photo credit: Frank Gunn/CP
Good morning sports media watchers. I’m on the move this morning so this column will be a little less well proof-read than usual. All complaints should be directed to our editorial department. Warning: lots of Rogers related content to follow. If this will cause you to scream “Rogers sucks” in the comments section, feel free to sit this one out.
Sometimes interesting sports media topics just fall into your lap. This was one of those weeks. Stephen Brunt, Sportsnet’s multi-platform rockstar, filled in on the At the Letters baseball podcast with Arden Zwelling. The pair discussed all things Blue Jays as the team finally won their first AL East title in over 20 years.
On the podcast Brunt is his usual insightful self and brings up the changing demographics of Jays fans since ’92-’93. He notes that the model for appealing to younger people was the NBA’s approach of cranking up the dance tunes, never having a dull moment during the breaks, and basically just slamming the audience with content at all time. This stands in stark contrast to baseball which is slow and quiet, where “you have to participate as a spectator … it doesn’t come at you.” As Brunt notes, “it’s still the same game” and somehow fans of all ages are packing the Dome and having a good time.
This is a great point and part of the mystery of baseball’s appeal. Given how little action there is in a 3 hour game, how do you stay engaged? The answer is that you have to care about the little things that constitute the game story. Has the pitcher’s fastball been losing velocity? Is he ignoring runners on base? Why are the defenders shading so far out of position? What kind of strike zone are we seeing tonight? All of these questions are things you thin about between pitches or between at-bats. If you’re not thinking about those things then the game can be incredibly dull.
Brunt shifted from that topic to TV ratings and how winning has taken the Jays’ already good numbers to a different level. From there Arden asked what the differences are covering this Jays playoff run as compared to the earlier teams. Here’s a mostly verbatim excerpt of what Brunt had to say.
“I have a different relationship because like you I work for a company that owns the team. It changes things. One of the things that has meant is that I have had great access. I’ve also been able to spend a lot of time around this team and in a non-threatening way. It’s not that we are all in this together … we still have a responsibility … but it is a different vibe. I’m not just the guy standing at somebody’s locker waiting for a post game quote.
The great edict of my profession is ‘no cheering in the press box’ but what that often creeps into is cynicism and bloody-mindedness. You start to hate the people you cover. I’ve seen it a million times … some of those guys are miserable SOBs. You didn’t like spending time with them, you didn’t want them to win, you were just as happy with a sweep in the playoffs so you could go home.
So the ability to not do that, and to be able to say ‘I think Encarnacion is a really good guy’ or ‘I’m really happy for Alex or Gibby’ … it’s OK to be able to feel and say those things. It allows you to enjoy the success of it without being a miserable old sports writer. I never wanted to be one of those guys. So it’s doubly pleasant for me to be able to cover this team.”
Good stuff there. What I’d like to discuss is whether or not Brunt has set up a false opposition between rooting for the team and being a “miserable old sports writer.” I love this question because I lived in Boston through the last of the dark days of the curse of the Bambino and it was remarkable how many sports media types had absolutely no idea how to handle the Red Sox’s success. Something similar is going on here with the Jays but also more widely with the Leafs, Raps, and TFC. In Toronto, losing is as much part of the media’s culture as it is that of the fans and players.
More specifically I wonder if Bob Elliott and Richard Griffin and John Lott think of themselves as miserable old sports writers because they don’t work for a team owned media outlet. Obviously I’m not saying that Brunt has those guys in mind here, but part of the implication of his point is that when he worked at the Globe he experienced (either in himself or in others) the tendency towards cynicism he mentions.
My point is that, unless I’m misunderstanding, Brunt is drawing a connection between being employed by Rogers and liberation from cynicism. Now he might not be saying that it is only when one works for the team’s owner that one can experience true freedom in the presence of success. But he seems to be saying that it is nice to be able to root for the team and its players, and that one cannot do this when one is bound by the “no cheering in the press box” rule.
I have lots of thoughts about this but I’m more interested in yours. To be honest, I think we sometimes put media in an impossible position. How could it be a bad thing to be happy about the Jays’ success? It has been a wild and enjoyable ride, and it would really be a shame if being in the media meant you couldn’t revel in these moments.
So my questions for you this morning are whether you like your sports writers to be miserable and “responsible” in terms of professional distance or whether you like them to be invested in the team success at the expense of some that professional distance? Or is there some neglected third alternative that sits between these two options?
The Washington Nationals are finishing up a disappointing season. They traded for closer Jonathan Papelbon in a last ditch attempt to make a playoff push but that did not yield the desired result. One result the trade did yield was Papelbon choking teammate and young superstar Bryce Harper on the bench.
There was much debate about who was in the wrong in this incident, with some lining up behind the veteran Papelbon for keeping his teammate accountable, and some behind Harper for not taking barking from a guy who has his own reputation for selfish behaviour on the field. Sportsnet’s Gregg Zaun, who has made “playing the game the right way” one of his regular talking points of principle, spoke out on the incident. (Warning: linked video plays after 3 separate unstoppable ads)
“I can’t believe he would even step up to a veteran player and mouth off and defend that crummy effort.”
This is a classic example of getting two separate issues mixed up in a false dichotomy. You can be against BOTH failing to run out a fly ball AND Papelbon’s attempt to pick a fight with his teammate (for 2 months). Zaun went on to say that he would refuse to vote for Harper for the MVP based on his lack of effort running out a fly ball.
Then Zaun doubled down on false dichotomies and said:
“Suspending Papelbon sends a really bad message.”
Again, Zaun fails to see that he can criticize both players for the altercation … it’s not a zero sum situation. But since Zaun is so opposed to young players not playing the game the right way, he sides with Papelbon. Imagine if recently acquired Jays reliever Latroy Hawkins choked Donaldson on the bench after a weak effort? It would be insane to suggest that Donaldson should take it because Latroy is a veteran. But that is what Zaun is advocating here: you have to take physical assaults from older players if you fail to violate one of baseball’s unwritten rules about showing effort.
That someone would think choking a teammate on the bench is not worth a suspension is unfathomable. Just put it in any other work context and it is immediately obvious that regardless of tenure no one should be subject to this kind of treatment at the hands of a co-worker. But what do I know … I never played the game. Apparently the Nationals did not agree with Zaun’s analysis, and suspended Paps for 4 games.
Zaun was a good addition to the Sportsnet roster back in the lean years. But I think Sportsnet would be better served by someone with some more balanced views in the seat Zaun is currently occupying. Jamie Campbell continues to do good work under difficult circumstances.
Maybe I’m being too harsh here. Anyone agree with Zaun’s take?
Species1967 has a post over at PPP about the merits of renewing your subscription to GameCentre Live for the coming hockey season.
Vice has a good story on how video games are once again at the centre of the NCAA/O’Bannon lawsuit.
In response to past columns some people have wondered aloud why ESPN’s Darren Rovell appears on the FAN, contra the current exclusivity agreement. I reached out to Naylor, on whose show Rovell used to appear. Here’s his statement: “Darren Rovell was a valuable contributor to TSN Drive but occasionally we like to change-up our lineup of regular guests and this was one of those instances.” Here’s my gloss on this: we like Howard Bryant a lot better than Darren Rovell. Can’t say I disagree … Rovell never seems to have any clue about anything related to Canada.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)