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Baseball Media and the Optics of Anger

The Astros cheated and people are rightfully angry, but maybe reporters willing to trade objectivity for likes and page views are part of the problem

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Today will be the first day that the Astros play a game of baseball since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. While the game will feature mostly minor league players looking to prove themselves, the idea of an actual baseball game being played is something that I have looked forward to for months now.

Unfortunately that feeling has been diminished somewhat. Clouded over by the ongoing controversy and the fact that I can’t check in on baseball-related news without seeing rage and vitriol directed at my favorite team. Here is the part where I type the obligatory “They did it to themselves” line, which they did, but at the same time the fact that this is still front and center after four months of near-constant coverage is not wholly because of the Astros.

I understand that the media is in a place where they feel obligated to chase the most recent story. I also get that page views and “likes” are as manna from heaven for them in the modern age of social media. But at the same time we have seen the rage directed towards the Astros reach a fever pitch in recent weeks to the point where death threats are getting lobbed around and people are wishing cancer on 5-month-old children. The idea that a family should simply be killed or suffer endless heartbreak because of anger over a sport. A mere game.

While such threats don’t absolve the Astros, part of why we’re here should be laid at the feet of the media. I get that every group is going to have people looking to take advantage and raise themselves while pushing others down. That’s one of the more unfortunate aspects of humanity. But you have members of the national media, who have reached the pinnacle and don’t need to push down, joining in this irresponsible narrative that what the Astros have done is somehow unprecedented in the sport.

Maybe the cynic in me is coming forth after this off season, but I have begun to realize that “integrity of the game” is a fairy tale that people like to tell themselves to feel as if baseball is something more than just a game. To place it on a pedestal so we don’t see the inanity of watching grown men in pajamas try to hit a ball with a stick and then run real fast. It’s something we tell ourselves that lets us look past the fact that the players on the field are flawed human beings who are pinnacles of nothing else than a mere game. But we’ve let that phrase blind us in so many ways in the past few months.

I understand the anger of teams and players that were directly effected by the cheating scandal, but how does no one in the media push back on Nick Markakis stating that the Astros players “need a beating?” Not only was there no discussion among those who have placed themselves as gatekeepers of integrity after that, but you see those same people re-tweeting it and normalizing such a thought. There was also commentary that Markakis normally doesn’t say things like that so it somehow carried extra weight. As if some extra emotion made such a statement more poignant instead of just a disgusting call to violence. Then those same people want to act the scold when some scumbag jumped to the next level and starts making death threats.

But maybe the way that they went along with the angry mob, indeed tried to position themselves at the lead of it at times, is partially to blame. While you can’t stop clout chasers on Twitter like Jomboy from tweeting irresponsible conspiracy theories, the fact that national media figures have elevated them has added fuel to this fire. The anger over buzzers has spread partially because of his “I’m just saying” tweets, which are then referenced and retweeted by media members as if there is some kind of factual weight behind them. Quite frankly, it’s a bad look when you have Jayson Stark, a respected reporter who has a hall of fame vote, stating that Jomboy is “exonerated” (from what exactly I don’t know) because Manfred won’t 100% guarantee that there were no buzzers. Some people are going to take that as a statement of fact that the buzzers happened, and he should know that.

Not just that, but the sudden wide-eyed innocence of media figures at the Astros’ system is almost laughable when people have have written about electronic sign stealing in the past. What the Astros did was a natural outgrowth of what has been a sort of complicity by the league and the national media for years. There have been reports for several years now about teams using tech to steal signs. Not to mention stories going back decades about teams using lights, members of the bullpen, minor league players in the stands, or a number of nefarious methods to steal and relay signs directly to the batter. This is not new.

You might think it is though, with the way that the media has gnashed its teeth and written endless stories about how the Astros are the most terrible team to ever play the game. How they have somehow torn at the integrity of a sport that has seen cheating scandal after cheating scandal since its inception, but that this one is somehow the worst. It feels hollow when reporters come out with opinion pieces that the Astros need to be made an example of and have their titles stripped and crippled for years to come while ignoring past reports that stealing signs with tech is widespread. Not to mention media members pushing the idea that the team has skated completely free even though MLB levied one of the biggest punishments ever against them. Then they say that we shouldn’t just fix the system going forward but should go back to retroactively change it so we can satisfy the anger that they themselves have helped to stoke in the first place.

I get that players are mad but it’s irresponsible for reporters to position themselves as arbiters of justice. Especially when they are really just echoing anger instead of looking at things with an objective eye. I’ve seen a few articles where reporters have stated that they initially thought the punishment fit, but then they saw that players are mad so now we need to go back and increase the punishment to satisfy that. That’s literally mob justice. And if the justification for that is that not doing so would result in the Astros players getting thrown at or attacked in visiting stadiums, well that’s vigilante justice. When did “integrity of the game” mean adopting those values?

Now my point is not that the media should stop reporting on this. Again, I understand the why of it and the need to publish. This is a major story going on in the world of baseball and the Astros being pilloried over it is a natural course of events. But when I see reporter after reporter acting as if they haven’t helped to create this echo chamber of anger, as if the level of anger is natural and hasn’t been fed by their influence, it’s frustrating.

Maybe people wouldn’t be so mad if there wasn’t this need to run and ask the Yankees how they feel about the Astros every day and then retweet about how they’re still mad as if that’s news instead of just milking the story. Maybe if there wasn’t editorializing over the fact that Mike Trout speaking out against it is somehow more than another player speaking about it so it must be extra terrible. Maybe some acknowledgement that the trash can system was an evolution of using tech to steal signs instead of pretending that it was created out of whole cloth in Houston. But, for the most part, there’s none of that.

We’re just not there with the baseball media anymore. Maybe we never were, but modern social media has really turned reporting on this into a race to be the loudest demand for a pound of flesh. There is a focus on the most negative aspect because the emotion of anger is what’s driving this story and some reporters, who should be the most objective of us all, are sitting behind the wheel. It’s sad to watch.