photo credit: Twitter
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media insiders, outsiders, and new readers. If this is your first time reading Seen & Heard, we use this space to reflect back on the week that was in sports media. Traffic has spiked in the last while and the comments sections have been on topic and highly engaging. Several people in the media have mentioned to me how good the discussion has been here lately. Let's keep that ball rolling.
Suggested Soundtrack: Wye Oak – Civilian
As always, if you spot a mistake or think something I have written is unfair, email or DM. You can DM me even if we are not following each other. Ok, let's go …
The Blue Jays front office made news twice this week. First, on Tuesday we learned that popular executive Stephen R Brooks was leaving to pursue other employment "opportunities", namely the ones that are available to the unexpectedly unemployed. The second item of news was that Sportsnet would be featuring a documentary on new Jays President Mark Shapiro prior to Sunday's game. Let's deal with these in turn.
The Brooks departure sent waves through the industry on several levels. Brooks was arguably the most recognizable face (see face below) in the front office last year, after AA and Beeston.
His notoriety was largely due to his Twitter presence, and his stalwart efforts to quickly and accurately answer fan questions about everything from gate entrances, to ticket refunds, to what happened to the "all you can eat" section. In brief, Brooks was the first point of contact for many Jays fans who had questions and concerns. He was very very good at his job.
Here is his goodbye tweet:
I want to thank everyone for their best wishes. I am truly humbled. You are the best fans in the game. I am so very grateful. My best,SB.
— Stephen R Brooks (@sbrooksbaseball) April 13, 2016
Beyond the impact on fans, several writers opined on what this departure means for the identity of the front office. Here is The Sun/Postmedia's Bob Elliott:
"The Rogers Communications web site boasts that Rogers is “a diversified public Canadian communications and media company” … that actually “employs some Canadians at the top.” Canada’s Team? How about changing the slogan to: “Canada’s Team … Canadians need not apply for vacancies with high salaries.”"
Sportsnet's Shi Davidi raised similar worries about "Americanization" in his piece.
"[The] Blue Jays have given Canadians an opportunity to enter the business side of the game, something that visa restrictions makes difficult for them to do in the United States. Assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish is now the highest ranking Canadian on the baseball operations side of the club, working his way up from a baseball operations intern in 2001."
Others personalities at Sportsnet chimed in on the issue with their trademark depth and insight:
Shapiro fyred the Jays guy on Twitter and hyred somebuddy from cleevland!!!? Blarrrgggh!!!!!!
— Andrew Walker (@FAN590Walker) April 12, 2016
The story might have ended here , however Shapiro stoked the coals into a fire with this incendiary quote on how to replace Brooks' presence on Twitter:
"We’ll certainly have to address the Twitter, that’s the primary spokesmen’s role there. We’ll have to address that and look to back-fill that with someone else in the organization. Throughout baseball and sport, the primary spokesmen in the organization are hopefully the manager, the players and then the general manager. You default to club president and business leaders only in very small situations and circumstances.”
This is a puzzling statement to say the least. Setting aside the verbal flub (George W Bush didn't really think there was more than one internet, right?), he says several interesting things here. First, he seems to dismiss the value of Brooks' work by suggesting they can find someone else on the existing roster to step in. In other words, Brooks' Twitter work was fairly minor. Second, he leaves open the following implication: Brooks was often speaking out of turn.
I'm not sure what he could possibly have in mind. All I ever saw from Brooks' feed was useful, if somewhat curt, answers to reasonable questions. It's possible that Shapiro resented how Brooks positioned himself vis-a-vis the dirt infield renovations. The latter tweeted out regular photo updates and was very clearly invested in the project, its timeline, and the nuts and bolts of the science behind getting the right consistency. Perhaps this was far outside his mandated job portfolio? Who knows. Regardless, the claim that business leaders should be seen but not heard sticks out and calls for clarification. Hopefully the local media will follow up on this and the truth will eventually come out.
