MLB

The 24-Second News Cycle: How Twitter Altered Baseball's Hot Stove Season and the Winter Meetings Forever

Inside MLB_MLB Network

Peter Gammons found himself sitting on a major scoop: the Red Sox were going to trade Fred Lynn to the Dodgers for a three-player package that included Steve Howe. There was only one condition: Lynn needed to agree on a new contract with Los Angeles for the deal to go through. Gammons, working for the Boston Globe at the 1980 Winter Meetings in Dallas, hustled back to his hotel room and finally filed his story for the morning edition of the paper around 4 a.m.

About an hour later, Gammons  — as he’d finally settled down to catch some sleep — received a call from then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis tipping him off that Lynn wouldn’t sign. The deal was off. It sent Gammons scrambling back to his typewriter for another rewrite.

“There was a 24-hour news cycle in those days too,” Gammons said with a laugh by phone last week as he prepared to take part in MLB Network’s over 30 hours of live programming from the Winter Meetings in Orlando.

If the last week of baseball activity on Twitter and the web are any indication, the offseason Hot Stove news cycle is closer in length to 24 seconds than 24 hours. The flurry of activity ranged from Monday’s non-tender deadline to the Yankees’ mega-deal with Jacoby Ellsbury and everything in between. Even role players like Edwin Mujica or Nori Aoki can find themselves trending on Twitter, if briefly, when they change addresses.

Look no further than Friday morning’s stream of updates on Robinson Cano and the Mariners, a deal that seemed to change by the millisecond. In the span of an hour, the deal was off, then back on, then Cano was headed to the Pacific Northwest for 10 years and $240 million.

“It’s crazy,” said Gammons, himself very active on Twitter. “What is amazing is I don’t think even 10 years ago we’d ever think MLB Trade Rumors would exist and drive our lives like it does. They do a phenomenal job getting everyone’s information out there.”

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And that information in the age of 140-character updates is never-ending.

All media jobs have been forced to change due to the rise of the the web, blogs, Twitter and the overall importance of social media. The shifting role of baseball writer/reporter is among the most radical. Let’s set aside the old school/new school writers debate about topics like the Hall of Fame or MVP voting for another day and look at it in more practical terms. For a generation — if not longer — a baseball scribe would spend his days during the season writing game stories, notebooks and often (in the case of someone like Gammons or colleagues such as Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, also MLB Network insiders) a big package of news, rumors and everything else for the Sunday paper.

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Today, Digging in with a bagel and coffee and pouring over these weekly notes feels akin to heading out to take in a silent film. So does any idea of a dead period when it comes to breaking baseball news. There is always a hungry young reporter out there churning through the baseball rumor mill hustling to confirm the new breaking news, as we saw Monday night when the Tigers/Nationals trade popped out of nowhere from SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo.

There are no longer specific deadlines to guide reporters. Deadlines are 24/7/365.

“Thanksgiving I took time off,” Rosenthal said. “If you look, there were stories breaking over the weekend, not insignificant news, either. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes signed with the Twins, but I forced myself. It’s hard to do that because the phone keeps buzzing. It’s literally almost impossible. I just said I’m not doing it. My family takes enough crap. The sport doesn’t shut down on Christmas week like it used to do. Now they work through it. I’m not complaining.  The only thing I don’t like is the year-round but if it wasn’t like that people wouldn’t care about it as a much as they do.

“You have to work harder than ever before, but you’ve always had to work hard.”

Rosenthal and Heyman are in a constant contest for scoops. Twitter makes this battle more immediate, challenging, and puts it out there for the entire world to view. Consider the sea of outright deception and misinformation on baseball Twitter from fake accounts set up to look almost exactly like the writers.

Jacoby Ellsbury avoids tag

In 2013, sometimes all it takes is one account claiming “sources” told them something about a player signing, and the snowball begins to build up as it rolls down the digital mountain. For the national writers, they realize there is an implication every time they hit “send,” even if they couch their remarks with “hearing” or “close” or simply relaying that two teams are “talking.” Once it’s out there, even the smallest rumor gains a life of its own.

“A lot of times it’s difficult to know when to push the button,” said Rosenthal, who prides himself on being old school in terms of journalist standards. “You push that button on Twitter, it’s over. You better believe on it. I’m a stickler about being right. If I lose one because I don’t have it sourced properly, so be it. What bothers me, fans don’t seem to care that much. They want the next one. We still have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Perhaps that’s the biggest downside to Twitter’s immediacy. Often, if not always, all that matters nowadays is speed. Our brains have become conditioned where it’s almost a repeating cycle of “First/Forgotten” in a matter of seconds. If a tweet contains news, how often do you even click the link contained?

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Yankees

Analysis for everything — not only baseball transactions — is instant and knee-jerk. It’s quickly forgotten and far too often boils down to who can scream the loudest in a given forum. From a practical standpoint, what value is gained judging moves in December? As Gammons says, you’re not trying to win in January, you’re trying to win in September. Take last offseason. Everyone projected the Blue Jays as the best team in the American League East due to their high-profile moves, while the Red Sox made a bunch of quiet signings and won the World Series.

“There’s less time for context. That’s a loss,” Gammons said. “I was talking to a GM (last Tuesday) and he was being very self deprecating. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and he said ‘I never got a real chance to explain myself.’ … There’s too much instant-analysis. I’ve always said, unless you’ve sat in the chair of that particular GM in the office next to that GM’s owner you have to be careful before you jump overboard with criticism.”

