Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Cost of Admission

It should have been a weekend of celebration - belated celebration, but celebration nonetheless. Instead, the weekend provided a soap opera, complete with anti-heroes, shadowy villains, surprise twists, and a big bowl of popcorn. And best of all, it’s the actors in this little drama who are paying the cost of admission. Because that’s what this little drama is about.

Last week the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voted to admit web-based writers into their ranks. It’s a huge step for the notoriously staid group, as evidenced that it took them about eight years to take it. The first group of nominees was requested from five web sites which are credentialed for MLB post-season coverage. Sixteen writers were accepted, including Scott Miller from CBS Sportsline; Jim Caple, Jerry Crasnick, Peter Gammons, Tim Kurkjian, Amy Nelson, Buster Olney, and Jayson Stark from ESPN; Ken Rosenthal from FoxSports; John Donovan, Jon Heyman, and Tom Verducci from SI; and Tim Brown, Steve Henson, Jeff Passan, and Dan Wetzel from Yahoo.

Celebration time, right?

Not so fast. First, it’s not the huge step forward you might think, because only two of the members who were accepted weren’t previous members of the BBWAA from their time working in print media. But what is really raising eyebrows is that they also rejected two candidates – Rob Neyer and Keith Law.

Those two writers have a lot in common. For instance, they both were submitted by ESPN.com. Neyer has been one of the most popular baseball writers there for at least eight years, and is almost exclusively available only if you subscribe to their Insider service. Law is relatively new to ESPN.com, but was originally one of the writers at Baseball Prospectus, and in between those two gigs he served as a consultant with the Toronto Blue Jays.

They’re also considered the two most statistically-oriented baseball writers of that group. They’re also two members who have never worked for newspapers. And they’re the two writers who have been most critical of traditional baseball writing. And traditional baseball writers.

So what happened? Well, the simple answer is that BBWAA’s national board of directors, who reviews the nominations, provided only two options to the rank-and-file. A vote of ‘yay’ accepted the sixteen internet writers but left out Neyer and Law. A vote of ‘nay’ rejected the whole bunch. Basically, Neyer and Law didn’t make it out of committee.

And why not? According to the president of the BBWAA, Bob Dutton, questions were raised about Neyer and Law, specifically whether they attend enough baseball games. That’s not quite as petty as it sounds. The reason the BBWAA was originally formed was to act as a lobby for baseball writers when dealing with Major League Baseball. For instance, if a club isn’t giving proper access to ballplayers, or providing sub-standard conditions in the press box, they can negotiate with the ball club as a unit. And so the BBWAA considers it a requirement that the writers attend games.

How that question was raised, and how it was resolved, is a matter of some debate. Tracy Ringolsby, a Colorado Rockies sportswriter who sits on the BBWAA national board of directors, claims that the person from ESPN.com who submitted the names was asked, though not by Ringolsby. Whomever the BBWAA talked to replied that Neyer and Law don’t go to many games.

However, Law says he talked to the person from ESPN.com who submitted the names and that the person denies ever being contacted by the BBWAA. ESPN.com’s baseball editor, who would seem to be the natural person to ask about such a thing, also claims he was not contacted. Finally, Neyer and Law were certainly never contacted, despite the BBWAA having their contact information.

And that story also contradicts another post by Maury Brown, a BBWAA member who, as far as I can tell, isn’t on the national board. He claims that the BBWAA was perturbed to get nine nominees from ESPN, which is essentially a television network, so they went back to ESPN to see if they could pare down the list. It was ESPN who suggested that Neyer and Law be left off.

Of course, none of the scenarios completely answer the obvious questions. Like why were they the only two singled out? Who was consulted from ESPN? Why didn’t the national board allow an up-down vote on Neyer and Law, or on each of the candidates? How many games is enough? Are existing members, some of whom are editors or political cartoonists, and only rarely write about baseball, put up to similar scrutiny? And finally, why was this narrow interpretation of the role of the BBWAA applied in only this case? Especially when there were sixteen other applicants?

