Now that the baseball shopping season is virtually complete ï¿½ darn that Barry Zito ï¿½ just go to the Mets already! ï¿½ we figured it best to interview someone who intensely followed the madness. To help us make sense of the monopoly money contracts, we badgered MLB.com editor Len Hochberg into fielding an assortment of baseball related questions. A one-time hockey beat writer at the Washington Post, Len co-authored a book on hockey, and even freelanced for People Magazine, so surely he appreciates our athlete-celebrity coverage.
Q: Give us your two worst big-money signings of the offseason, and your two best. And why the heck is everyone overpaying?
I watched Tim Kurkjian from the Winter Meetings, and he said something about how if you ask 10 different people what the worst signing is this year, you’d get 10 different answers.
What do those two deals have in common? Five years. Last year: A.J. Burnett, five years. Two years ago: Beltre, five years; Pavano, four years. Thatï¿½s what makes deals so bad. On the flip side you have Frank Thomas, one year with the A’s and now two with the Jays. Worked out real well for Oakland, obviously. Last year, Detroit got Kenny Rogers for two years. Even if he tanks this year, it was a spectacular move.
All that said, Ned Colletti did pretty well putting together the Dodgers last year, and Bill Stoneman has done it for years with the Angels, so we shall see about Pierre and Matthews.
Then thereï¿½s Gil Meche. If I were a Royals fan, I’d be ecstatic my team is spending actual money. But, um, I don’t have a good feeling about this one. Meche, plus wherever Zito ends up for gazillions, will be the two worst deals.
Best deals (more than two): Jason Schmidt gets a lot of money, but only three years, so I like that. Randy Wolf could be a steal. One year, with an option that kicks in at 180 innings, so he’ll be playing for the second year. Plus it allows the Dodgers to package another starter to get a bat. Jose Guillen, also because he’s not tied up long-term. He’s a wacko, but he can flat-out hit. I expect Mike Piazza to have a big year for Oakland and, before you say he won’t duplicate Thomas’s numbers, nobody thought Thomas could do what he did.
If you think the numbers are high this year, wait till next year. That’s why the White Sox traded Freddy Garcia, and the Cards re-upped Chris Carpenter even though he still had one year plus and option.
Q: What’s life like working at MLB.com? Much has been made about whether or not the NFL Network can objectively cover the NFL, and whether or not the ESPN ombudsman is accurately reflecting what is going on at ESPN. Are there times you are hamstrung writing about baseball? Can you truly be impartial? How do you handle it?
The ESPN ombudsman IS accurately reflecting whatï¿½s going on at ESPN. That’s George Solomon, who was my sports editor at the Washington Post for the nine years I was there, so I watched closely when he took the job and realized quite quickly that it was a cosmetic move by ESPN. I think his recommendations/complaints are largely ignored. And, if I had a company that big and powerful and omnipresent in sports, Iï¿½d ignore them, too.
As for working at MLB.com, we realize the question you ask is out there. Would we ever go New York Postal and write stuff like “A-Rod is a Nimrod”? No, but neither would most news organizations. There have been times when teams and/or the baseball powers don’t like what we write. But basically, the beat guys write down the middle and get out of the way (or at least try to). Itï¿½s different for columnists. Just recently, Mike Bauman, our national columnist, wrote a column off the Hall of Fame ballot. Headline: “Two certain Famers; third a shamer?” There’s no ignoring the situation Mark McGwire finds himself in. We even have a special drug section.
You couldn’t fool people for long, and we get 8 million page views a day in-season. And if we don’t have the info, we credit the source — ESPN, AP, etc. We also have a page called “Press Row” where we link to stories in newspapers, stories that often arenï¿½t favorable. (December 8 and December 11 are just two examples.)
Maybe we should add blogs, too.
Q: We said the Moneyball era was over after JD Drew and Julio Lugo became grossly wealthy just because Boston missed the postseason. Is spending once again out of control, and is it due to revenue sharing or something else? Is this good or bad for the game?
Yeah, Julio Lugo ï¿½ wonder what Jose Reyes thinks about that one. There are a few reasons there is a lot of cash flowing. More TV money than ever, attendance keeps setting records, labor peace through 2011. The owners are even now getting a return on their MLB.com investment. As for being good or bad for the game, I don’t think it’s one or the other. It is what it is. We have seen numerous different teams in contention late in recent seasons, teams few of us would have predicted.