Last thought on this story: both Elliott and Davidi tried to kindle our collective national pride in their reporting. I don't really see this as a viable angle. Yes, it is hard for Canadians to work in the U.S. so they will likely face hurdles when competing against Americans for jobs down south. It is also true that Beeston, AA, and Brooks are all Canadian. However none of that seems relevant to the current state of affairs. Was Shapiro looking for an excuse to can Brooks because he hates Canadians? Ridiculous idea. This isn't that JaysTalk. Would Brooks have kept his job despite his supposed gaffes if he were American? Equally preposterous.
I won't accuse Elliott or Davidi of jingoism, but the media need to raise the bar on what counts as a justification for sounding the patriotism alarm. There are a lot of things about which to be upset at the Jays front office and their parent company. That Americans are currently sitting in chairs previously held by Canadians is not one of them.
Sunday edit: Steve Simmons has a great take on the Brooks firing, and Shapiro's media problem.
Over to you: 1) Is there more than meets the eye here with the Brooks departure?, 2) Do you care that Shapiro, Atkins, and Brooks' replacement are not Canadian?
I'm Just a Soul Whose Intentions are Good
Moving along, the second major story is Stephen Brunt's thoughts on the misunderstood Mark Shapiro. This article is both a freestanding piece but also a tease for what Sportsnet is promoting as a documentary that will air at 12:30 on Sportsnet on Sunday, before the Jays take on the Red Sox.
[Aside: removed. Question answered]
The main thesis of Brunt's article, as far as I can tell, is that the antipathy towards Shapiro is due to circumstances beyond his control. The point of the piece is to lay the case out, presumably with the goal of getting people to evaluate the man based on his own actions. Here's one of Brunt's opening paragraphs:
"Here was a fairy tale playing out right before their eyes, a club transformed at the trade deadline through the wizardry of Alex Anthopoulos—Canadian, former Expos fanboy, in every way one of their own—now rolling toward its first playoff appearance since 1993. And here was the new guy, brought in to replace Paul Beeston, but for all intents and purposes the person who would now shape the Blue Jays in his own image on and off the field, hailing from Cleveland of all places—the name of the town uttered as though the Indians, not the Blue Jays, had been a baseball punchline for the previous 22 seasons. Shapiro was instantly cast as Skeletor, as Darth Vader. Cue the heel’s walk-out music. And why did he pronounce his name that way?"
Most of that is fairly accurate. Shapiro was hired right around the time the Jays' 2015 season flipped the switch from disappointing to exhilarating. Anthopoulos is indeed Canadian, as is Beeston. What is not accurate is that Shapiro was instantly cast as a villain. That came both much earlier and much later.
Recall that Shapiro was hired to replace Day 1 employee Paul Beeston. The search began back in November of 2014 when, as we all know by now, Ed Rogers started making calls to executives employed around the league. This excellent piece by Bob Elliott chronicles the embarrassing blow by blow of how that all went down. That horrible chapter of organizational incompetence finally ended with Shapiro's hiring. So, it is true that Shapiro came in saddled with baggage entirely unrelated to his own actions. Brunt is 100% right about that. But the story is incomplete without discussing Ed Rogers' role in creating the stacked deck with which Shapiro would be playing. It's not just about Alex and Paul. In fact, I would argue, it's mostly about Ed.
Next, recall that the plan – at least as far as the fanbase was concerned – was for Shapiro to work with Alex in much the same structural arrangement as existed when Beeston was president. There would be changes to be sure, but Alex's role would not be fundamentally different. Why would you mess with something that was, for the first time in two decades, yielding playoff results?
As we all know that narrative quickly crumbled. We heard of purported "scolding" of AA for trading away so many prospects. We heard that rather than looking to lock up Alex for years to come, Shapiro's initial offer was a 1 year extension, or as one person put it to me, a "fuck off" offer. All of that happened after Shapiro arrived. More recently we learned from Steve Simmons that Shapiro didn't bother making an offer to David Price, even though Alex had left a plan for how to do it within budget parameters.
