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Cover Me: When Bostonís sports media become the story
BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

You know that Boston has perhaps become too sports-crazed when the media covering the regionís teams begin to make more news than the squads that they cover. Such was the case over the past week, when a slew of back-and-forth Globe and Herald sports columns spurred a firestorm of controversy in New England.

It started innocuously enough early last week, when Red Sox players began to filter into their spring-training base in Fort Myers, Florida. Brouhaha number one unfolded when Pedro Martinez clambered into camp, and was immediately asked by the assembled media about comments he'd made during the off-season about his impending contract situation. Pedro made his stand very clear, and selfish as that stand was, it provided a nice opening salvo and point of discussion among local baseball fans.

Just a few days later, the hullabaloo revolved around shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, whose passion for the game is on par with Martinezís, yet whose personality is the polar opposite. Garciaparra had seemed unhappy late last season, and the Heraldís Steve Buckley wrote a column then that basically told Nomar that if he didnít like it here, he could go somewhere else. Embedded in the piece was an accusation that the Sox shortstop had recently complained about an official scoring decision that credited him with an error, even going so far as calling up to the press box requesting a reversal of the scoring. A day after the column appeared, the normally mild-mannered Garciaparra was on the defensive, assuring Sox fans through the media that he was only unhappy about the teamís apparent failure to reach the post-season, and that he was perfectly content playing in the spotlight that is Boston. Buckley, meanwhile, was forced to backtrack the next day on his contention that Garciaparra had called the press box, and made an effort to apologize to Nomar for his reporting error. For Garciaparra, though, the toothpaste was already out of the tube, and he felt that his image had been irrevocably tarnished.

When Nomar faced the media upon his arrival last week in Florida, he complained that he "didnít know how to act" anymore. Referring to the Buckley contretemps, he claimed to Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy that he was " ... damned if I do [act happy], [and] damned if I donít. Iíll just ask somebody every day how Iím supposed to be acting. You tell me. You ask my teammates and my coaches. Nobody says Iím unhappy. I wish you guys could tell me the best strategy, because Iím in a no-win situation. And then people make [expletive] up to try to make me look bad."

Just as that dust-up was being bantered about, Globe baseball-beat writer Gordon Edes wrote a supposedly innocuous column about the fact that the Red Sox had only three African-American players on their 40-man roster in Fort Myers. Given the franchiseís sorry history of blending blacks into the fabric of the team (Boston was the last major-league team to become integrated), this column was just asking for trouble. Edes noted that three black players from last yearís Opening Day roster were no longer with the team (Tony Clark, Darren Oliver, and Rickey Henderson), and that journeyman reliever Willie Banks, reserve outfielder Adrian Brown, and utilityman Damian Jackson were the only three blacks vying for spots on the team. Since none was guaranteed a spot, it raised the possibility that the team would head north with no blacks on the 25-man roster.

Not surprisingly, Buckley fired back in the pages of the Herald the next day, calling the issue a "non-story" and lambasting Edes for even broaching the delicate subject. Edes himself was astounded about the fireworks that ensued, not as related to Buckleyís criticism, but as the topic became the foremost topic in sports talk-radio circles that day.

It all came to a head on Sunday nightís Grammy-delayed Sports Final discussion on Channel 4, as Edes, Buckley, Shaughnessy, and WEEI sports host Bob Neumeier all threw snide comments and not-so-thinly veiled criticisms at the assembled scribes around the table (and via satellite).

All this in just the first week of spring training.

The truth is, for any professional athlete, Boston is a very difficult place to play. Even the god-like legends (Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Carl Yastrzemski) and the legends-in-the-making (Nomar, Manny Ramirez, Tom Brady) are not immune to criticism, and while these athletes often end up in the news for wholly innocent transgressions, the fact is that local sports fans' appetite for news and details about their heroesí every movement is voracious. For Sox fans, they want to be sure that Nomar is happy, because if he isnít, there remains the strong possibility that they may lose him to free agency someday soon (heís signed through next season). On the other side of the coin, adoring local fans also want to know more about this special athlete, which is difficult because the reclusive Garciaparra treasures his privacy, and rarely opens up on non-baseball-related matters. Even the news of his recent engagement to soccer star Mia Hamm was apparently revealed only to those on a need-to-know basis, before being widely circulated by the coupleís friends and families.

Garciaparraís plight is only one example, but serves as an illustration about the needs and responsibilities of the Fourth Estate, whose members want to give their readers, viewers, and listeners all the information they possibly can about their favorite athletes. This competition is fostered by the frenzied interest in all things Red Sox, and why even during Grapefruit League workouts, there are countless sportswriters, local sports anchors, sports-radio personalities, and camera crews on hand to elicit the significant stories emanating from camp. The Herald and Globe are the two fiercest newsprint competitors in Boston, but writers from the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, the Quincy Patriot Ledger, the Providence Journal, and the Hartford Courant also have vested interest in passing along tidbits to their regional baseball addicts.

Even here at the Phoenix, "Bostonís Arts and Entertainment Authority," we feature a sports column, even though sports fans donít normally seek their fixes here. Nonetheless, there is an appetite for it, and my voice is no different than most of you out there who have opinions regarding the areaís sports teams and their athletes. Sports radio thrives in New England because everybody has his own viewpoint on the local teams, and nearly every caller feels that his or her view will provide the thought-provoking sentiment that seems to have eluded all other listeners.

Local athletes are blessed and cursed in this regard; they love playing in front of passionate fans, yet they donít necessarily want to surrender all semblance of privacy to satisfy the curious public. In addition, New England sports fans are a fickle bunch, as evidenced by the fact that the New England Patriots were booed on their home field in just their third regular-season home game after winning the Super Bowl championship last February. Bostonians love their teams, but when things go wrong, they are quick to turn against them, figuring that a little booing now and then sends a message to the players that they need to get their heads into the games and play better. The athletes, though, misinterpret this as angered criticism, and feel that local fans ignore the big picture (i.e., a solid stretch of playing well, or perhaps facing a more-talented foe) at the expense of impatient grousing over the here and now.

Regarding the aforementioned spring-training controversies, it is fairly obvious that in spite of everything, players should be willing to be accountable and accessible to the media covering them, since the Knights of the Keyboard provide that valued link to the fanatics who buy the tickets and fill the stands. Criticism is warranted if players do not put out a complete effort on the field (not running out ground balls, not appearing to care enough), but a line can certainly be drawn by the athletes when aspects of their private lives are invaded. And regarding Edesís stance on the minority issue, the fact that so many Major LeagueĖbaseball teams are currently in the same boat regarding the percentage of black players should have been prominently highlighted, as should have the fact that not as many black kids are learning the sport at early ages as they once did. Also, the presence of Central and South American players like Martinez, Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Ramiro Mendoza certainly represent the international flavor of this yearís squad, and the only reason that Henderson, Clark, and Oliver are not a part of this yearís Sox team is that they all stunk. Deep down, Buckley was right: this really was a non-story.

On purely sports-related matters, though, Bostonís fans cannot help it if they care too much. The Boston media that cover the regionís teams have an obligation to do all they can to make it easier for the fans to get to know the players and their teams better, yet offer up those portraits objectively ó without malice or personal agendas.

And the athletes, as always, need to regularly put forth the efforts that ultimately got them to this level of competition, all the while acknowledging that itís the fans that are supporting them and thereby furthering their careers. In this spirit of responsibility ó in giving something back to the fans ó the athletes should know that the best way that they can reward their supportersí loyalty is simply to care as much as their fans do.

For Boston sports zealots, that should be enough.

Sporting Eye runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com, and Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com

 

Issue Date: February 24, 2003
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2002

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