- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

On Message Discipline or Lack Thereof

In the aftermath of the Mets’ failure to sign Michael Bourn (or their success at retaining the 11th Draft Pick), I wondered if the resolution would have struck me as so disappointing had not so many details of its progress emerged during the process leading up to it. The Mets were talking to Bourn…the Mets were talking to MLB…the Mets were maybe going to get a favorable ruling on the draft pick…the Mets and Bourn were getting closer…

Then nothing. Nothing but a barren pasture masquerading as a big league outfield (or a landscape of opportunity for the as yet unproven). Bourn, a legitimate pro in his prime, never loomed as a savior, but how good does a legitimate pro in his prime sound right about now? Right about the beginning of April? Either way, he’s Cleveland’s asset/burden for the next few years.

But back to my disappointment, which I think was many times magnified by how public the process of not nabbing him was. I don’t think I would’ve been nearly as bothered had the Mets come up empty quietly. If it had become known eventually that they looked at all available options, even made a run at that really excellent center fielder who sat on the market longer than expected but it just didn’t work out, then I have a feeling I would’ve thought, “at least they were trying, can’t fault them there.” Instead, being given the impression that Bourn was kind of, sort of within their grasp and then having him slip away wound up detracting from my goodwill toward Mets.

So when I had the chance to play the Mets blogger’s version of Howard Stern’s old “One Question and One Question Only” game via conference call with Sandy Alderson last week, I chose to ask not exactly, “Where’s the frigging outfield at?” but about trying to get a deal done — which I assume requires massive amounts of discretion in addition to money — while indulging in what seemed like play-by-play of the entire affair while it was still in progress.

In less polite terms, and even taking into account that the baseball media is a voracious beast that requires constant feeding, why didn’t/couldn’t you guys just shut the bleep up and sign him or not sign him?

Sandy’s answer was, in so many words, that there are too many words out there for quietude to prevail.

“You have to realize that it’s next to impossible to keep a transaction of that type confidential,” the GM said. “It’s just not going to be possible with the number of people involved from our side and the number of people involved on the agent’s side. [And] there are other teams that are involved. There can be communications with Major League Baseball. There’s just so many different entities that you just have to assume that these things are going to eventually become known and become public.”

Implicit is an acknowledgement of the media’s role, specifically that of the Mets beat reporters who talk to Sandy Alderson because their vocation is secular rather than spiritual (and it’s their job to find something to report). They have ways of making people talk, which may be as simple as repeatedly asking “so, what’s new?” and taking copious notes. Word does tend to get out and, from there, Alderson seemed to be telling me, it becomes pretty close to impossible to manage.

Dissemination of what intuition would tell you are delicate negotiations is “difficult to avoid,” he admitted, unless a deal can get done very quickly and thus relatively quietly. “Sometimes I’m just not available rather than no-commenting,” Sandy explained. “Even a ‘no comment’ conveys a certain amount of information; probably being unavailable does too, but rather than provide misinformation, sometimes I just go radio silent. That way it’s just the best of, possibly, several bad options.”

“The best of several bad options” sounds like another of Alderson’s outfield punchlines [1], but I appreciate the thoughtful answer he gave me. As a consumer of baseball news as well as a citizen of the United States of America, I appreciate openness and honesty from those in charge of the institutions we cherish. As a Mets fan, I mostly care about having a good team, and if I need to be purposely misled so we could wake up with Giancarlo Stanton batting cleanup, well, to borrow a phrase a former co-worker enjoyed attributing to an executive neither of us liked, “lie to me — tell I’m beautiful!”

Sounds practicable in theory, but really there’s too much truth out there, starting with the box scores and the standings, let alone honestly observed impressions [2], to airbrush actual circumstances. When the Mets try to spin 16-1 defeats with bright-side Tweets that inform us, “No fatalities evident as Mets come up short,” we rightfully mock them. Baseball’s an enormous business, but you can’t view the Mets as a corporation. Baseball’s full of anglers and operators (what isn’t?), but it would be a mistake to think of someone in Alderson’s position as purely a politician. The parameters of message discipline just don’t apply as easily here. Stories take on their own lives. There is no single page on which everybody can be expected to gather. And there’s no credible medium through which a desired message can be filtered cleanly. The best way for the Mets to have prevented the Johan Santana hysteria [3] of recent days from whipping up ever frothier frenzy wasn’t retaking some step missed in overall organizational image cultivation — it was having Dan Warthen or whoever check in regularly with Johan Santana from Christmas on and asking, “How’s the ol’ left arm doin’?”

I continue to be intrigued by something I saw when I attended the Mets’ holiday party in December, the day R.A. Dickey made his unbilled farewell address [4] to New York. The event was supposed to be fairly innocuous yet it turned into news: the Cy Young winner copped to contract talks stalling enough to dismay him badly. That’s not what players in Santa hats usually do at these luncheons, especially on the employer club’s home turf. As I watched it unfold, I instinctively waited for someone from the Mets to step forward and put an end to this utterly off-message episode, somebody to say, “thank you, ladies and gentlemen” and all but unplug the power cords. Instead, I noticed someone who works for the ballclub helping a camera operator on the edge of the media knot surrounding Dickey get a slightly better shot of the guy who was, however articulately, pointedly criticizing the ballclub’s actions.

There was no press secretary steering the proceedings to a halt. There were no functionaries trying to tell you what you just heard wasn’t what you just heard. This was baseball, and in baseball, people talk, sometimes at odds with an organization’s best interests [5], sometimes at odds with other people, sometimes at odds with other people standing a few feet away saying something else even if, theoretically, they’re all on the same side.

When I don’t take into account, as Alderson plainly has, that that’s the way baseball is, I’m somewhat gobsmacked it works that way as often as it does. And it’s not like 29 teams are message-disciplined and the Mets are a mess. This seems to happen to varying degrees everywhere in the sport. People go on and off the record to air their grievances all the time. Sometimes it makes a club look amateurish, but if the players play like professionals, it’s more colorful than harmful.

Baseball folks like to talk baseball so much that they can’t or won’t stop themselves. I was going to say that maybe they talk too much for their own good, but that’s probably an overstatement on my part. Baseball fans like to talk baseball, too, and we can’t hear about it or read about it enough. It’s when nobody wants to talk baseball that somebody should be worried.

Big thanks to Amazin’ Avenue for the transcript of the February 27 blogger conference call [6], particularly ace transcriber Steve Ferguson.

And speaking of people who like to talk baseball, I highly recommend a listen to a conversation between Matthew Callan and myself regarding the Metropolitan events of October 3, 1999, a.k.a Melvin Mora Day [7]. If there’s a place where two Mets fans can rivet each other (and hopefully you) for 80 minutes over a 13-year-old game, it’s Replacement Players [8].