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Buster Olney Talks Media Bias, Hall of Fame Voting and Growing up a Dodgers fan in Vermont

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What do you do when you’re a diehard Los Angeles Dodgers fan living on a television-less farm in Randolph Center, Vt., and want to watch your team play in the 1981 World Series? If you’re a teenage Buster Olney, you walk two miles to your nearest neighbor’s house to use their TV, so you can witness Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Pedro Guerrero defeat the Yankees.

That, Olney said by phone on Wednesday, was his level of devotion to the Dodgers in his formative years.

“My senior year yearbook picture, instead of a coat-and-tie, I had a Dodgers cap on,” said Olney, now one of ESPN’s top baseball analysts across all media platforms. “I got into a fight with my mom about it. I said I grew up on diary farm. I never wear a suit and tie.”

Fast forward to 1988, when the Dodgers again won the World Series. Olney was finishing up his studies at Vanderbilt. A few months later, he was on the Triple A beat and his Dodgers’ fandom evaporated quicker than the break on a Fernando Valenzuela screwball.

“It disappeared and you just don’t care anymore,” Olney said. “All you care about is getting interesting stories.”

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And yet, thanks to the wonders of social media interaction, Olney and other national reporters are consistently besieged by fans on Twitter — and elsewhere — accusing them of harboring a bias against their favorite team. Here’s but one example from last Thursday morning:

In late September 2013, we posted a picture of a compilation of all the angry tweets lobbed at Olney, which he has (admittedly) linked to from time-to-time telling fans they’ve “joined the (bias) club.” Olney said it’s an easy way for him to deal with the bias question when it arises.

“It’s like if you’re watching a football game with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman,” Olney said. “Half the people are going to think they’re rooting against their team. It’s the nature of the beast.”

Olney says he’s been accused of being pro-Yankees to pro-Red Sox to everything in-between. It may come as a shock to some fans but the men and women tasked to cover professional sports for a living (the good ones anyway) care more about stories than the wins and losses.

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Olney passed along a conversation he had in the locker room at Yankee Stadium with Paul O’Neill during the midst of New York’s historic 114-win season in 1998.

“Paul O’Neill calls me over and he goes, ‘Hey Buster, you know, tell me the truth, you guys, you root for us, right?’” Olney recalled. “I said ‘Paul, I absolutely hope you win the World Series because everything you’ve accomplished this summer would be wiped off the books. The best possible story is if you win the World Series. The next best story would be if you came back next year and went 0-162,’ and he gave me a look.

“That’s kind of the deal. You’re looking for interesting stuff to happen.”

Bias remained a huge talking point earlier this month in regard to the Baseball Hall of Fame voting. This year, the combination of numerous worthy players on the ballot for the first time, the specter of voting for suspected PED users, along with Jack Morris’ 15th and final year on the ballot put every single vote under the Internet microscope, especially with writer’s votes capped at 10 players via BBWAA rules.

Olney agreed that some of the outlandish voting patterns or votes based on a player’s friendliness toward the press or vice versa isn’t a positive.

“I don’t think it’s good. It makes us look silly. That’s my opinion,” Olney said. “I thoroughly enjoyed covering Mike Mussina as a beat reporter, but when I did my ballot, the way I structured it, I voted for (Barry) Bonds and (Roger) Clemens … in the end I didn’t vote for Mike, but I think he’s a Hall of Famer. I didn’t vote for Curt Schilling either, who I work with (at ESPN). I told him on the set of the Winter Meetings, when you get closer, I’ll vote for you.”

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Of all the debate the Hall of Fame voting has received, changing the 10-vote maximum is the simplest solution without needing to blow up the entire process as many have suggested.

“I hate the rule of 10. This first year I didn’t vote for  Mark McGwire. I had to leave seven guys off the ballot,” Olney said. “It’s the appropriate fix. Each of these guys should be judged on their own merits. I’ve heard the arguments against McGwire. They’re reasonable and rationale that he wasn’t a complete player. When I started voting, I made up my mind he’s good enough. He’s one of the greatest home run hitters of all-time. I had to leave him off. You’d hope each candidate is judged on merits, not how they’re squeezed on a ballot. That might change.”

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Something much harder to change, though, is the individual opinions each voter might harbor toward a player. In this case, a writer’s individual bias is harder to shake and probably fair game for baseball fans to call into question.

“I’ve had individual writers, and believe me it’s a small minority, tell me that I’ll never vote for ‘that blankety, blank.’ He did this. He wasn’t respectful,” Olney said. “I covered Cal Ripken for two years. I didn’t have a good relationship with him, but how in the world could I not vote for him (in the Hall of Fame)? It doesn’t enter into the equation. It’s how good they are compared to the rest of the landscape.”

But back to the idea of bias, or the prism in which fans view it toward media members. Olney admits he’s voted for players with PED clouds hanging over their careers, yet has been negative toward Alex Rodriguez in his fight with MLB. 

“I’ve voted for Bonds and Clemens, so people say I’m a steroid apologist, but with A-Rod people think I’m an MLB apologist,” Olney said. “It’s the nature of the beast. … You can’t please everybody.”

A platform like Twitter may allow fans to hurl accusations of bias–or worse–at a media members. Olney recounted that most fans are respectful in person, and recalls only one instance where “Twitter muscles” crept into an actual real-life, face-to-face interaction. Overall, the immediacy and interaction the 140-character service provides can only be seen as a positive for most writers.

“Twitter … think it’s great,” Olney said. “When I was growing up on the farm, my parents didn’t have a television on farm. There was one radio station we could get, WDEV, out of Waterbury, Vt. We only got the newspaper once a week. The Times and The Globe on Sunday. My only access to sports info was at 7:15 in the morning right after the farm report at the same time the bus was supposed to arrive, when they gave the baseball scores. I was thinking today, how great would this have been as a kid, to have access, if I’m out splitting wood, or feeding the cows in the barn to get an update on Clayton Kershaw on my phone. That would be cool. That’s a part about Twitter you like.”

And the other part? Well, there’s always plenty room on the “bias list.”

 

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