I’m pretty sure I’m the last Royals blogger to chime in on the Royals’ promotional idea of conducting a contest which allowed bloggers to be credentialed, and hold their own press conference with Royals’ officials, for the Royals Fanfest on January 21st and 22nd.
I thought it was a good idea, if not a ground-breaking one – I think the Pirates and Giants held similar events for their bloggers. It’s a sign that the Royals – along with a lot of sports franchises – are slowly catching on to the idea that sports coverage in this century is a lot different than in the last. Every year, more and more fans are getting news and analysis of their favorite teams from what we might call “non-professional” sources: sources that have no insider access but are informed, opinionated, and well-written. And more and more fans are using the opportunity to engage with other passionate fans online.
In the long run, having a more involved fan base can only be a good thing for a sports franchise. In the short run, teams have to figure out how to encourage that involvement while still keeping some sort of barrier that prevents any Joe Fan from starting a blog that’s profane, uninformed, and unread, then crashing the press box at Kauffman Stadium.
I was worried that this might be a window dressing event, where the Royals randomly pick fans with no blogging experience, or where they hand-select the five people in the blogosphere who praised Dayton Moore for the Jason Kendall signing. Fortunately, judging from the winners, the contest was legitimate. The guys (and one gal) who were picked are, for the most part, well-known members of the Royals’ online community, and they don’t just blow rainbows and sunshine when they write.
I have to give the Royals extra credit, as well, for the truly inspired lineup they trotted out there. As expected, Dayton Moore was the first to take questions, and then Ned Yost held court. But the Royals finished with a pair of players – Billy Butler, an obvious choice…and Jeff Francoeur.
My initial reaction was to Frenchy’s inclusion, I must admit, kind of juvenile – I reveled in the train-wreck image of bloggers asking Francoeur to his face variations of the question, “why do you suck so bad?” But after some reflection, I realized how diabolically brilliant a move this was. Knowing how the blogosphere felt towards Francoeur, the Royals (specifically VP of Communications Mike Swanson and Director of Media Relations Dave Holtzman) decided to unleash the full force of Francoeur’s intangibles on his biggest critics.
Friendliness? Articulate, well-thought-out answers? A willingness to admit his weaknesses as a player and recognize the criticisms leveled against him? The confidence that he is addressing those weaknesses and will prove his doubters wrong this season? It was all there – a tour de force of an interview. By the time he finished speaking – and you can download the entire press conference here, courtesy of Nick Scott from Broken Bat Single – you couldn’t help but root for Francoeur to prove his doubters wrong. Not even if you were one of those doubters, and not even if – judging from what the Braves’ and Mets’ contingent of bloggers have written – you knew he’s played this act before.
Like I said: diabolical. Well-played, guys. Well-played.
I don’t know if this will become a regular event, but I hope it will. I think the Royals understand that independent bloggers are an inexorable part of the future of sports coverage, and they might as well embrace it. When Swanson and I met and buried the hatchet at the Winter Meetings in December 2009 – over a year ago – he told me even then that he was hoping to plan blogger-specific media events in the future. This was clearly a premeditated event, so I’m hopeful that it won’t be an isolated one.
And from my vantage point here in Chicago, it seemed like it went well – with the exception of one borderline-creepy question asked of Billy Butler, the bloggers acquitted themselves well in asking pointed but respectful questions, and the Royals acquitted themselves well by answering those questions with the same seriousness that they would answer questions from the mainstream media. That doesn’t necessarily mean answering the questions head-on – as Scott put it, Moore did a terrific job of “filibustering” to answer the question he wanted to answer. But then, Moore does that when he’s answering questions from Soren Petro or Sam Mellinger as well. Being a part of the media means accepting that sometimes the answers you get aren’t the answers you’re looking for – but even those answers are revealing in their own way.
