For a while this spring, New York mets players, oppressed beyond endurance by unflattering publicity, decided en masse to stop talking to the media. To this I said hooray. But not for the Mets. For the media. Indeed, a media boycott, if imposed by all major league teams on a permanent basis, most likely would restore the craft of baseball writing to the golden age it once enjoyed, by emancipating the beat reporter from his enslavement to the dread clubhouse quote.
Consider how the system now works: A critical late-season game is lost by the home team when its centerfielder misplays a fly ball, which allows three runs to score in the ninth inning. The temptation for the beat reporter is simply to activate his electronic writing device and inform his readers that another overpaid incompetent has caused them further suffering. But it doesn't work that way. Instead, sighing deeply, the reporter must snatch up his notebook and descend to the clubhouse for a personal confrontation with the miscreant. The public, after all, has a right to know. "So, what happened out there, Joe?" the reporter might inquire, as inoffensively as possible under the circumstances. The standard response to such a question takes one of two forms. In the first, the interviewer will be instructed to go do something to himself that is anatomically impossible. In the second, the player will offer an excuse: "The bleeping lights in this park are so low, they blinded me."
Accepting this explanation, the reporter will then, following additional inquiries made to other equally unresponsive team members, return to the press box to compose his story. Precious minutes have now been irretrievably lost, so that facing an impending deadline, the poor chronicler has time only to convey a cursory account of the action on the field, interlarded with the banalities he has collected downstairs, most of which will appear in like form in stories written at the same time by reporters from competing publications.
Now, just think what this person might have written had he dedicated the valuable time he squandered downstairs to polishing his prose in the relative-serenity of the press box. He might have had time to develop a bon mot or two, maybe even an amusing put-down of the centerfielder comparable to the one Dorothy Parker employed in her review of Katharine Hepburn's performance in the Broadway play The Lake: "She runs the gamut of emotions all the way from A to B." But, no, in the time Dottie presumably spent hatching that zinger, our reporter was chasing down quotes in the clubhouse like some demented lepidopterist.
April 12, 1992
And no drama critic is obligated to visit the object of his scorn in his dressing quarters the next day to ask, "How's your arm?" The baseball writer, unfortunately, has just such an obligation under the current pack-journalism system, and even the most intrepid among them is reluctant to invade the often hostile atmosphere of the clubhouse the day after he has written something less than complimentary. Then, too, actors, generally speaking, are somewhat smaller than athletes.
However, if the reporter were freed of these inhibitions by the posting of OFF LIMITS or DO NOT ENTER signs above clubhouse doors, he could write what he thinks with impunity and, if he had the wit and style for it, emulate his acerbic betters in the drama department. There arc no Dottie Parkers or George Jean Nathans functioning in today's press boxes, and this may be blamed at least in part on excessive quoting. Baseball writers' yarns too often read like compendiums of "We'll-get-'em-next-times" and "It-was-a-slider-down-and-ins." These quote-burdened accounts are usually so devoid of flair or bite that they more nearly resemble the speeches of President Harding, whose discourses were once described by H.L. Mencken as "a string of wet sponges."
Ah, but there was a time decades ago when clubhouses were not so much town halls as places where men changed their clothes. The best writers of that blessed age strongly adhered to the advice players even now sarcastically give writers: "You saw it, write it." And if, say, a Heywood Broun needed a quote, he would more often look for it from Wordsworth or Coleridge than from Foxx or Hornsby. These were not mere recording secretaries transcribing clubhouse patter; they were—or at least they considered themselves to be—artists.
The professional quote seeker of today harbors no such illusions. If anything, his job distorts whatever values he might once have held, for after listening hopefully over the years to the stream of profanity that passes for repartee in the clubhouse, he tends to look upon anyone who can string together three consecutive intelligible sentences as the reincarnation of T.S. Eliot. Never believe a baseball writer when he describes a ballplayer as "articulate." To him, Woody, the bartender at Cheers, is articulate, and so, for that matter, were Ms. Fossey's hulking companions in the mist.
The only real hope for baseball beat writing, as I see it, is with the Mets' temporary solution, a return to a time when the game story meant more than any accumulation of mindless quotations. But I do not expect this to happen in the 20th century. For one thing, if the writers stopped talking to the players, I firmly suspect it would be the players who would most want to reopen the lines of communication. How else, after all, could they tell their side of the story?
But no matter how much they begged for a reconciliation, I sure as hell wouldn't let them in the press box. They would ruin the conversation up there.