Fewer and fewer writers on the baseball beat

April, 7, 2009
Russell Adams and Tim Marchman on the suddenly tenuous future of the baseball beat:

    But throughout the last century, baseball writers have stood above their sportswriting colleagues. When the National League needed a president in 1934, it hired former Yankees beat writer Ford Frick. When San Diego named a ballpark in 1980, it honored Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union. In some press boxes, black-and-white portraits of writers line the walls in tribute.

    Their exalted status gave rank-and-file BBWAA members unusual powers, from being assured entry to clubhouses and press box seats at the World Series to electing players to baseball's Hall of Fame. After 10 years, BBWAA members are given certain perks that continue even after retirement.

    The changing world was on vivid display recently at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Opened in 1923 during the golden age of sportswriting, it held its first-ever night game last March -- 20 years after the lights first went on over Chicago's Wrigley Field. At a March 22 game between the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds two writers from Pittsburgh papers were in attendance, along with two reporters from Major League Baseball's Web site. The Pittsburgh chapter of the BBWAA is down to nine members, an all time low, from 20 in 1988.

I have to admit … my first reaction upon reading that last paragraph was "Really? It takes nine guys to cover the Pirates? And it used to take 20?"

Well, no. I'm sure a fair number of those 20 were not actually covering the Pirates, but were columnists who dabbled or editors who just happened to have BBWAA cards. One of the odd things about the Baseball Writers Association is that many members were not (and still today, are not) actually baseball writers.

But that's a whole 'nother issue. The real question is "How many do we need?" And I would argue that once you get past the first few reporters and columnists covering a team, you reach a point of diminishing returns rather quickly. Considering that everything that all of them do is available with the click of your mouse. I don't know what the number is, for the Pirates or the Yankees or anyone else. But it's definitely less than 20.

You might think I take some perverse pleasure in all this. After all, (1) I've never worked for a newspaper,( 2) I've been in the middle of new media almost since the beginning and (3) I'm not a BBWAA member (yes, they told me I was going to be one, but that was months ago and I still haven't seen any evidence, so at this point I'm guessing the whole thing was a brilliant practical joke).

I don't take any pleasure in all of this, at all. Oh, there are certainly some writers we can do without because they weren't all that good at their jobs. Just as there are doctors and waiters and meter-readers who are better-suited for other lines of work. But I'm a baseball writer. It's all I know. And I can't see anything positive about baseball writers by the dozens getting thrown out of work.


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