01 November 2018

Schrödinger's Farewell

On June 29, 2007, two things happened: Garabez Rosa was having his first professional experiences in the Dominican Summer League within the Orioles organization and I was making my transition from being a regular on the Orioles Baltimore Sun message board to a more fixed residence here at Camden Depot.  That first season, I basically had time on my hands in the midst of running laboratory experiments and was trying to figure out if I actually had anything to offer the local blogging community with the skills I was acquiring in my chosen profession.

As the years passed, I think the answer was indeed yes.  I along with others who came for the ride were able to take this fledgling of a site and turn it into a place where the baseball industry took notice.  I was once offered a position as well as several of my contributors, two of whom actually now work for organizations.  A couple others now work fully professionally at media outlets like The Athletic.  Others have taken off into the sunset to join sites like Baseball Prospectus or to form their own, like 2080 Baseball.

That sense of community, that sense of growth and accruing of baseball knowledge meant something to me.  Long ago, I knew as much as I loved baseball, it did not have my heart and for me to go into a field, at the bottom, with terrible pay, that I would need to have that unconditional desire to succeed.  I did not have that.  I had the skills, but not the want.  Nowadays, I lack the want and the database skills and it is something that is impacting the work here as well.  With a more archaic ability to handle data, I rarely get that call out of the blue from someone in baseball wanting to discuss something a little further.  My days as a sounding board are transitioning to days of being a friend.  While I still have a know how for developing methodology and planning how to solve problems, it reduces the imprint we leave when we find an ever growing inability to actually carry out those goals.

In addition to that, I have found a lack of community in the local blog ecosystem.  Good work and thoughts can be found at places like Orioles Hangout, Baltimore Sports and Life, Camden Chat, Eutaw Street Report, and others.  That said, the musketeer nature that existed when I began this romp with Camden Crazies, Dempsey's Army, and others is no longer there.  Back then, we were excited about our own little dirt hills along with being confused and exhilarated that we had any impact.  It felt a little revolutionary.  It felt a little subversive.  It was fun.  Days over 100 views were celebrated.  Back then to know one day we would count by thousands, or more if it strikes the right vein, would have seemed unimaginable.

As time passed, frustration and poor communication have littered this part of the woods with egg shells.  The internet has rowdy interactions at times and, for me, I basically assumed it as such.  When a message board community made fun of me for having a five minute ALS water challenge video where I discussed how the disease has impacted my family and how important sustained federal funding is for diseases like this, those attacks were tolerated by my site runner peers.  But, again, that cruelness and indifference is something that just often comes with this territory.  Though it was surprising to find the same site coddling local media.  If you criticize the process taken by a local writer for an established media site, the site runners for that message board community deletes those comments and openly acknowledges that they censor criticism of those writers because they fear that their dirt hill of a site will be adversely impacted by an angry sportswriter.  That undermining of taking a journey of truth, taking oneself oh so seriously when what we do on this edge of the internet is fairly without any gravity, any importance.  Yes, we can leave an imprint, but you cannot eat that, you cannot accrue interest.  To defend so heartily this mound of dirt, to me, shows a lack of awareness of where we exist.  At the very least, that sort of catering finds us in a much different environment than what we were all doing a decade ago.

To a greater extent, I think that belief in self-importance infects the sports writing world and easily spreads the contagion.  Branding is something that has emerged intensely over the past dozen years.  At first, it was a way to stylize your writing, to stand out amongst all the others putting their electricity to write words.  Jason Parks, to me, most memorably stamped his Brand while discussing prospects for Baseball Prospectus along with an equally adept Kevin Goldstein.  Ice cream in extra innings became a thing.  Prospect language shortly became quite sexually explicit in an ironic tone that now looks incredibly dated.  I think their success made others think they needed to more fully embrace the concept of Brand.  Eventually, though, I think Brand made a transition from style to lifestyle, from accessory to being the main article of expression.  The writers replaced themselves with the Brand they created.

