Bad News

A media invasion has heightened tensions in once congenial clubhouses
May 16, 1993

Alan Eskew didn't know what hit him. It might have been a tape recorder, a microphone, an ashtray or some other projectile—all of them sent flying by Kansas City Royal manager Hal McRae—that opened a gash an inch below the right eye of Eskew, a reporter for the Capital-Journal of Topeka, Kans. Such was the intensity of McRae's fury on April 26 that none of the dozen or so people who were in his office at the time of the outburst could identify the flying object in question. The bottle of vodka, the one smashed to bits, was ruled out, though. McRae heaved that against a television after the room had cleared.

What possibly could have so enraged the usually mild-mannered McRae? "It was a culmination of a lot of things," says McRae, who was frustrated over a two-run defeat during another miserable April for his club. Ultimately, it was a question regarding his strategy that prompted his tantrum. John Doolittle of KMBZ radio in Westwood, Kans., asked McRae if he had considered using George Brett as a pinch hitter for Keith Miller in the seventh inning of that night's loss to the Detroit Tigers.

And why had Doolittle asked that question after watching the Royals' Chris Gwynn blow a ninth-inning rally by getting doubled off second base? Because he thought callers to his radio show the next afternoon would be asking the same question. "Absolutely," Doolittle says. "I anticipated what the callers would ask."

K.C. pitcher David Cone shook his head in wonder when he heard that explanation. "The call-in shows breed this line of questioning now," Cone says. "In some cases, a few people sitting at home, popping a few beers, are setting the agenda, at least to the point where those types of questions are filtering into the manager's office and the clubhouse."

The outburst by McRae, as well as several ugly episodes in the Mets' clubhouse over the past two seasons, have underscored an increasingly flammable relationship between baseball teams and the media. Once a cozy coalition, it has become a bubbling witches' brew of resentment, distrust, anger, paranoia and outright hostility—often one question away from boiling over. "There's something really horrible going on out there," says Andrea Kirby, a former TV sports reporter who now works for the Sports Media Group, which counsels several sports teams in media relations.

The boom in electronic media has turned the press into a larger, more aggressive and more impersonal beast that has put players, coaches, managers and front-office people on the defensive. In retreat, the clubs are drawing lines of combat.

The Royals have added a players' lounge that is off limits to the media, a bunker several clubs have used for years. The California Angels don't allow the media within earshot of the batting cage, which has been a traditional gathering place for simply talking baseball.

The Detroit Tigers sent a letter of protest to ESPN over what they perceived to have been demeaning, mean-spirited comments by its SportsCenter anchors during highlights presentations. "There used to be a shared sense of fraternity, that we were all part of a baseball community," New York Met general manager Al Harazin says. "Now it's become a much more adversarial relationship."

The clubs and the media, as if stuck in a bad marriage, have grown apart. Familiarity and trust evaporate as players routinely switch teams, and there is now more turnover among beat writers, who are worn down by increased media competition and clubhouse attitudes that make them feel unwelcome.

Both sides agree that the increased numbers of radio reporters—many of whom don't travel with clubs and often are perceived by players as faceless, nameless intruders—and the proliferation of 24-hour sports stations have inflamed tensions. At the very least these factors have beefed up the media pack in the clubhouse, driving wary players from their lockers and into the trainer's room, lounge, weight room or any other area that's off limits to reporters. "You could take a team picture in the trainer's room some nights," says Philadelphia Phillie vice-president for public relations Larry Shenk, who figures about 50 accredited reporters pour into the home clubhouse at Veterans Stadium on a typical night. "A player may want to talk to a particular writer or columnist, but he'll say, 'I won't come out with that microphone glob out there.' "

Reporters often wait idly in the clubhouse for players to emerge from hiding. Such a practice, which the clubs have dubbed "loitering," is probably at the top of the players' gripe list. Says San Francisco Giant second baseman Robby Thompson, "I think the guys resent people lingering, because the perception is that they're eavesdropping."

The apprehension is greater in baseball than in other sports because baseball permits the most access and its teams play nearly every day.

When players do talk to the media, they often do so cautiously, wary of what they see as the media's appetite for negative angles. "We feel like targets," says Cone, whose personal life was bared in seamy detail last year in New York. "A lot of times they're looking for a reason to get on you. Negativity sells."

Indeed, so-called dirt is well received and in some cases even encouraged by editors and the public. One beat writer covering a small-market American League team once turned in a feature story on the club's manager. "It's O.K.," the editor said, "but I wanted more dirt." Reporters, especially in the four-way newspaper war in New York, have learned how to ask provoking questions and to accentuate controversial angles.

Many players, emboldened by their financial security, have adopted an attitude of, Why even bother making an effort to cooperate with the media? Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa, while lamenting the media's search for controversy, acknowledges that "the money has given some of the players a warped attitude, and it has separated them from the media and the fans."

Where has most of that money come from? From the media, either directly, through sums paid for broadcast rights, or indirectly, through exposure on sports pages or TV news shows. "If there weren't writers, cameras and microphones in the clubhouse," says Seattle Mariner pitcher Norm Charlton, "then we wouldn't be getting paid what we're being paid. The media is part of the goose that laid the golden egg for us. Stories create interest, and that's how the fans get involved. Our job is not just to play baseball."

Few players are as enlightened as Charlton. As the media beast grows, so does the need to school the players in how to deal with that beast. "They get coaching for hitting and fielding and pitching; they need it for the media now, too," Kirby says. Education seems to help. Kirby's seminars, as well as changes on the roster, have improved the climate this year in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, which in the past had been one of the game's more hostile battlefields. And Atlanta Brave outfielder David Justice is projecting a more positive image after deciding, with Kirby's help, to curb his surliness with the media.

A few days after McRae's eruption, Kirby incorporated videotape of the incident in her presentation to a group of minor league players. "McRae has control of what happens to him, but he gave it up," she told them. "You're in control all the time, just like standing at the plate. A guy throws a forkball, and you have to figure out a way to hit it. If you jump out of the box and stomp your feet, you won't have a career. Same thing with the media."

McRae met with Doolittle for 45 minutes the day after the incident to explain his actions. Eskew, in a metaphoric moment of media-club relations, had been patched up by a Royal trainer in the clubhouse. A scar remains.

PHOTOManagers like Torborg and McRae have been pushed to the breaking point by the media. PHOTOMcRae's fury left Eskew bloody. PHOTO