David Ortiz has me thinking about Bryce Harper. Specifically, he has me thinking about Bryce Harper's now endlessly-memed response to a reporter's inquiry about potential Canadian beer intake. Imagine for a moment that any member of the Red Sox, in response to a reporter's question, had said "That's a clown question, bro." We all know exactly what would happen. The only uncertainty is whether the Boston press would be calling for that player's immediate trade or immediate crucifixion. Even if it was a clown question. Even if that player was the best on the team. You can't question the seriousness of the Boston sports media and expect to live.
Yesterday afternoon, David Ortiz was talking with reporters prior to the Red Sox' final game against the Miami Marlins. The conversation started with the standard baseball stuff, how Papi feels about his hitting, how the team's doing, etc. The hopefully immortal line "It's summer. Summer get hot, Papi get hot" was delivered. Things took a slight turn when one reporter asked about Ortiz's contract status, and how that might motivate the DH. It was then that David Ortiz, a man whose job description is "hit things with a stick," delivered several minutes of thoughtful analysis of the Boston media scene.
The longtime Sox DH went over the pressures of playing here, the drama surrounding the clubhouse, the absurd expectations, all of it. Honestly, if you have five minutes, you should really just listen to the full audio. I can't do justice in text to the utter sincerity of Ortiz's voice, to the clipped defensiveness of the reporters. And throughout all of it, despite his clear frustration, he remained calm and deliberate, choosing his words and leveling them directly at his targets. To call this a rant, as so many writers have since yesterday, is to remove any and all meaning from that word.
David Ortiz wasn't ranting at the media; he was indicting them.
This particular indictment stemmed from the piece Buster Olney wrote for ESPN several days ago, in which he cited a number of text messages (only one of which he quoted) from a number of "players and staff" (none of whom he named) to declare the Red Sox clubhouse dysfunctional. It was hardly a compelling piece of journalism, but it got a lot of attention, as these things tend to. The Red Sox have, to a man, completely disagreed with Olney's reporting, and Ortiz's statements are simply the latest in a solid string of "he doesn't know what he's talking about"s.
But this being Boston, it goes much deeper and much further back than a throwaway piece on a daily ESPN blog. It goes at least as far back as the famous "downfall of the Sox" column Bob Hohler wrote for the Boston Globe after last season's collapse. Tales of a supposedly distracted and pill-popping manager, a lazy, overweight pitching staff, and a team that just didn't care were all anyone in Boston could talk about for a good month. It was the classic example of a story that defines the narrative and gains a momentum of its own.
That, of course, was last year. But this year, especially with Boston's rough start, it's been more of the same every single week. Adrian Gonzalez is sour and aloof. Kevin Youkilis and Bobby Valentine are locked in some sort of death feud. Daniel Bard is greedy for wanting to start and childish for expressing anger when he failed. Josh Beckett is a selfish jackass who cares more about his golf swing than his teammates. One can understand why David Ortiz (and presumably the rest of the team) would want the media to leave them alone.
Obviously that's not going to happen, and Ortiz is smart enough to know that. Dealing with the media is part of the job when you're a professional baseball player, and that goes double for Boston players. But it doesn't seem unreasonable for Ortiz to want baseball writers to prioritize on-the-field baseball over half-assed clubhouse psychology.
The rationale for the clubhouse psychology stories, of course, is very straightforward. First, they're easy. Get a few quotes (harder than it sounds, but it's the one thing beat writers are trained very well to do), throw in a few tidbits about harmony and cooperation that you learned at the last corporate team-building retreat, and you've got instant analysis. If you can work in something about the fabled ideal teammate who existed back when you were a child (and only in your dreams), all the better. And it makes a certain kind of sense. A baseball team is a workplace, and like all workplaces, the emotional state of the workers is important. It seems reasonable that teammates hating each other or just generally being unhappy would make the team worse. No thought required by either writer or reader, slap a bow on it and it's done.
Secondly, and this is more important from a business standpoint, they get attention. Tons of attention. Passionate, angry attention. Write a thousand words analyzing Adrian Gonzalez's swings at pitches outside the zone in 2012 vs. 2011, you'll get a bunch of clicks, a few thoughtful comments, and maybe one random "Screw the Red Sux, go O's!" troll. Write a thousand words about how Gonzalez is a lazy bum who can't handle the bright spotlight of Boston, and also is overpaid, and watch the tweets and links fly. Nobody (well, outside of Fangraphs threads) gets angry about Jon Lester's rising BB/9 rate. His rising chicken intake will get everyone angry enough to read, listen, and tell all their friends.
There's nothing particularly unusual about this, by the way, nothing really Boston-specific, or even sports-specific, about this tendency toward lazy and/or negative analysis. Most sports sections dote upon it, and anyone familiar with the Washington beat will notice abundant parallels to political coverage. The political parallel, though, brings me to my favorite line from Ortiz's comments, one which made me pause the feed for a moment to appreciate exactly how spot-on it was.
This is baseball, man. You know, it seems like everything that goes around here, this is like one of those Congress decisions that affects the whole nation. It ain't like that, man. This is baseball. We're supposed to have fun.
It has really and truly come to this. David Ortiz has to remind the media (and, to be fair, fans) that we're talking about a game. And this is what's going to get him smashed for the next week. Reporting about angry text messages from unnamed officials and off-day golf trips isn't Very Important And Serious? Blasphemy. It's remarkable exactly how much Red Sox coverage this explains, and how much of it would fall to pieces if Ortiz's advice were followed. Consider how mad people got in this city about Beckett's golf trip. Mad enough to show up at Fenway just to boo him. Mad enough to curse about Beckett to strangers at a coffee shop. And what were they mad about, really? I mean, stripped of everything else, what actually happened? A man who plays baseball went golfing, perhaps while he was hurt. He then lost a baseball game. No one died, no layoffs or bank panics ensued.
Because baseball doesn't matter. And that's what's great about it. The game is, as was said in the best of all X-Files episodes, "useless but perfect." There's no shame in that, plenty of things are useless but perfect. Paintings, plays, virtually everything else we do to distract ourselves from our day-to-day lives. Some things, it turns out, can just be fun. Doesn't mean they can't be taken seriously, or obsessed over, just that there's no need to attach giant thundering significance to them. Yet baseball writers, Boston ones in particular, seem to have this burning need to prove that their work is Very Important. And thus the constant barrage of negative stories and clubhouse insider gossip, all to prove that they matter. After all, if it gets people riled up, it must be important.
So we get a lovely feedback loop. People love baseball, and go to read about baseball. Baseball writers tell them that Josh Beckett went golfing, and this is Very Important, and they should all be angry about it. People, obediently enough, get angry about it. The writers congratulate themselves on their significance, and write about how sullen Adrian Gonzalez is. The ultimate result is that everyone, players included, begins to hate baseball, but hey, at least the clicks keep coming.
Yesterday, David Ortiz called the Boston media out for being complete failures. Today, and probably for the next several days, that media will spend its every waking minute firing back. And with every outraged column declaring Papi ungrateful, angry, and out of line, they will be proving his point.