Judging from what those bloggers felt about the event afterwards, it seems like it accomplished what the Royals wanted it to: they gave bloggers credibility, earned goodwill from a community of their most devoted fans, presented the Royals as a transparent organization unafraid of a little criticism, and did so without compromising anyone’s integrity. There are precious few win-win situations in sports, so even though this wasn’t a momentous event, it’s worth tipping your cap to the Royals for thinking outside the box a little and coming up with one.
The event also resurrected the topic of whether bloggers should be treated like full-fledged members of the sports media, which is to say whether they should receive press credentials, be allowed to sit in the press box, etc. How you answer that question depends in large part on whether you feel that press credentials are a perk of the job, or a prerequisite. If you think that press credentials are some kind of an award for hard work, then you can make a solid case that the most passionate bloggers, who spend as many hours a week covering the Royals as most professional sportswriters, deserve credentials as compensation for their services.
But if you think that the press box and clubhouse access are there simply to facilitate the job of people who cover the team from an up-close perspective, then it’s hard to make the case that bloggers need that kind of access. By definition, a blogger doesn’t need that access; the fact that we are capable of blogging in the first place is proof of that.
I don’t think that bloggers need access to do our job, but I do think that we can do our job better with it. I was in the press box for the four-game series against Baltimore at Kauffman Stadium last July. My credentials came courtesy of my work with 810 WHB, and it certainly made that job easier – for one thing, we broadcast our trade deadline show from inside the stadium, from the very room that the press conference was held in. And there’s no better place to write a column while watching a ballgame than in a press box. But truthfully, the most valuable part of being credentialed for me wasn’t the access to the press box or even the clubhouse – it was the access to the writers and broadcasters and other people who cover the team. The ability to network and meet with people who cover the game professionally – that’s the kind of access that a blogger can benefit from.
I could name a half-dozen Royals bloggers (I don’t want to name names and inadvertently leave someone out) who deserve the same opportunities that I’ve had. And I think that the Royals (and all of MLB) should begin re-considering their across-the-board denial of credentials for all bloggers. But I don’t blame them for taking it slow. There are benefits to giving bloggers credentials, but they are modest compared to the potential harm that would come from giving the wrong person access.
And I think as bloggers we need to remember that press credentials are a double-edged sword. Yes, it means you have access to the players and front office types that you write about every day – but it also means the players and front office types have access to you. Would I write the harsh (but fair!) criticisms of people like Jason Kendall and Yuniesky Betancourt and Nick Swartz if I knew I was going to see them every day?
On the one hand, you probably should never write something about a person that you wouldn’t be willing to say to their face. On the other hand, it’s one thing to say something personal about a person’s conduct or character, and quite another to simply point out how ineffective they are at playing a game. Implicit in my criticisms of Betancourt is that he is still 100 times better at playing baseball than I am – criticizing his performance in no way ought to suggest that he is a lousy human being. Whatever I say about the effectiveness of a player or a trainer or a general manager, I try not to comment about their off-field behavior or character – and when I do, it almost invariably is something that has already been reported by a reputable news source.
I think that saying that Player X is a terrible player is completely within my rights as a blogger, because Player X’s ability to play baseball only matters if you accept the fictional construct that baseball actually matters. Professional sports only have as much meaning as its fans give it. If you don't care about how good a player is, you are tearing down the construct that it matters how good any player is. It’s far better for Yuniesky Betancourt that I rail about how bad he is – and by railing about how bad he is, I give relevance to the game of baseball that he is so bad at, which draws fans to the ballpark and keeps television sets on and pays his salary – than for me to ignore his performance and spend my summer evenings at the movie theater or playing golf instead.
But I’m human, and it would be hard for me to write unflattering things about a person who I run into regularly, even if they are unflattering things about his ability to play an ultimately meaningless game. Being a blogger is liberating because we can be brutally honest without repercussions, but sometimes being brutally honest means being, well, brutal. I enjoy having press credentials every now and then, but I wouldn’t want to have them all the time. When you’re in the press box, you’re a journalist first and a fan second. But I’m a fan first and a journalist second, and I want to stay that way. I suspect most bloggers feel the same.