Rosenthal juggles multiple duties including MLB Network’s morning “Hot Stove” program to his Fox Sports insider status. When you’re the go-to guy for breaking news, it doesn’t leave time for much else, but to write in 140 character bursts. Fortunately if you’re someone who wants to consume baseball information there is no shortage of outlets on the web to satiate your hunger for deeper analysis.

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“Context gets lost on Twitter,” he said. “Nobody chooses to analyze. That’s a big part of what I do. A night like (Monday night), I didn’t write a single word because there was too much going on. (Tuesday) I’m going to try to explain. Twitter is 140 characters. That’s not good enough if we’re doing enough. … Problem is, a lot of people don’t want to read. They want the next news item. I get it. It’s part of the job but not the whole job.”

Another part of the job on baseball Twitter? Crediting and sourcing. If you follow multiple national writers or major news sites, you’ll likely see your feed blow up with about a dozen accounts posting the same information, often crediting the one who had the news first. Fans outside of the media bubble often wonder why someone like Rosenthal or Heyman would credit one another. They’re competitors after all, right? Do you really want to show to the world that somebody beat you at your own game?

For instance:

“People complain all the time, ‘we don’t care who had it first,’ but to me  it’s a professional courtesy,” Heyman said. “If someone is clearly ahead of you on it and instigated you to look into it, it’s appropriate to credit. It’s only professional and only takes up a little space. You might only have 140 characters, but it’s okay to spend 20 characters on that.”

Adds Rosenthal on crediting his colleagues and competitors, “It’s a question of simple fairness. Once you confirm, it’s over. Sure, there’s a race to get the money. That to me is not as important. What’s important is the first break. My view is, that first break, where you tell which team is getting which player is the big break and the rest is just crumbs. Sometimes I get the crumbs, sometimes I get the bread.”

Often the world of breaking news on baseball Twitter can feel like crumbs. A bit player, say Dioner Navarro who is hardly a household name, signing with the Blue Jays can spawn hundreds upon hundreds and thousands of tweets after the news breaks.

“No story is too small. Every team has a passionate fan base,” Rosenthal said. “When a free agent changes teams, that is news and it always will be. You can’t just chose to ignore a certain player or team or you’re hurting yourself.”

Prince Fielder belly flop ALCS Game 6-a

And what about the big news? The type of news that immediately prompts a red-tinted “Breaking News” font on ESPN’s crawl? Heyman broke the Fielder/Kinsler swap — which materialized seemingly out of nowhere. When he found out he took the calculated risk to file something to CBSSports.com before putting the news on his Twitter account.

“I suspected I was maybe the only one who knew (about the trade) at that moment,” he said. “So I wrote it up for the website first. I didn’t think anyone else was on it. I’ve been burned in the past. … I thought I’d gamble on the time element, but not the information. Someone else could beat me to the punch on Twitter because I’m working at CBS and MLB, so gave (the website) the information before tweeting it.”

That cushion of time, even a few minutes, is a rarity and something likely non-existent in the Royal Rumble-like nature of the Winter Meetings with the untold number of media members all squished into the same spot, chasing the same leads. Even with budgets severely slashed the Winter Meetings remains something a media outlet will still expense to send a writer and in turn that writer better produce news.

Choosing to pursue each and every rumor that emanates from the Winter Meetings next week in Orlando might prove impossible. Even with so much breaking news already churned out by baseball — barely a month since the Red Sox celebrated winning the World Series — the writers anticipate more to come from the Meetings since they put general managers in the same room together and eye contact triggers activity.

“It’s always ‘fast and furious,’ but that week it’s a faster ‘fast and furious’ during those four days,” Heyman said.

Throughout history, dating back to the 1880s, the Winter Meetings have always served as a traditional tent post in baseball’s long offseason. In the age of Twitter and non-stop news, do they still hold the same value they once did? It wasn’t very long ago the Winter Meetings were the hub for activity, now they’re just another four days in the unending maelstrom of news.

Monday morning saw the news of Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox elected to the Hall of Fame and seemingly minutes later news of Roy Halladay’s sudden retirement.

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“I would say, more intense given the social media aspect and everything is in real time. I don’t know if they’ve changed because how things get done,” Rosenthal said. “It’s always been an intense thing. With the social media and the Twitter its more intense than it’s ever been. … Those are my worst 4-5 days of the year only because it’s the hardest. It’s something I brace for all year long. It’s a grueling thing. When it’s over, I’m happy. It used to be when it was over, it felt like school was out for summer. Now it doesn’t end.”

Heyman says, pre-Twitter, the Winter Meetings felt like a “vacation” to what it is now.

Does that make the media, or the baseball world in general, long nostalgically for the old days? The days when former owner Bill Veeck could set up a table in the middle of the hotel lobby with a “For Sale” sign and the image wouldn’t immediately be uploaded by 100 iPhones? Back when there was time to, you know, actually breath and digest before the next flashpoint transaction blows up on the web?

“Do I wish there was more time to hang out in the lobby talking baseball and swapping stories?” Gammons said. “It’s a fact of life. It doesn’t exist any more. Either you live with it or try something else. I choose to keep going.”

140 characters at a time.

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