Misuse of science is an area that annoys me greatly.  Writers who choose the brand of being evidence-based, science-first writers are almost to a rule either misleading you or are woefully blind to their own limitations.  It is frightful to see a sportswriter proclaim on twitter about how he knows about a topic because he read a peer-reviewed scientific journal article.  I mean, it is good to read those and try to comprehend them, but a smart baseball writer would use that to gain some background to then go and intelligently interview an expert in that field.  I mean, I am a toxicologist.  I know a lot about that.  I can read a journal article and slash it to pieces if it is done poorly because I have decades of experience with it.  You hand me something in a related field with a technique I am unfamiliar with like urban ecology, I can probably fake it, but before I make any grand statements or encourage people to do anything about it I better go talk to someone who actually knows about it.

Credibility is a major issue in baseball writing.  People think they know about medicine and arm injuries by talking to a carnival barking throwing guru who dabbles in science like an alchemist would.  People think any complex issue, such as sexual abuse and ex-convict reintegration, is a binary argument where you must choose a side instead of recognizing that there is nuance in a horrible situation.  There is a fear of not knowing when so much of life is not known.  Writers seem to want to avoid that aspect that we all tend to know is true about the things they discuss.  That uncertainty is ignored, papered over, denied.  The idea that there can be growth on a subject, a thinking process, a change of opinion appears quite foreign in this field.  Few acknowledge ever being wrong and most try to emphasize how they were in the know before anyone else.

As a writer, I have been pulled in directions that I do not wish to go in.  I try to keep true to my principles and move forward.  I have had material censored, understandably, from MASN and then got it published, understandably, without a word changed at ESPN.  When I see room for growth or simply intellectual laziness in other writing, I try to critically criticize that.  I tried over these dozen years to truly keep in step with the goal of describing reality.  To try my best to know what is really going on.  Brand conflicts with that.  Brand now owns some.  I think, many people have lost their way or have become disenchanted with it.  I think a lot of writers are lost.

The disillusionment, isolation, and frustration of writers is expected.  This market is one that exploits those who can write and those who inexplicably think they can write.  In 2011, ESPN came to me and asked me if I was interested in having ESPN affiliate themselves with Camden Depot.  Their initial offer was for me to put in a few months, writing two to three posts a day, and working up to doing a once a week item for the main site.  I bristled at the volume and negotiated a once a day, five days a week, obligation.  They agreed.  I inked the contract while watching Robin Hood Men in Tights around the same time a SEAL team had arrived at Osama Bin Laden's compound.

It seemed like a good deal.  ESPN is a known entity in sports writing.  It would add credibility, maybe some doors would open.  Maybe this would lead to an interesting path.  However, I also could see the landscape and recognize that cheap writing was plentiful with ESPN trying to figure out how to get in on it.  That is why I held back and refused to commit anything more than an article a day, five days a week.

No money was mentioned except for a $75 flat rate per article for the home site, a fee I never bothered collecting when I wrote for them.  At other places like Bleacher Report, SBN, FanSided, etc. the pay scale is worse.  Writers put in hours and hours often thinking that maybe this is a path for them.  Often they find relief in the few that break through, a few that never should have been using it as a path to journalism.  Often they do not see the difference in their own ability and that of those who graduated.  So what you mostly have is an exploited class of effectively unpaid workers.  They get stuck in the process and prevent themselves from other opportunities that could elevate them.

At the Depot, I never promised any opportunity. I noted that we had a platform, but that I refused to take a dime for it.  In a dozen years, we never accepted any money in writing this site.  I never got paid.  I never put on an advertisement where I or my contributors earned any income.  I felt it necessary to present this site as purely academic.  To present the site to writers as something you do when you feel compelled to do it organically as opposed to feeling that you have to write.  The idea was that this site would be one of passion and a search for reality.  To figure out how things worked at the writer's own leisure.  I think that perspective made it easier for long term writers to write and hone their abilities.  I think it let passionate writers driven to become professionals in this field to become that.  I think the model enabled writers to get their head up and notice other opportunities in the field that could take them higher.

I think that model worked and still works.  I think that sites like SBN and FanSided are exploitative and immoral even when adults are giving their consent to be used by that system.  Those systems are grinding pyramid platforms with those on top profiting on the toil of writers below.  I would also contend that the greatest issue is not really about pay, but about the amount of work they demand without any intention for the writers to be fairly paid.  This creates conflict, stress, and frustration.  It rises up to making people think these things that are largely unimportant are actually important and can lead somewhere desirable.  And, while the writers are often complicit in their own situation, I would suggest that the audience the sites cater to also share in the exploitation of the writers.

