The Media Column: While Red Sox dominated Astros, baseball writers turned against their own sport

Alex Reimer
October 19, 2018 - 12:23 pm

USA Today Sports

The most remarkable thing that happened during the Red Sox’ five-game walloping of the Astros wasn’t David Price finally winning a playoff start. Baseball writers, who usually spend the month of October romanticizing America’s (former) Pastime, turned against their own sport. Baseball's biggest cheerleaders couldn’t stop lamenting the interminable pace of games and unbearable late starts. The criticism shows how deep-seated MLB’s problems are. 

Take the commentary following the Red Sox’ epic win over the Astros in Game 4. It was a classic ballgame full of lead changes, home runs and a dazzling defensive play from Andrew Benintendi to end it. Unfortunately, not many people were able to stay awake for the four-hour and 33-minute affair. Benintendi made his game-clinching sliding grab with the bases loaded just past 1:15 a.m. The ratings for TBS peaked from 10:00 p.m. –– 10:15 p.m., roughly three hours before the final pitch. 

WEEI’s John Tomase –– a man whose loyalty to baseball runs so deep, he doesn’t even subscribe to the RedZone Channel –– summed it up best. “Baseball does postseason drama right and everything else wrong,” he wrote in his postgame column posted in the wee hours of the morning Thursday. “There's beauty in the sport's lack of a clock, but a growing drudgery, too. Playoff games shouldn't start one day and end the next. There's a name for that sport, and it's cricket, and there's a reason no one plays it here.”

One of the reasons for the monotonous pace of these playoff games is the apparent paranoia over sign-stealing. An improperly credentialed Astros employee was booted from Fenway Park during Game 1 after he was caught pointing his cell phone camera into the Red Sox’ dugout, seemingly in an effort to swipe some intel. The same person, Kyle McLaughlin, also reportedly did the same thing to the Indians in the previous round. 

That report from Metro Boston’s Danny Picard set off an avalanche of followup stories, including one from Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, which chronicled the mounting suspicious surrounding the Astros’ proclivity for subterfuge. NBC Sports Boston’s Evan Drellich said one executive told him the Astros are the “Patriots of baseball.”

Yet, MLB has opted to ignore the accusations. In a statement, commissioner Rob Manfred said he considers the matter to be closed. That sparked widespread condemnation in baseball circles, with Passan excoriating baseball for letting Houston off the hook. ESPN’s Buster Olney reports teams are “appalled” with baseball’s lack of action. 

In addition to the incessant mound visits, sign-relaying and mouth-covering, the replay system also contributes to baseball’s tedious pace. In Game 4, crew chief Joe West ruled Jose Altuve’s would-be home run as fan interference, prompting a review that lasted three minutes and 33 seconds. The New York Post’s national MLB writer Joel Sherman called the episode a “debacle,” and said MLB needs to fix its umpire rotations immediately. Sherman doesn’t think West, the rotund 65-year-old umpiring vet, should be positioned in the outfield, where speed is paramount to calling an accurate game.

“There was no definitive down-the-fence-line replay,” Sherman writes. “The general sense at the replay center in New York was this was a homer, but the mandate for the replay officials in New York is only to overturn with a 100 percent certainty in the opposite view. And there was a sliver of doubt. So the original call was going to stand. Any umpire of any age and experience could have called it one way or the other. But that a 65-year-old guy on the move 100 feet away ruled fan interference speaks to the need for changing who is at what umpiring slots.”

But perhaps the harshest criticism about how MLB packages its postseason came from one of the league’s own employees. Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, who hosts his own daily show on MLB Network, ripped baseball Thursday for putting its playoff games on cable channels TBS and FS1. 

“This is ridiculous!,” Russo screamed. “Why, because of FS1, TBS, I mean, geez, garbage channels anyway! My god! What, TBS wants to have part of the game leak into primetime, so they can’t start at 3:00 p.m. in Houston in Game 3?  Nonsense! Who cares what TBS thinks? Put the game on, so we all can watch it, every part of the country! You think the NFL would play its championship game at 3 a.m.? You think it would do that? Does Championship Sunday in the NFL, the first big game begin at 7 and then the Rams play at 10? No it doesn’t!”

Though Russo’s get-off-my lawn routine would even make Gerry Callahan blush, he does have a point. MLB makes its postseason product difficult to follow. While the NBA routinely starts playoff games at 8:30 p.m., basketball is a timed sport. NBA Finals games never last until the wee hours of the morning, which happens all of the time in baseball –– as Red Sox fans know.

There’s lots to celebrate about the Red Sox’ incredible World Series run. But baseball writers and pundits largely spent their week complaining. MLB has lost its biggest sycophants. It's in danger of losing all of us, too. 

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Aaron Hernandez Spotlight series exceeds expectations, but some accreditation would be nice: I was skeptical about the Globe’s six-part Aaron Hernandez Spotlight series. It didn’t seem like there was much left to say about the disgraced ex-football star, who took his life 18 months ago. 

For the most part, I’ve been proven wrong. While some of the series is rehash –– we once again heard about the infamous Belichick-Hernandez NFL Combine meeting and other commonly spouted details –– the series puts Hernandez’s story in perspective. It depicts an immature and erratic young football star who got wrapped up in the callous multibillion-dollar world of professional football, and saw it accelerate his decline.

Part one of the series also includes new information about Hernandez’s upbringing, such as the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and sexual abuse his brother says he withstood as a child. Those details help paint the psychological profile of Hernandez.

With that said, it would’ve been nice if the Globe acknowledged some of the previous reporting on the subject. Investigative reporter Michele McPhee, for example, published a trio of stories for Newsweek about Hernandez in the wake of his passing that includes many of the same details found in the Globe series. Perhaps most notably, the Globe reports that Hernandez was high on synthetic marijuana when he hung himself in his jail cell. It’s an incredible detail, which McPhee reported last spring.

Patriots spike the football on Red Sox: The Patriots regularly send out press releases touting their ratings success, but the one they issued following Sunday’s win against the Chiefs had some extra mustard to it.

The statement ran through the numbers –– Patriots scored a 33.7 rating, whereas the Red Sox drew a 21.3 for Game 2 of the ALCS –– before pointing out the Red Sox started one hour earlier, granting them an independent window. Perhaps the Patriots wanted to land a little jab in response to the Globe’s Hernandez Spotlight series. 

Facebook’s lies cost countless sportswriters their jobs: Last June, Fox Sports laid off its entire digital writing staff in order to pivot to video. Many other outlets followed suit, due to the widespread belief that video is the future of the Internet. During this time period, Facebook reported exceptional video metrics on its website, which fueled this movement.

But as it turns out, Facebook lied. According to a lawsuit that was released this week, Facebook knew its video metrics were inaccurate as early as 2015. But the social media behemoth didn’t release the data in an apparent attempt to woo advertisers. The dishonesty cost countless sportswriters their jobs, including Boston-based Pete Blackburn, who got laid off from Fox and now works for CBS Sports. 

In a phone conversation with me, Blackburn says the whole experience still leaves a sour taste in his mouth. “I think the biggest thing for me at Fox is we were a successful digital entity,” he said. “We were making money, we were driving traffic. Everything was looking pretty good. We had a great staff, great content, we were in the green. It didn’t make a lot of sense for us to completely pivot the way we did, at least in my mind. I think everybody else felt the same. There were lots of good people who lost their jobs because of that. So that was the thing for me. There are lots of places online that are struggling to make money or generate traffic. If you’ve got to make layoffs to keep things alive, fine, so be it. That’s the industry. But to do it while you’re having success? That’s the thing that pissed me off the most.” 

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