ESPN’s “Journalism Showcase” – December 9, 2016

The Baseball Winter Meetings is the “hot stove” mecca for everyone who works in, reports on or follows America’s pastime.

The 2016 version of the event, emanating from the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., has been a memorable one, featuring several high-profile transactions. As usual, ESPN has dozens of commentators providing multi-platform coverage.

If you comb through the news and fanfare, you’ll find an event which is truly unique to sports journalism. Picture this – virtually every baseball journalist congregated in one hotel, chasing leads, following stories and attempting to break news, while their subjects – agents, team executives, other personnel – are roaming about the hotel, too. A deal being made in the wee hours of the morning is standard and sleep is hard to come by.

We discussed the phenomenon with Claire Smith (ESPN news editor), Buster Olney (ESPN MLB Insider) and Jim Bowden (MLB Insider). As a former general manager of the Reds and Nationals, Bowden has been on both sides of aisle.

Olney, who broke two stories this week, talked about the event’s unusual nature.

“This is like a stock car race of journalism because it is so unusual – the dynamic of having so many reporters, and so many baseball executives in one spot,” Olney said. “It almost feels like you have to go into training to prepare for it, physically, because it’s hour after hour. You’re always trying to think about what could come next.

“In 2011, I was ready to go on SportsCenter and my phone rings, and out of the blue, we find out Albert Pujols has agreed to terms with the Angels,” Olney said. “I always remember that when you hear a rumor and think ‘that’s ridiculous’, you still have to check it out. This week, there was talk of the Indians’ being involved in Edwin Encarnacion, and my instinct, knowing the Indians’ payroll, was there’s no way – but you still have to chase it down. The biggest challenge is to stay ahead, so you’re not constantly reacting.”

Smith, who was recognized at this year’s Winter Meetings by becoming the first woman to receive the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award, discussed the event’s unique standing in the sports world.

“I don’t think [this type of event] happens in any other sport to the degree that it happens in baseball,” she said. “And it happens at warp speed. So the thing you’re chasing today, which may be the hottest of the hot stove reports, you may never mention it tomorrow or ever again.

“There are people that we cover who are floating things,” she said. “They’d like to use us to float things, and then you add the agents who are trying to move their product, there are teams trying to better their standing. It all looks insane, but there’s a method to their madness.

“Back in the 1980s or 1990s, when [team executives] used to sit in the lobby, it was a lot easier to shoot down a story. Now they scatter into suites. Now it’s all done with tweets and it makes it more difficult for our writers to confirm reports. If you see a lead on social media, the only way you can really chase it is electronically,” Smith said.

Bowden’s view of Winter Meetings comes from various perspectives.

“When you’re the GM, you’re up in your suite, basically on lockdown, and you’re focused on the deals that you’re working on,” he said. “Whether it’s trades with four or five teams, or whether it is negotiating with three or four agents, you’re hunkered down. You really don’t pay attention to all of the activity that’s going on in the lobby and in the ballroom with the other clubs and media. When you’re in the media, it’s all about gathering information from every angle. ESPN has a whole team of superstars who are everywhere trying to get information, so it’s like a whirlwind all the time, which is very different from the focused, quiet approached when you’re on the team side.”

How Liz Merrill decided to profile Browns O-lineman, Joe Thomas

(Courtesy Andrew Hetherington)
(Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington)

Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas wants to be there when the Browns become the Chicago Cubs. He’ll have earned it — the likely Hall of Famer has never missed a snap in his 10 seasons with the club. In a powerful feature titled “Joe Thomas, Loyal Lineman,” ESPN senior writer Liz Merrill offers some additional insight on what makes Joe Thomas, Joe Thomas.

What was the impetus to do a feature with Joe Thomas?
Our NFL editor, Chris Sprow, was really interested in doing a story on what it’s like to be one of the NFL’s best players stuck on the worst team. Having a star player on a bad team isn’t necessarily rare, but Thomas is a [future] Hall of Famer. And he’s had to put up with this for almost a decade.

What was the most challenging aspect of this piece?
Writers like to get good scene, but when your subject is someone who has lost a ton of games for a long time, you’re not going to see him crying or throwing stuff in the locker room. Plus, Thomas is an offensive lineman from the Midwest, so he’s one of the steadiest, most easy-going guys you’ll meet. I don’t know if this was the biggest challenge, but it was important to make sure we didn’t depict him as a guy who doesn’t care about winning, especially when he’s telling jokes in the locker room after a beat down. It was also a challenge in getting him to be open and honest with how frustrating everything has been because he’s the guy who’s supposed to be a veteran leader guiding a bunch of rookies. He’s supposed to stay positive.

What do you hope readers and football fans alike will take away from this story?
He’s a lesson in persistence, obviously. I had one reader say that sometimes it’s hard to remember that these are real people that the Browns are sending out on Sundays. But I also hope that one thing readers take away is that no matter how good you are or how hard you try, sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

By Carrie Kreiswirth

Journalism on Display

  • ESPN’s Mike Triplett has been covering the Will Smith trial in New Orleans that began on Monday. His latest report from Thursday describes the testimony of Kevin O’Neal, the friend of Smith’s accused killer, Cardell Hayes. O’Neal was with Hayes the night Will Smith died and testified for nearly four hours in court on Thursday. Outside the Lines aired an exclusive interview with O’Neal on Tuesday and will re-air the interview on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN2.
  • MLB writer Jayson Stark attended the Winter Meetings this week and observed the White Sox rebuilding their team for the first time in 20 years. After trading Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the White Sox are going where the franchise hasn’t been in decades, and there’s no white flag in sight, Stark writes for ESPN.com.
  • This week’s Monday Night Countdown will feature an E:60 Special – “What’s in a Number?”
    On Sunday, Dec. 4, 10-year-old Logan Schoenhardt stood midfield at Gillette Stadium as the Patriots were about to face the Rams. The young boy was next to his favorite football player in the world – Tom Brady. In a special presentation by E:60, ESPN’s award-winning newsmagazine, Tom Rinaldi shares the story about Logan and the bond he shares with Brady. The Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN.
  • Panelists on Sunday morning’s The Sports Reporters (9:30 a.m., ESPN2) will be Mike Lupica (host), Mitch Albom, Jemele Hill and Bob Ryan.

By Molly Mita

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