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MLB media roundtable: Challenges of reporting, tough interviews and more

What's life like on the MLB beat? Seven respected reporters discuss the biggest challenges of covering the league.

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With the start of the 2016 MLB regular season coming on April 3, I paneled seven respected MLB writers and reporters for a roundtable discussion on a number of MLB-related topics.

The panel:

Shi Davidi, Sportsnet (Canada) senior baseball columnist and author of The Big 50: Toronto Blue Jays (May).

Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals writer.

Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports MLB columnist and author of The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.

Marly Rivera, ESPN Deportes, writer and reporter.

Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports and MLB Network reporter.

Susan Slusser, San Francisco Chronicle, A's beat writer.

Jayson Stark, ESPN national MLB columnist.

(Editor's note: The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.)

How often are you lied to when covering your sport?

Davidi: I have known very few people to outright lie, so at least in my experience that's been rare. But I would say there is lots of calculated obfuscation, particularly with injuries and contracts. Some people might say there's little distinction between the two, but I believe there's a difference, and in certain instances I can understand why people might be unable to respond with full clarity. Among the challenges of the job is learning how to operate comfortably and responsibly in the murk.

Goold: To be honest, straight-up lies are rare. It’s more common to receive misdirection or have an answer be misleading than for it to be a lie. You get a lot of truthiness. The job is to recognize it and then report why. If you have a good feel for the beat and the people you cover, you can sleuth out the answer so there’s never a chance for them to lie.

Passan: I suppose I'll find out come the next CBA whether I'm being told one now. I wouldn't say I'm straight-up lied to as often as I'm told half-truths, convenient omissions and biased accounts. It's why a breadth of contacts is so vital: It allows reporters to confirm or scrap information with questionable veracity based on the original source.

Rivera: That's a difficult question to answer. I think there is more often a withholding of information than flat-out lying. Or so I would like to believe.

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Rosenthal: Flat-out, bald-faced lies? Not too often. Half-truths, incomplete truths, shading of truths? Just about every day. That said, it’s our job to dig deeper, figure out when we’re getting played, get to the bottom of stories. Generally, I have no problem with someone who declines comment on a question. I have a big problem with someone who deliberately misleads me. And yes, I keep score.

Slusser: Misdirected on occasion, maybe, but I can only think of two outright blatant lies in 18 years covering the A's. One was from an agent trying to get a better deal for his client elsewhere (so that one's on me for believing him) and one from a long-ago team employee who outright shot down a scoop I had, telling me the nuclear bomb for any reporter: "Don't write that, you'll look stupid." So I didn't, and of course my initial information had been accurate all along. Not that I'm still seething about that 16 years later.

Stark: Outright lied to? That’s very rare, at least in my experience. I learned a long time ago that people we cover are always going to “use” the media to a certain extent. They’re always going to tell us certain things for certain effects. That goes with the territory. They want some things out there. They want them out there for a reason. So I get that. And I always factor it in to what I’m hearing and what I’m considering reporting. But that’s different than “lying.” I think I’ve been in the business long enough now that I have a feel for when something doesn’t add up. If it doesn’t, I’ll be wary of just throwing it out there until I check it. I hear people say that’s harder to do that sort of checking in a 24/7 world, when the people in our business are tweeting away all day long. I don’t believe that. I’ve sat on stories for days until I felt I’d fully checked them out. And you know why? Because being right still matters. I go into every offseason, every winter meetings and every trade deadline resolving never to have to tweet: “Disregard previous tweet,” because I’d just messed something up in the name of being fast or first. The truth matters. Accuracy matters. And we should be in constant pursuit of truth. I’m selective about the people I rely on most for information. If I feel I’ve been lied to or seriously misled by someone in the past, I’ll be very careful about dealing with that source in the future.

What is a story in Major League Baseball that is being under-covered and why is it being under-covered?

Davidi: There have been some terrific pieces done on some of the issues in the signing of international free agents in Latin America, but it remains an often messy piece of business with legitimate questions of whether the process is fair to sometimes impoverished kids who may bet their futures on a long shot at greatness. A more regulated process—and MLB has tried to make some inroads—would help. It's being under-covered because it would require a significant investment to report well, and I'm not sure many people see it as a major issue.