All of that to say that the story is more complicated than Brunt paints it. He is right that some of it is not Shapiro's fault. The baseball moves that Shapiro has made have been sound, and he is perhaps not being given the credit he deserves. Further, we don't know what pressures he is facing from ownership regarding payroll reductions in the years to come. Lastly, deep down many people know that you are not going to be able to sign EE or Jose to sensible deals and that it may be best to let them walk and take the picks at season's end. Shapiro will be the evil public face for something few of us want to admit is the right decision.
The next section of Brunt's article features a confusing quote from Shapiro:
“I’m not sure I could have been any more thoughtful […] I’m not sure I could have been any more culturally sensitive and aware. I’m not sure I could have embraced the place I was coming to any more. There were certainly maybe some things I did that didn’t help to endear me to people. But people were looking for things to not like about me rather than things to like about me. I view those as circumstances. It’s the situation I walked into. Really, if you look at what happened, nothing was my choice. Nothing was about decisions I made. I was walking into a situation that dramatically changed from when I made the decision to come here to the time I started working here."
Again, most of this is right. The situation really did change from when Shapiro signed on. The Jays went from 50-51 to the best team in baseball the rest of the way. The plan, one assumes, was to ride out another expensive disappointing season and then send Alex and many of his pricey acquisitions packing. Shapiro was ready to do the heavy lifting of tearing it down, retooling, and then building a contender. Or, exactly what Alex did 7 years ago when he took over from Riccardi.
The confusing part here is how Shapiro says he couldn't have done more than he did in one breath and then says that he "certainly maybe" also did things that made people not like him. Leaving aside the certainly-maybe oxymoron, I think he means that he was as gentle with the fanbase as he could be, but that he also had to make some moves that were going to be unpopular no matter what. Reading through the gaps, I think he's talking about AA. When he was approached he agreed to take the presidency but only if he could install his own guy in Alex's place, and only if he could be more active in baseball-related decisions. Rogers gave him that, and then the Jays promptly rocketed into the playoffs. That is not Shapiro's fault. It's the fault of the people negotiating with him on behalf of the Jays. They should have left themselves some wiggle room.
The rest of the article covers the interesting details of Shapiro's life and upbringing. Brunt brings his peerless writing skills to the subject and really gives us a feel for Shapiro as a human being. Go read it.
A few questions to ponder:
- Why now? The season is under way and fans have largely forgotten about Alex and Beeston and are rightly focused on the the 2016 Blue Jays. I don't really get the timing of this article and the accompanying video.
- Why Brunt? There is certainly news value here, but this seems much more up the alleys of Davidi, Zwelling, or any of a number of other Sportsnet affiliated writers. I know Brunt does whatever he wants these days, but I can't help but think his talents are being wasted on this assignment.
- Why at all? Go have a glance at the 350+ comments attached to the article. Many of them completely shred Sportsnet for being a PR wing for Rogers. This one made me laugh out loud:
Courtney01 [Rank 1447] "wow. now Shapiro is getting his own tv special? any word on the 6 part mini series?"
I just don't know why you would put your best and most trusted writer on a story that is not all that topical or timely, especially when the appearance will be that the team is using its media department to do damage control.
Over to you: 1) Did the omission of the Ed Rogers aspect hurt Brunt's piece? 2) Please comment here after it airs tomorrow. I will be on assignment and can't watch.
Postscript on the Concussion Coverage
The reaction to last week's column on the lack of coverage of the NHL concussion emails by Rogers was strong and swift. Many people reached out privately to offer support, but some also reached out to tell me I was way off. The one place where there was significant disagreement was whether Gary would need to call Rogers to discuss how they would report on the emails. Many argued that a call would not be needed and that the "turn a blind eye" editorial policy was set in house. Others argued that the Sportsnet writers were just very busy, and got around to covering it the following week.
It is also worth noting that if there was a soft journalism directive then it would appear that it was partially lifted last week. Michael Grange delivered a terrific piece on the medical science of concussions and how the game needs to change, featuring an in-depth interview with Dr. Tator. You know Dr. Tator — he's the guy who feuded with Don Cherry back in 2009. Grange's article features the following quote from NHL exec Bill Daly:
"Other than I don’t agree with Dr. Tator’s opinion, and that the actual facts belie it, I have no intention to comment further.”
