memories from my first few years in baseball. No matter what you do in your career or how far you get, there’s nothing more special than when you first started the journey. So I have a soft spot for the uniforms Bagwell, Biggio, Ausmus and Wagner were wearing way back in the day.

Pitchers & Poets Podcast 36: Yuuuup!

In episode 36 of the podcast, we explore Manny Ramirez’s campaign to return to the MLB, we discuss the Dodgers-owning hopeful Josh Macciello and his strange, Herman Cain-esque bid for power, the anaconda victim rescue incident at which B.J. Ryan was present though it is unclear what his contribution was, and Ted’s first SABR meeting! At that meeting, I mentioned a fellow who told some great stories about Stan Musial, Nolan Ryan, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle as high schoolers. That fellow was Jim Kreuz, and here is one of his pieces on Nolan Ryan.

 

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Tunes by Jesse Gloyd

13 Ways of Looking at a Hall of Fame Candidate

w.h. audenSince our blog is, after all, called Pitchers & Poets, we thought we would subject a few of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates to the imaginary scrutiny of both a pitcher and a poet of our choosing. Below, see the Hall of Fame analysis of a professional pitcher, and the response from a prominent poet, as you await the final ruling:

Jeff Bagwell

Cardinals hurler and freelance groundskeeper Jim Otten: “Unless steroids make goatees grow faster, you can’t prove anything.”

Poet WH Auden: “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities, and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections to find his happiness in another kind of wood.”

Barry Larkin

Reno Silver Sox hurler Nathan Ginsberg: “One of the best hitting and fielding shortstops of his generation. Writers, you know what to do.”

Poet Allen Ginsberg: “When will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Christs?”

Bernie Williams

California Angels farmhand Ronald Sylvia: “Probably not Hall-worthy, but he had a great career.”

Poet Sylvia Plath: “His head is a little interior of grey mirrors. Each gesture flees immediately down an alley of diminishing perspectives, and its significance drains like water out the hole at the far end.”

Jack Morris

Old timey Pittsburgh Allegheny Ed “Cannonball” Morris: “Heckuva competitor, good lifetime numbers, and a fine face-whisker set. Probably deserves a shot at immortality.”

Poet Robert Lowell: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound’s gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy.”

Edgar Martinez

67th round draft pick for the Houston Astros in 1996 Ben Keats: “I have never met Edgar Martinez, but I once saw him order dinner from across the restaurant.”

Poet John Keats: “He hath heard the Lion’s roaring, and can tell what his horny throat expresseth.”

Tim Raines

Early 80s California Angels starter Dave Frost: “Rock has been overlooked for way too long.”

Poet Robert Frost: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”