Goold: Medicals. Teams are collecting more and more information about players, from drawing blood to measuring brain activity. And that’s just the beginning. I recently did a story on the Cardinals’ Department of Performance, and it was a great learning experience about how a data-driven team is turning to academic-level research for the “next frontier” of baseball success. I called it sabermedicals, and I wasn’t trying to be cute. This is where teams are trying to make strides, and there are ethical and privacy questions bubbling under the surface. The union is watching closely, especially when it comes to player privacy and the exchange of information between teams. Keep in mind, this is a year when CBA discussions are underway. I am eager to see how Jeff Passan’s new book, The Arm, forwards this conversation. There is an ethical element I also find fascinating, and I’ll offer an extreme example: For a moment, think if a team had a breakthrough with Tommy John rehab, shaving a month or two of the recovery. That could be a competitive edge, and that’s what teams are looking for. But do they owe it to the health of the industry and the humans involved to share that information for the betterment of the whole? This is the story.

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Passan: For three years before my colleagues and I wrote this story, I'd heard stories about the disaster that was the Cuban market. Human trafficking. Kidnapping. Murder. Most of which, I figured, were hyperbole. I asked Cuban players who came on and off the record. None dared talk. Government officials were lock boxes. My Spanish is rudimentary at best. And not until the complaint that was the basis of that story did I realize: This was all real, and baseball found itself in the middle of an international scandal. Now a certified agent has been indicted, and still so little is being reported. Part of it is because, like myself, almost all baseball reporters don't speak Spanish. It's a huge flaw and something I keep promising myself I'll do and not following through. The treatment of all Latin American players, really, is a blind spot for baseball writers, and as much as I've tried to illuminate it, I still need to do a better job, too. Lack of fluency in a language isn't an excuse for glossing over stories that affect an increasing percentage of major league players and a near-majority of those in the minor leagues.

Rivera: The pushback that some of the MLB teams have had in terms of implementing Spanish-language translators in the clubhouse. Many teams have complied with the MLB-MLBPA mandate, such as the Yankees and Mets, but many others have either refused to do so, or made up excuses of why they haven't done so yet. It is preposterous to think that money has become an obstacle in order to help a player communicate with the media in a manner in which they feel more comfortable and are better understood.

Rosenthal:Analytics certainly are not under-covered this point. Day-to-day happenings are not under-covered, either. To me, the one enduring mystery is what players go through physically to get on the field. I’m not simply talking about performance-enhancing drugs, which of course some players still use. I’m talking about all the legal medications, injections and supplements players take simply to keep going. HIPAA laws prevent us from a significant amount of medical information. But I suspect a lot goes on that we don’t know about.

Slusser: The absurdly low pay for most minor leaguers, many of them with families who struggle to get by during the season. I think average people perhaps don't care much because they think “Oh, they get to play baseball for a living,” and don't realize they're eating Top Ramen and their wife and kids have moved back in with the grandparents. It's pretty simple: there is more than enough money in baseball that all minor leaguers should be making the equivalent of a living wage over the course of a full year. The current lawsuit should have brought the issue to the fore, but I don't believe it's drawn much attention. I'd say PEDs but everyone else will, I reckon. There are certainly always suspicions that athletes in every sport, not just baseball, are remaining ahead of the testers. As always: proving it is another matter.

Stark: I don’t like to use the word “tanking” because people overreact to it. But when you have at least five teams whose plans for this season have very little to do with winning games in the big leagues, that’s a problem, for this or any sport. I’ve talked to the teams involved. They don’t believe they’re tanking, at least not in the way that, say, the Sixers went about tanking. They each have reasonable explanations for what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. But I’m fascinated by how many people on other teams, in big markets and small, believe that some or all of these teams are tanking. And they believe it’s because the current system creates incentives not just to lose but to lose a lot. Only a handful of us in the media have written about this. I think Buster Olney and I have probably written and talked about it the most. I’m not sure why others haven’t followed. I suspect it’s because either they’re not talking to the same people I’m talking to, or they have a different definition of what’s happening, or they cover the teams involved, which makes it uncomfortable to address this topic. But there is so much conversation about it inside the sport, it’s become a “thing,” whether the media chooses to address that thing or not.


Who is the toughest interview in the sport and why?

Davidi: I'd say anyone you need an interpreter to speak with. Even gruff and disinterested players can tell you something through their non-answers, and things are inevitably lost when there's a language barrier, no matter how open someone is.

