Left Cold by the Hot Stove

On baseball's offseason and the barren wasteland of MLB Trade Rumors
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The months when my life is most consumed by baseball are November, December, and January. I’ve always thought this to be a personal flaw. I am useless in the face of information, speculation, and gossip; weak-kneed against the torrent of rumors. The prospect of drama, the specter of roster moves—these fleeting intangibles hold me captive in a very tangible way. I spend hours on Twitter searching wishfully for invented rumors like “ichiro dodgers,” “giancarlo stanton dodgers,” and “vin scully immortality potion.”

Baseball is my favorite sport to watch and my favorite sport to not watch. It offers so much in terms of offseason drama. There are teams with gross wealth, and villainous celebrity agents ready to exploit those teams. There are overmatched executives and overvalued players. Individual transactions can shift the entire landscape of the sport in mere moments; they can be acts of civic betrayal like the Marlins-Blue Jays blockbuster earlier this offseason or divisive acts of apparent desperation like the Rays-Royals deal that sent James Shields to Kansas City in exchange for super-prospect Wil Myers.

The underlying flaw in the otherwise perfect drama of the major league offseason is the fucked up way we consume it. There is a growing internet infrastructure devoted to turning the madness of the offseason into its own spectator sport, consumed 24 hours a day via reverse chronological feed. Specifically, I am referring to certain sections of Twitter and the aggregator website MLBTradeRumors.com—twin hegemons in the dispensation of baseball news and non-news. This infrastructure has turned the offseason into a sort of dystopian universe in which the only thing that matters to a baseball fan is the volume of information stuffed into his or her head. Moves that used to be fodder for the little box at the back of the sports page labeled TRANSACTIONS now feel crucially, almost painfully, important. What’s that you say? The A’s traded Collin Cowgill?

The baseball offseason as we know it now is a relatively modern phenomenon, the rough draft version of which having come into being after the demise of the reserve clause. When the first full class of free agents entered the market after the 1975 season, the average major league salary immediately increased about 50 percent -- but only from $51,000 to $76,000. The next year, Reggie Jackson signed with the Yankees for five years and $3.5 million—a total that, even adjusted for inflation, now feels quaint: over 5 years, Jackson made about $13 million in today’s dollars. In 1979, the Astros made Nolan Ryan the first million-dollar-per-season player. Two decades later, the Dodgers signed Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million contract.

I was twelve years old at the time of the Brown signing. Six months earlier, the Dodgers had traded Mike Piazza to the Marlins because they were uncomfortable giving him a similar deal. In the sense that a preteen boy can feel worldly and cynical in the ways of baseball fandom, this was when I became a man. Brown became my personal totem for the ballplayer as businessman. He was a great pitcher but he was 33 years old and famously an asshole. He squeezed the Dodgers for everything he could—not just the game’s first $100 million contract, but frivolous bonuses like the use of a private jet to take his family from Macon, Georgia to a dozen selected Dodger games per season.

Instead of turning away from baseball, I became fascinated with player movement. The offseason (and the trade deadline) became events in their own right. I read the sports page and watched the bottom line on ESPN for breaking baseball news every winter, all the while unaware that a boilermaker of culture and technology awaited me a decade into the future—this future, in which a confluence of social media, blogs, reality tv-ified human brains, and increasingly content-hungry sports outlets have turned the baseball offseason into a sort of months-long mega soap opera with characters and villains and surprise twists and all the same stuff that I imagine went into an episode of Dallas. This is where I begin to think that maybe my addiction to offseason gossip is not a personality flaw; maybe I am just a slave to the modern age of sports fandom.

***

There are a few things to clear up before I continue. First of all, I get that the themes I’m discussing here—horse-race journalism, how information overload is bad for your soul, a glib and perspective-free society—are not limited to baseball. That doesn’t make them any less relevant to baseball, or make baseball a less effective way to discuss them. Second, I realize that Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors are  really just tools; they are not the only means by which a person can follow the offseason. The baseball media is a hairy beast with many mouths to scream at you with. Third, I understand that it is possible to consume Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors in moderation. It is possible to visit these sites without desperately craving a new factoid about Edwin Jackson’s contract preferences. But it is also very difficult. These sites are designed with addiction in mind; made to be refreshed constantly and place even the shittiest shards of non-information on a very high pedestal.