As consumers of these media sites, I think you should care about how your writers are treated.  Maybe I am wrong, but I think you should avoid the most exploitative media entities.  You should be attracted to sites that genuinely push fan writing forward.  You should be attracted to sites that try to pass as much money as possible to their writers without working their writers to the bone.  You should definitely subscribe to local newspaper with solid reporters like Jon Meoli at the Baltimore Sun.  You should try to empower alternative methods to empower writers like the effort with the local Baltimore Athletic site.

Writers are people.  People's time is worth money.  As consumers of media, we should recognize these things.  We should be willing to put our money where our eyes go.  We should be supportive of good, genuine work.  We should hesitate to benefit groups that are the worst actors in this field.  These are my thoughts.  Maybe, these thoughts are wrong.  They do not feel wrong today.

While this final post is one where I step up on a soapbox and wish for things to be different, I must state that this has been a wonderful ride.  I met a lot of cool people.  I learned so much over the last decade and it has vastly changed my perspective.  I have developed such a greater appreciation for those who write as those who are in the industry.  Their skill and ability are often overshadowed by a cutting comment by those on the outside who truly do not appreciate what it takes to get to this level or how the inside world of baseball almost always is light years ahead of what is happening outside.

ESPN treated us well.  They demanded a crazy and exploitative structure like SBN or FanSided, but let us do our own thing and at our own pace.  The Sweetspot experiment has unraveled over the years, neglected, but those first few years it was truly a great time where a lot could happen.  MASN was a fun venture and they let us do things that were not within the criteria of their desire for fan posts.  We ignored the idea of fan posts and, to some extent, changed their format, broadened it for those following.  That said, we pushed boundaries and it was understandable why we eventually amicably split.

The Orioles also did very well by us.  They welcomed us into the press box.  We liked to keep our distance, but the beat crew was always pleasant to us almost to a man.  Roch, Brittany, and Eddie were great.  Jon Meoli came in right when we stopped hitting the games.  Moments on the field and chatting about nuances in baseball with players and front office personnel were rare events, but illuminating and enjoyable.  Being able to get into the underbelly of the stadium for press events was also rare, but great.  Amanda Sarver  and others made our inclusion into events rather seamless.  I am quite thankful for them all.

With this, I bid farewell.  An excellent ride.  Lots of memories to cherish and lessons that I have learned.  With no good reason, the world of baseball opened up to me and let me try to know it.  Now, this time seems done.  Perhaps, my journey will continue in other ways, public and private.  Perhaps, I may even come back to this site in the future.  I doubt I will, but I shall leave the door ajar with the utilities disconnected.

Take care.

10 comments:

Rich said...

Farewell and Thank you, Mr. Shepard. And don't forget or get distracted from writing that book. I will copy that one article that I thought was perfectly written...I will find it.

weams said...

Thank you Jon.

PTCello said...

I’ve already written my thanks, but happy to do so again.
God Bless you and yours, Jon.

Mike said...

So where do we go now for news, insights, and commentary about the Orioles?

Unknown said...

Nice article on the exploitation of writers. Makes a nice complement to my other reading this morning: SQUEEZED (why our families can’t afford America) by Alissa Quart.

I didn’t find this site until last summer but as an Oriole and a baseball fan I will miss it.

David Morgereth said...

Many thanks for all your hard work. Best wishes to you and all the other writers.

MisterDobalina said...

I've thoroughly enjoyed this blog...loved the focus on stats (even if I didn't always understand all of them) and always felt like the front office should be reading it more. Many thanks for the work that went into it, and best of luck in what's next.

Robert Ricketts said...

Johm you were and still are my favorite baseball writer -despite a testy response to one of my posts last year ;) Thanks for everything you have done for the Orioles community. You will be missed. Best of luck in your next steps....

Art said...

I regret that I only discovered this blog in the past 12 months. Best of luck to you and the rest of the staff as you move forward to other things.

Daniel said...

Hi Jon,
I try to avoid internet comments sections but just wanted to say thanks for everything.
Take care.