Goold: I don’t know, man. I feel like I’m going to disappoint you here and it’s not for lack of thinking back on past moments of friction. The wife has scolded me for not coming up with a better answer for you, saying it reads like a deke. Can I say the federal government? Officials have been polite, but not forthcoming about the investigation into the Cardinals. Sometimes you run into what you could call a hostile witness, but those kind of interviews can result in the best information.

Passan: I'm not sure the last time Fred Wilpon, the Mets owner, gave a substantive interview. Maybe five years ago with The New Yorker? Either way, he never talks because he's an owner and nobody can force him to answer questions about his ties to Bernie Madoff and the ruinous effect they had on one of the most important franchises in baseball. MLB has protected the Wilpon family for years with loans and high-ranking positions on committees. Wilpon learned his lesson from that New Yorker story on the dangers of honesty.

Rivera: Alex Rodríguez. I have consistently tried to crack the veneer that he has spent so many years constructing.

Rosenthal: Chase Utley. He would want me to say that. He takes PRIDE in being boring.

Slusser: I'm not sure there are any Marshawn Lynch-level toughies in baseball right now. Barry Bonds certainly could be prickly and beyond when with the Giants, but my impression is that he has been OK with the Marlins.

I often find the guys with poor reputations to be much better than advertised, so I hesitate to mention anyone I haven't covered on at least a semi-regular basis.

Stark: There aren’t as many choices as you’d think. Very few players in this sport are what I’d describe as difficult or unpleasant to interview. But who’s the toughest? I’d vote for Yasiel Puig. Part of this is cultural, I’m sure. But he’s always struck me as a guy who has no understanding of what we do and regards the media as not much more than a nuisance. Of course, where he came from, there was no equivalent to the American sports media and no requirement for any player to speak with the media. So I get it. But that doesn’t make him any easier to deal with.

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How would you define the access you receive from MLB teams on a day-to-day basis during the regular season?

Davidi: Our access as baseball writers is generally very good, and you can usually get to anyone you’re looking for. Common sense applies, of course, and given the everyday nature of our access, knowing when to push and when to back off is essential.

Goold: Evolving. It is clear that Major League Baseball and the union both see the value of access and have said as much. For baseball, there is a historic connection between the game and the people who tell its story that has allowed both industries to thrive, grow, excel. I don’t see the bedrock elements of access—interviews in the clubhouse, one-on-one interviews, manager pressers—changing. We have all heard union chief Tony Clark say that reducing access is “not on the to-do list” for the players in this year’s CBA. Having clearly defined guidelines for access is important, and it’s one of the reasons that the BBWAA, for example, has been proactive in revising and modernizing its membership policy because members do receive credentials for access. The speed of news and the ubiquitous nature of social media have altered the landscape of coverage, and we’re seeing access policies move to keep up.

Passan: Worse than it used to be, though baseball still offers more face-to-face time with players than other sports. The fear is that after significant access cuts in the last collective-bargaining agreement, the players' union will try to close the clubhouse pregame and turn postgame into a press conference-type setting starting next season. That would be a huge mistake—access is the lifeblood of good journalism and at its best counterbalances the great sabermetric-based writing available—and union officials promise they have no intentions of doing so.

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Rivera: The access is even across the board, the main difference is in what you can do with that access. For example, with the Yankees, players are not as readily available when they’re at Yankee Stadium versus when they are on the road. In the big media markets it can be very difficult to get your work done due to either lack of availability or excessive media presence. I would much rather cover the Yankees at, for example, Tampa Bay, than at Yankee Stadium or at Fenway Park.

Rosenthal: It varies team to team, day to day. Generally we get a window for clubhouse access before batting practice. Sometimes, it coincides with the time the manager talks, making things problematic. Often, players, particularly from the home team, are nowhere to be found. Until a few years ago we also were allowed in the clubhouse after batting practice (relevant only for the home team, which hits first). That was taken away, which mostly penalized the people who want to keep working. By and large, though, our access is good—clubhouses are always open post-game. And it’s important to remember that baseball is a day-to-day sport. My guess is that we get the most access of any writers covering professional team sports.