Q: Does baseball need a salary cap? The chasm between the spenders (Yankees, Red Sox, Mets) and the frugal folks is widening. It means that when Johan Santana goes on the market, only a few teams truly have a crack at him. Would a soft cap work in baseball? Or does the sport need dynasties to hate like the Yankees and Red Sox?
I don’t know if baseball needs a cap, but since the other sports have one, it would seem just a matter of time. Of course, not before 2011. Baseball always has had the most formidable of player unions, and I always wondered (long before I got to MLB.com) if reporters took that into consideration in their commissioner comparisons. Imagine if David Stern had to go against Donald Fehr? Would he be as powerful?
Dynasties are good for sports, because they don’t happen a lot and when they do theyï¿½re exciting. As an ex-New Yorker, I don’t root for Boston teams, but the Patriots are good for the NFL, especially with the charismatic Tom Brady.
Despite spending big money, the Yankees haven’t won in six years, the Mets before this past year hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2000 and the Red Sox missed out last year. Some unexpected teams always sneak in and, with the wild card, we have seen unexpected winners six years running.
Q: Speaking of dynasties, is that era over? Other than the Yankees reaching the playoffs eight zillion years in a row, will we see another team rattle off three or four World Series titles in a row?
It seems unfathomable for a team to win three or four in a row. How many people think the Cards will even make it two straight (except maybe that clever Deadspinner)? Really, how many thought they’d win one? But it seemed that way in the NFL, too, pre-Patriots. And the Lakers won three in a row not too long ago. Just when we think something in sports can’t/won’t happen again, it happens again.
Q: You once worked at the Washington Post, and have since moved online. Game coverage of many sports online – especially baseball – seems to have made reading about baseball in newspapers the day after the game largely irrelevant. Is this one of the reasons you moved from print media to electronic?
Excellent question. I canï¿½t think of a larger issue facing newspaper sports departments these days. That is not why I left the Post — I wish I had such foresight — but I feel fortunate now that I did, although the Post seems to be doing much better in terms of layoffs than most papers. Some people will always want to read about the game and hold a newspaper in their hands. They tend to be older. And while, sigh, I guess I am older and like to read papers — NY Times, Wash Post, LA Times, WSJ — I do so online but rarely read game stories.
Occasionally Iï¿½ll check out a lede to see how a reporter approached it. After the Dodgers beat the Padres in that amazing September game with all the late home runs, I wondered how you possibly do it justice with words. I looked at a lot of game accounts. Lee Jenkins from the NY Times — why he was even present I don’t know — wrote a magnificent lede. Maybe the best I have ever seen. [Ed. We actually compared a few leads on the historic night in question, in case you wanted to see what Jenkins did.]
Newspapers still can stand out with strong reporting and brilliant writing, albeit more so with features and takeouts than gamers. But they canï¿½t live by only features and takeouts. Glad I don’t have to make the ultimate call on gamers in daily papers.
Q: Excluding writers from MLB.com, give us your top 5 baseball writers, and why.
The first two I used to work with in Washington — Richard Justice and Tom Boswell. I knew them a bit, saw how they worked, as an editor read all their stuff, admired them. Richard now is a columnist (and king of all media) in Houston, but when I met him, he was the Orioles beat guy. Kornheiser used to call him “the best beat writer in the country,” which was true, but Richard always took it as a left-handed compliment, meaning he couldn’t do what Kornheiser did. Justice has a good ol’ Texas boy way about him to get people to talk, which I envied. He also would do almost anything to get people to talk. Say what you will about the tactic, he usually beat the Baltimore Sun and Washington Times. As for Boz, you don’t see the likes of him much on the sports pages. His writing was and is eloquent. Before Kornheiser and Wilbon became megastars, Boz was THE sports name at the Post.
Iï¿½ve always been a huge fan of the Sunday notebooks. Murray Chass, the now-retired Ross Newhan and Tim Brown, who just left the LA Times for Yahoo, come to mind. A great score for Yahoo. Those three donï¿½t yell to make their points. Plus with Chass, there is none better on business/labor. And I guess Iï¿½ll throw in Jenkins, if only for that one lede.
I’m sure I sound like a newspaper snob. I like the ESPN guys, but I won’t pay. I read Buster Olney when he was at the Sun and then the NY Times, and I’ve seen Rob Neyerï¿½s stuff on occasion. Both are great. But if I won’t pay for Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Tom Friedman, I’m not paying for anyone.