The timeline marches thus: a transaction is reported, aggregated, corrected, elaborated upon, and confirmed. Once confirmed, the transaction ceases to exist except in the context of possible future transactions. For example, as soon as Josh Hamilton signed with the Angels, the story stopped being about him. It became a story about the Rangers’ need for a bat and the Angels’ excess of outfielders. It became a story about Justin Upton, R.A. Dickey, Ricky Nolasco, Kendrys Morales, The implications of Josh Hamilton, Angel—on-field and off—did not get the attention they deserved. Then, when Morales got traded to the Mariners for Jason Vargas, the story leapt forward again, into the possible futures in which Seattle signs Shaun Marcum or Roy Oswalt or whoever else to fill the empty space Vargas left behind.

The speed with which rumors appear and then dissipate—Anibal Sanchez signs with the Cubs, no, wait,  stays with the Tigers—makes actually thinking about what’s happening very difficult. Before a tantalizing rumor can be savored (Nick Swisher is having lunch with the Indians!), another comes along to displace it (Andre Ethier is on the trade block!). This is no way to enjoy a baseball offseason. Unfortunately, it may also be unavoidable. Executives and agents have incentive to lie. “Baseball general managers are conniving, self-serving liars,” wrote Jeff Sullivan recently on the Mariners blog Lookout Landing. Reporters have incentive to credit and disseminate misinformation.

Non-insiders would be better served with a media infrastructure that prizes context over size and speed. But unfortunately such a world cannot exist. The timeline must march on. One of the fundamental inefficiencies of the internet is that quantity is more valuable than quality; content equals money. Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors are not self-sustaining content machines. Real live people must tweet; they must aggregate. The result is that you end up with reporters vying desperately to break news first at the expense of getting things right. (See Sanchez). You end up with massively popular Twitter accounts like Jon Heyman’s,which has all the personality of that sports page transaction box and about 30 percent of the accuracy. 99 out of every 100 tweets is unadorned; a rumor, a link, or a report such as “Drew gets $9.5M salary. #redsox.”

On MLB Trade Rumors, you end up with college educated people writing posts with titles like “Latest on Scott Hairston” and “Potential Suitors for Michael Bourn,” which lists the Atlanta Braves as a possibility for Bourn, only to dismiss that notion out of hand: “The Braves could use another outfielder, but they have a center fielder in B.J. Upton and they figure to prioritize right-handed hitters. This doesn't seem like a fit.” The writer of the post, Ben Nicholson-Smith, is a smart guy with interesting things to say about baseball. I’m sure he does not wake up every morning with the intention of writing Kafka-esque non-rumors. But these are the times in which we live. The cumulative effect of all this information, all these nuggets of truth and nuggets of bullshit, is a sense of investment in the outcome. The more you know about a character, the more you care about him.

***

The obvious response to all this would be for people to change their consumption habits. But this is not such an easy thing to do, because the technologies by which we consume are are basically a reflection of who we are. The artist Ben Shahn wrote this about form:

“It is the visible shape of all man’s growth; it is the living picture of his tribe at its most primitive, and of his civilization at its most sophisticated state. Form is the many faces of the the legend -- bardic, epic, sculptural, musical, pictorial, architectural; it is the infinite images of religion; it is the expression and the remnant of self. Form is the very shape of content.”

“Form is the very shape of content.” Indeed, form is the reason that the transactions box was at the back of the sports section and not at the front. Take Jose Vizcaino in December of 2000. Newspapers did not report heavily on the details of his contract negotiations with various teams because he was a mediocre veteran and newspapers are static objects with finite amounts of space. Now the form is different, so the content is different too. This is why so much has been written about Scott Hairston this offseason and it is why there are thousands of people out there deeply invested in his free agency even though they are not related to him.

The mechanisms of the media have changed; the form has changed. Now news is consumed rapidly and dynamically via social media streams and constantly-updated blog pages. These forms demand a different kind of content—raw and voluminous and unchecked; frivolous and full of annoying speculation about Brian Wilson, but also highly addictive. There is a reason that MLB Trade Rumors has seen its page views increase by more than 80 percent in the last month. There is a reason that Jim Bowden gains hundreds of Twitter followers every day. It is the same reason that we cannot hope to find ourselves in a more measured media environment any time soon.

It plays out like this:

Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors are the new form. They are what Shahn called “the expression and remnant of self”—a construct of the media and the fans and society at large, a reflection of some ugly part of all of us. Jon Heyman’s tweets are the new content. So are Ken Rosenthal’s and Bob Nightengale’s. And since form is an expression of self, and content is shaped by form, those tweets, on some level, are really teaspoon-sized mirrors into our souls. It’s simple. When Heyman writes “Drew gets $9.5M salary. #redsox,” he is really writing about you and me. He is really saying that we can no sooner stop grasping at invented rumors than escape our very selves.


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