Slusser: The A's are highly responsive to media access needs, follow all of the requirements to the letter, and demonstrate a great deal of flexibility if and when needed. They're also excellent about communicating sudden changes in times for access and for manager's sessions, etc. I certainly have heard some complaints about other teams skirting requirements here and there but the A's are absolutely terrific: accommodating, pleasant, proactive.

Stark: I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have more access in baseball than in any other major professional sport. I’m grateful for that, because I’ve always felt that good reporting is about building relationships. So having access to players, managers and coaches before games is a crucial aspect to this job. But having said that, I’m concerned about preserving that access. I think there are more media people in clubhouses before games than at any time since I’ve been covering baseball. And because players aren’t sure who many of those people are, I think it’s made them more reluctant to make themselves available, and sometimes more guarded when they do speak. I’ve also seen more instances of media relations people hovering to listen in on interviews than I’ve ever seen. And that can be intimidating for the guys being interviewed. So I think we’ll be facing a constant fight to preserve access as we move along. But I’m actually pretty optimistic that, at least in the near term, we’re not going to see any significant cutbacks in that access, at least for those of us who most need that access to do our jobs and build those relationships.

Areplayers whose first language is not English accurately reflected by the baseball press? If yes, why? If no, why?

Davidi: Aside from the players who end up developing a very strong grasp of English, I don't think so, primarily because it's hard to have an in-depth interaction through an interpreter. Something is always lost when the words are translated through a third party, and you usually lose the nuances of intonation, body language and expression. Also, players speaking outside their native tongue are likelier to be more cautious in what they're saying for a number of reasons, from fear of being misunderstood to discomfort with their command of language. As reporters, we should always remember what it must be like being in their shoes.

Goold: We have seen this improve greatly in the past decade-plus. That’s partially because of how conscientious teams, the union and players themselves have become. It’s obvious the importance of translators or English classes, or both, even in the minor leagues. It’s also worth pointing out, that there are many bilingual and talented baseball writers who show how valuable that can be to accurate coverage, and I think that has made our business better equipped and just better.

Who will be National League's breakout players in 2016?

Passan: Beyond the language barrier, I think there's often a cognitive dissonance culturally between the media and Latin players. As much as white, American writers try to understand the society in which many of them grew up, we can't fully, and their background informs their worldview. It's something you have to be conscientious to acknowledge, particularly when those who are just learning the language are speaking. With someone like Jose Bautista or Ubaldo Jimenez, both of whom grew up in the Dominican Republic learning English, I'm less wary because they know what they're saying. If I hear something that doesn't sound right from another player, though, I'll make sure to ask a follow-up just to ensure there's no misinterpretation. The bigger issue is lack of comfort, and I don't blame some players. If you're in a second language and you're not confident with it, your words might get twisted by someone who isn't as conscientious. And considering some of the translators employed by teams aren't translators but just employees who speak Spanish, the idea they're providing accurate and full translations seems unlikely.

Rivera: No, not always. In my experience, many players whose first language is Spanish are sometimes thought of as being ‘simple’ or lacking in intelligence because they use basic sentences to express complicated thoughts. Someone’s level of intelligence should never be evaluated as being dependent on the language they grew up speaking. I do believe that learning English is an important asset for any player that comes to the U.S., but that does not mean that they should be ridiculed because they can’t express complete thoughts in a language that is foreign to them.

Rosenthal: The answer, sadly, is no. And it’s a failing of ours, in my opinion. I regret not mastering Spanish when I was younger; it should be a prerequisite for anyone entering our business today (at my advanced age, I’m a lost cause). I try to make a point of writing about players whose first language is not English, and interviewing them on television when possible. Their stories need to be told every bit as much as the stories of players who grew up speaking English as their first language.

Slusser: It’s a mixed bag, sort of a case by case basis, and there are any number of reasons for that. The quality of translation is the biggest, and the range of translator ability is extreme, to say the least. I like the requirement that teams are now expected to provide translators for Spanish speakers and hope that clubs will follow up with at least adequate translators. There are more bilingual reporters all the time, which also helps. They are almost all happy to help facilitate interviews when asked and they often will provide some insight into players’ personalities and backstories. The Spanish-language and Japanese-language media are also just a blast to work alongside; they bring some fresh voices and different perspectives. The more foreign-language media the better. Many non-English speakers are just not comfortable doing interviews, even with a translator. Bartolo Colon is one, but his personality still somehow comes through. Still, I would love to have gotten to know him better - and have only myself to blame for that ultimately since my many attempts to learn Spanish have fallen short. I do have a long list of rude Japanese words helpfully provided by the Hideki Matsui media, so have managed to learn a little something to foster foreign relations.

