Over the All-Star Break, I had some driving time to think about the Astros. The question that kept surfacing was this, "How do different writers approach covering a really, really bad team?"
It's not an easy task, and is different depending on what your job description says. The worst is probably the beat writers for bad teams, because they're stuck covering a bad team every day for an entire 162-game season. After a point, people start tuning out on roster issues and lineup construction, instead making jokes about Carlos Lee. That can get frustrating in a hurry, I'm sure.
I wasn't really sure where I wanted to go with this question, so I just emailed a bunch of different people connected to bad teams to get their opinions. In going through their responses, I came up with a few different points they all had in common. Putting my own spin on these, I created five guidelines for writers trying to cover bad teams. I focused mainly on baseball, because I think it's the hardest sport to cover with a bad team. I remember following the 2007 Texans, who got the No. 1 overall pick and I remember that 2002 season, too, when the franchise was brand new. Those were painful, but they were only 16 games long. Baseball is 10 times that and all-consuming from April to September.
That's why I thought I needed these rules. Not everyone will agree with these, and it certainly may be boring to you commenters (since you don't writer about the Astros, necessarily). But, part of the deal with TCB is you have to put up with my tangents occasionally, so forgive this. Also, thanks to Steve Campbell and Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle, James Yasko of Astros County and SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan, Charlie Wilmouth and Patrick Reddington for their invaluable help.
1) Do your job. - It's a simple request, but no less important. It's also the biggest thing you should keep in mind when writing about a team. If your job is as a beat writer, cover the team with objectivity and give fans all the background they need on the myriad player movements that usually accompany bad teams.
Bloggers and other writers who don't get to talk directly to the team should hold them accountable. Don't shy away from being realistic about the team if they're bad, but also don't exaggerate. If you write opinions, give them. If you do analysis, go with that. Don't get out of your comfort zone just because the team in nose-diving.
2) Don't get caught up in snark. - This could be the hardest for non-journalistic types. It's very easy to make jokes about a bad team. It's easy to mock the front office, the players who are underperforming, the owner and everyone else involved with the team. You'll get internet laughs and find people agreeing with you. But, down that road lies cynicism.
I'm not saying you shouldn't make jokes every now and then, but be careful how much you use it. Remember, the people reading and agreeing with you many not reflect the fan base as a whole. If you continually rip the team, you risk alienating any new readers who may come to talk about the team.
3) Be creative. - Writing about a bad team can be a very monotonous experience. Look at the Seattle Mariners, who just snapped a 17-game losing streak. How do you write about 17 straight losses in a row, much less write something new and interesting about said games?
Use the time to expand your writing horizons. Play with the format. Do something different. It won't be as much for the fans as much as it is for you. By breaking up the monotony with a fake conversation with a player or a sonnet about all the losses, you'll refresh your creative batteries for writing about everything else. Focusing on something like that can do wonders for your stamina the rest of the season.
4) Don't peddle false hope. - Being too snarky can lead people to tune you out for being too negative. On the other side of that coin, being too positive can also make people tune you out as unrealistic. It's tempting to give in and write about the future being brighter, but unless there's actual possibility of that happening, you'll alienate more people than you'll win over.
Right now, Houston fans are crazy for the minors, precisely because there is hope that the team will be better down the road. But, don't pretend Jordan Lyles can be a staff ace if his upside is really a middle rotation starter. By trying to provide too much hope, you'll just build expectations and ultimately disappoint more fans than you'll comfort.
Going back to No. 1, it's not your job to provide hope or build up players who don't deserve it. That's what spring training is for.
5) Focus on the people, too. - There are a ton of stories around a baseball team. Most are human interest pieces that mean less about the product on the field and more about getting to know the players. In a bad season, the temptation is to forget about those nice feature stories and instead, focus on trade scenarios or free agency.
This is especially important in baseball, as the grind of the season gives plenty of opportunity to get to know players better. By avoiding those issues and instead focusing on the bad things, you're missing one whole side to the equation. If you miss those smaller picture stories, you might miss stories on the adjustments Michael Bourn has made this season and worry about his big season being a product of luck and thus, unsustainable.
It's not a comprehensive list, nor will it work for everyone. But, these are all things that are easy to lose track of with a bad team. I know I've lost all five at some point this season. Sometimes, you just have to take a step back and look at what you're doing. It's a long season and will be longer still until the Astros are mercifully done in September. I'll try to keep all these things in mind until that point.