This is a terrible way for the NHL to be framing their position. Daly is not a doctor and he shouldn't be arguing the medical facts. The NHL is making this mistake often in their legal strategy against the plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit. Let the doctors do their thing, and let other medical professionals debate the merits of the evidence. The NHL comes off as "anti-science" in the same way that climate change deniers do.
The real legal question is what duties of care the league should be made to take on behalf of its employees, and what responsibility lies with the individual players. That is a productive and healthy discussion about which there is a range of reasonable positions.
Lastly, Len Boogaard, father of Derek, has been in the news again. The people in charge of running the substance abuse program failed his son, though there is no shortage of other names on that long list. TSN's Rick Westhead explains the substance abuse program that exists in the NHL. It seems like a system that is more designed to limit liability to the NHL and the PA than it is to help players suffering from addiction.
Mr. Boogaard appeared on PTS back in 2014 and gave perhaps the most poignant and memorable interview I have ever heard. The interview has been lost in the digital sands of time, and requests for a link from Sportsnet were ignored. You can read a little about it here. Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt were at their absolute best.
Wayne Gretzky had some strong words about the lack of scoring in the NHL and the general poor entertainment value of the game. The league needs more people like Gretzky involved in the future of the product.
Andrew Stoeten asks some good questions about the financial effect of the bad Rogers NHL ratings on the Jays. I'll have some more on this topic in the next few weeks.
Chris Zelkovich writes that when it comes to the regular season "the Raptors drew the kind of numbers usually reserved for speed skating or luge." Here's hoping that all turns around starting today. Given that they are playing an afternoon game on the first truly warm day in eons, things may not go so well.
CBC reports that 80% more people cut the cord in 2015 than in 2014. The future is coming more quickly than anticipated. Sporstnet was first out of the gate with their streaming service. I'll be curious to see how many people subscribe. As someone who currently spends (and enjoys spending) $110USD every year on MLB's streaming service, SN's service is not priced as outrageously as some of you believe.
PPP has been struggling a little as they cycle through writers, but they found a gem in the author of this great piece on where you can gain a financial advantage in a salary cap league. Very compelling stuff.
Lastly, TSN released a press document congratulating themselves for winning the Q1 ratings war and recapturing the crown as Canada's most watched specialty channel. They also trumpet their web dominance, and the fact that they recorded 5.5. million video views. I'm willing to bet 90% of those views are from poor saps like me who are slammed with auto-play ads followed by random unwanted content from the moment I click on their website. I update my ad-blockers on a regular basis but both Sportsnet and TSN are always one step ahead in their efforts to make me hate the time I spend on their sites.
Low Hanging Fruit
- It's 2016 and people are still saying overtly racist things to on-air staff. Unacceptable. Sorry that you have to deal with this Faizal.
tfw you're hit with blatant racism in 2016 pic.twitter.com/YuRbtRVjlA
— Faizal Khamisa (@SNFaizalKhamisa) April 11, 2016
- Jamie McLennan co-hosts one of the most listened to shows on TSN radio. With the Leafs moving to the back-burner for most of the next 5 months, how on earth is this guy going to make it to October? Forget that, how is the audience going to make it to the next book?
— Jamie McLennan (@jamiemclennan29) April 10, 2016
- Things that are working: the Breakfast Club hour on Naylor & Landsberg. After a very rough start with so much yelling and interrupting, the lads seem to have found a way to share the air.
- Things that are not working: the 3 man booth on Jays broadcasts. Dan Shulman is such a treasure on the ears, but we are constantly being assaulted by Buck and Tabby each trying to get their 2 cents in. This is not a democracy. It's a meritocracy, and Dan is head and shoulders above the others.
- The intern in charge of scrubbing Greg Brady's existence from the Sportsnet tubes either needs a raise or to be fired. Look who I found.
- It's been a busy week at the mouse-trap factory but I am dying to know: did Luongo manage to shut down the Florida Panthers? #missedthatmoment
- ￼What are you still doing inside? Go outside!
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)