Stark: Not in every case, no. And to some degree, that’s our fault. I know a little Spanish, and I’ve even done a few interviews in very basic Spanish. But in general, the American media doesn’t make enough of an effort to learn Spanish, let alone speak it. I’ve seen instances where the media doesn’t take the same time to get to know Hispanic players that it does American-born players, even when I know that player speaks better English than he’s given credit for. I’d like to see the sport do some programs, maybe in spring training, that give the media a better feel for how to relate to players who speak other languages. That would be good for everyone.

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What club/organization deserves praise for its relationship with the media and why?

Davidi: The vast majority of my work relates to the Toronto Blue Jays, so my experience with other clubs is on a more cursory level. That being said, I've always found the Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates very helpful to visiting writers in securing access to whoever is needed.

Goold: Declined to answer. (Note: Goold cited that his knowledge of the city-by-city American League is limited by covering a team in the NL.)

Passan: The Rays are always great. The Cubs’ clubhouse is a joy to be around. The Diamondbacks are solid. Really, most teams are respectful of reporters and their duties, and singling out those three in no way makes them better than almost all of the others, who for the most part are staffed by dutiful P.R. people. I have it easier than most, too, because some teams go out of their way to accommodate national writers. What's annoying is when P.R. people hover during interviews. The players are grown men. They don't need babysitters.

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Rivera: Among the most helpful, I'd like to single out the Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles, and LA Angels of Anaheim. There has never been a time when I have needed to do something in any of those clubhouses that a member of the staff did not help me do my job.

Rosenthal: The Royals are excellent, in part due to their outstanding PR director, Mike Swanson. The Cubs also are really good; their PR director is Peter Chase. A number of other clubs also deserve mention: The Pirates, the Giants, the Diamondbacks, the Rays. I’m sure I’m missing a few - my apologies!

Slusser: I have nothing but praise for the A's, and the Royals and the Rays are two other clubs with spectacularly good PR departments. In fact, almost all of the league PR folks are pros' pros, but sometimes their owners or GMs aren't media friendly or are just clueless about the nature of our jobs, and that makes it tough for some of these excellent folks to do their jobs well.

Stark: It’s hard to single out just one team, because there are quite a few that understand the media’s role and create an atmosphere that allows us to do our jobs. But the Cubs right now are a team that’s doing pretty much everything right, and that includes how it relates to the media. There isn’t a manager in the major leagues who is more willing to let you in, on a whole different level, than Joe Maddon. He’s funny. He’s thoughtful. He gives us time. He’s as interested in dialogue as he is in being interviewed. And he allows his players a level of freedom that makes this an excellent clubhouse to work in, because players aren’t afraid to be themselves and say what’s on their minds. But that also extends to the front office. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are both really intelligent, articulate and accessible guys. Their media-relations director, Peter Chase, does a great job of making the manager available but keeping him from being overwhelmed. This is the way it ought to be done, from top to bottom. Again, I don’t want to make it seem as if they’re the only team that fits this description. But I think it’s one more reason the coverage of the Cubs these days is so positive for the most part.

In no particular order, who are some current players who would be successful as radio or television analysts after their career ends and why?

Davidi: Torii Hunter (funny, eloquent, insightful); LaTroy Hawkins (just retired, but a masterful story-teller); Mark Buehrle (he'd hate this mention, but he's got so much wisdom about the game); Chris Colabello (lots of life and baseball smarts).

Goold: Mark DeRosa already is. A.J. Pierzynski will be because of his experience in the game, the stories he has to tell, and his willingness to do so. They haven’t played on a team I covered, but Brandon McCarthy strikes me from afar as player in the mold of others who have been successful in broadcasting, as does Curtis Granderson. Alex Rodriguez did well last October. Dan Haren should have been hired yesterday.

Passan: Alphabetically ...

Chris Archer: I'm not sure there's a better representative for baseball.

Bronson Arroyo: He is the Most Interesting Man in the World. Oh, the stories.

Jose Bautista: Raw, honest, brilliant.