Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lingering Items--Cautionary Tale Edition

The NFL draft is still nearly 3 weeks away, which can only mean one thing: 100 more iterations Tony Grossi's mock draft. Catch the excitement.

Not to pick on Grossi too much, but this really is the problem with the NFL offseason at the moment. The labor issues are complex and the only thing really happening at the moment. Most beat writers like Grossi don't have the inclination to understand them and use the excuse that the public doesn’t care as a way of masking their own laziness.

They just repeat the line about billionaires fighting with millionaires to shorthand the entire discussion without every pausing to think that the more money at stake the more complex the issues.

So they just shy away from the difficult and give us any number of mind numbing mock drafts, some copy editor slaps a headline on it and voila!, news.

Just Friday morning, Grossi submitted his 7th (7th!) mock draft on an unsuspecting public. Because I tend to have the attention span of a puppy when it comes to this sort of thing, I give it all the attention it deserves, which is very little.

First of all, this is just crystal ball gazing taken to high art. The fact that someone like Mel Kiper, Jr. chose to make a living out of it doesn’t somehow elevate it from alchemy to chemistry nor does it mean that every beat reporter with an internet connection suddenly because a quasi-expert like Kiper.

Second, did I mention it’s Grossi’s 7th (7th!) iteration of a mock draft? That means that when he has a hole to fill in the PD’s ever shrinking sports section in the next several days, out will come mock drafts versions 8 and 9. Sooner or later he’s bound to get something right.

On the scale of problems plaguing just the sports world, the proliferation of meaningless NFL mock drafts ranks just below Gloria James’ temper. In other words, the fact that the PD uses such things as a proxy for real news or analysis is relatively harmless, at least in the short term.

But the problem is exactly that: the PD and newspapers like it use such things as a proxy for real news. They are cost conscious, like every employer these days, but they have completely abdicated any responsibility for covering the real stories of the NFL to those on the national scene that apparently do it better in favor of having their local hack twiddle his thumbs, read a few magazines, and draw up mock drafts.

Maybe it doesn't occur to those running the PD and other newspapers why they continue to fall short in the public's imagination, but perhaps it has something to do with no longer being an outlet for actual sports news, at least the kind of actual sports news that's been ferreted out organically.

Reporters like Grossi can only give the newspaper what they’re willing to pay for and at this juncture it looks like they aren’t willing to pay for much, so in some sense he may not be at fault. But in other ways, he and his ilk are part of the problem because they shy away from the more complex in favor of the inane. Just because his employers are tight with a buck isn't an excuse for being tight with one's own creativity.

Speaking of the media, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took to his blog ( recently to advocate for a new world order when it comes to media access to his and other teams. He won't get away with it in the short term, but the object of his ire are internet reporters who get bonuses from their employers based on page views for their stories. In a completely related development, USA Today announced this past week that it will start paying its reporters those bonuses.

Cuban's point is that at this juncture the electronic media in particular has taken on a paparazzi-like persona. No longer satisfied to ask the usual boring questions to athletes who give the same boring answers to questions like “how do you feel about losing this game?”, these reporters, Cuban claims, lie in wait in the locker room hoping to get a player in a vulnerable moment and then ask an embarrassing question or respond to a rumor. The intent is to get the player to adversely react, make that the story, throw it up on a web site immediately and bang the page views on the internet site increase exponentially. Advertisers pay based on page views, so it all makes sense.

I have no doubt that this kind of thing happens all the time. And while Cuban, an early adopter of almost any technology, rightly sees the trend that's developing, his inability to put it into historical perspective is clouding his judgment.

Any form of paid media, whether it's newspapers, television stations, radios or internet sites, needs readers to survive. The good outlets try to gain an economic advantage by employing good journalists. Others try to gain their advantage by employing the outrageous. Al Gore and the internet certainly didn't invent that or their employers' compensation systems.

Cuban's solution is to keep all of the local media around and limit or deny access to those purely internet reporters who are incented toward the outrageous in order to enhance page views and get their bonuses. What Cuban fails to understand is that the local media is similarly incented. The local print reporters see their material land on their newspapers' internet sites where the value of their work is likewise judged by page views. Same for local television reporters.

Cuban's barely disguised motive is to limit access to his team, theorizing that the team and each player has access to things like Twitter and Facebook and thus can get their own story out without the need for reporters. That's true in the same way the government has access to the same outlets and likewise could make the case that it could more easy get out its message without interference from the press.

But limiting access is never the answer. There are always stories to be told and leads to pursue and if a few obnoxious jerks posing as reporters make players, coaches and management a little uncomfortable at times, well that's the price to be paid for a free society.

The sad end to the transcendent career of Manny Ramirez is now at hand and while he was one of the best pure hitters in the game, his legacy will be that of a drug-using enigma.

It's really not a surprise that Ramirez would have violated baseball's drug policy again because Ramirez has proven several times over that he doesn't even have the sense that God gave a light bulb. I have this image of some shady drug dealing “trainer” telling Ramirez that he won't get caught and Ramirez swallowing that line like a dog swallows kibble, three times over.

What's so disappointing though is that Ramirez at some point several years ago reached the conclusion that he couldn't survive on his natural hitting skills any longer and that he needed artificial enhancements to stay in the game. That's simply a thought process I'll never understand.

I know that Ramirez is a fool whose deepest thought may be whether to get the steak or the salmon at dinner but his case still stands for the proposition of why steroids and other performance enhancing drugs remain part of the national conversation.

To watch Ramirez in his youth take the sweetest swing in the major leagues and consistently hit for average and power was a sight to behold. To watch Ramirez in his later years stroll through baseball as a clueless beach bum with a swing long since unhinged from its moorings was pathetic. If nothing else, it was the drugs more than age that took its toll on Ramirez and probably far sooner than it should have.

It's hard to know exactly why Ramirez, in his mid to late 30s, turned to steroids to get himself back on track. The chance of him talking about it publicly is nil. And though he did get caught, three times, I suspect that he'll still serve as a role model for every other player looking to get an edge. They'll surmise that all they need to do differently is be more careful than Ramirez. And given how Ramirez carries himself, there isn't a person alive who doesn't think he could be more careful or clever than Ramirez.

I have no idea whether Ramirez will ever get to the Hall of Fame, I just know he shouldn't. He certainly has the numbers. But when his name comes up for the first time on a Hall of Fame ballot 5 years from now, he'll be just as radioactive as Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and will deserve to be. There's just no way of knowing how much of Ramirez's career accomplishments were the result of the artificial enhancements he used. Since that will never change, here's hoping that he never does garner enough support for election to the Hall of Fame and that in time he just becomes another footnote, a once potentially great player who threw it all away.


Evan said...

With the Tribe now on a seven game winning streak and atop the Central Division, I think it's time for you to start paying more attention to this young, exciting team. The last thing Cleveland sports fans should be concerning themselves with is who the Browns might draft. Who cares? The importance of the NFL draft is greatly overblown. Let's talk about something much more timely, like how strong the Indians starting pitching has been the first week of the season.

Evan said...

With the Tribe now on a seven game winning streak and atop the Central Division, I think it's time for you to start paying more attention to this young, exciting team. The last thing Cleveland sports fans should be concerning themselves with is who the Browns might draft. Who cares? The importance of the NFL draft is greatly overblown. Let's talk about something much more timely, like how strong the Indians starting pitching has been the first week of the season.

Gary Benz said...

It is a nice streak and no one wants to see them win more than me. It's a long season but at least they are getting off to a fast start. Far different than the Wedge years. Stated differently it's not a surprise the Mariners are off to a slow start.