That last question is especially tricky, because the narrow role of the BBWAA has transformed significantly from its original purpose of lobbying MLB for the writers. The BBWAA is now responsible for the first interpretation of baseball history. They decide who is admitted to the Hall of Fame, a responsibility of which Neyer, at least, has been quite critical. And maybe more importantly, they’re recognized (and again criticized) for the end of the season awards that are usually cited when evaluating HOF credentials.

In other words, they interpret the game the day after it’s played. They interpret the previous year and determine award-winning performances. And they interpret players’ careers and pass judgment on decades worth of results. They are the first, second and third passes at baseball history. To an enormous extent, they define it.

Which explains the reaction on the Internet Friday and Saturday. Near as I can tell, it started late Thursday night with a post at BaseballThinkFactory.com where Neyer gives his initial reactions and wonders if his relationship to other writers cost him the nomination. The decision was also being examined early on Friday at BaseballAnalysts.com in a thread in which Rob also participates. It contains some solid back-and-forth with BBWAA members about the process and the reasons for rejection.

Then things started getting a little less civil. Keith Law posted his reaction on his web site. Amidst a fairly civil post Law mentions that he heard Tracy Ringolsby voted against accepting the sixteen internet writers, and speculated that the slight may have been tied to a dislike of the “Interwebs.”

That speculation introduced me to the tragic/comic stylings of Ringolsby, because he goes off like a roman candle. Ringolsby replies that he voted against the sixteen because he thought Law should be included. But his position on Law doesn’t stop him from launching into some personal attacks, or from ranting that Law is a “liar” a couple of times. While portraying himself as a kind colleague of Law’s, we get our first twist when we find out that this isn’t the first time he’s attacked Law publicly.

Eventually, it seems like he and Law reach a mutual understanding, but Ringolsby continues his anti-Law rant over at a fourth thread, again at Baseball Think Factory. This thread starts late on Friday night and by now people are pretty riled up. The second post is Ringolsby anonymously calling Law a “liar.” The third post is Neyer calling Ringolsby out. But the fourth post, by someone named Banta, is my favorite:



“This thread is off to a good start. Think I'm gonna make
some popping corn and settle in.


I don't have cable anymore, in case anyone's
wondering.”


Banta likely came away satisfied. The thread continues for nearly four hundred more comments. Ringolsby reveals his identity and he and Neyer go back and forth during the first 100 comments. We get another plot twist when Neyer accuses Ringolsby of writing “truly terrible, personal things about me in his column, without contacting me first to check the accuracy of those things.” Hmm. Turns out Neyer and Ringolsby have some history after all.

But wait, there’s yet another twist. In the next one hundred comments, we learn that Neyer has some history criticizing Ringolsby, too. Neyer received an advance copy of a book Ringolsby wrote and posted a critical review of it anonymously on Amazon.com. It’s something he regrets, and it’s what Ringolsby was criticizing with those “truly terrible, personal things.”

And that’s where the soap opera currently sits. The BBWAA has made it very clear that Neyer and Law are both welcome to apply again next year, so stay tuned. Because it looks like this performance will get at least one of the two things it’s really missing: a sequel.

The other - a happy ending - is still in doubt.



Looks like there's an update on the story above. Joe Posnanski interviews Bob Dutton at his blog for his first-hand account of what happened.

Also, Bat Girl is back again at the GameDay Writers' Blog, which I'm sure you'll want to check out.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ken Rosenthal should have been left off.

Maury Brown said...

FYI...

Just to be clear, I am not a member of the BBWAA. Although, I must thank you for thinking that I somehow have the stuff to be considered.

-- Maury Brown
Business of Sports Network
Baseball Prospectus

Anonymous said...

Another clarification John, Ringolsby was not the author of the book Rob Neyer reviewed on Amazon.

-Will