LeBatard, PTI protest too much…ESPN eats own tail

pti

It’s not that I’m uninterested in sports talk radio host Dan LeBatard’s unorthodox protest against what he considers the MLB Hall of Fame’s archaic and “broken” election policy. In fact, I think he has a point, somewhat inelegantly stated. He famously (I suppose, in certain circles) recently farmed his Hall of Fame vote out to the readers of Deadspin.com, then submitted the results of the notoriously prickly, influence neutral (as much as any CAN be, in my opinion) website’s fan voting as his official ballot. LeBatard, who seems to have two default settings as a sports personality – righteous indignation and grating buffoonery – sought to prove some elusive point about the Baseball Hall’s arbitrary, elitist induction process, particularly in what’s become its blanket punishment of the biggest suspicious names of the Steroid Era (think Bonds, Clemons, Sosa, McGuire), which then necessarily trickles down to and punishes by association their peers who were merely stars, less overtly suspicious, and subjectively still Hall-worthy (think Craig Biggio or Mike Piazza). It was a calculated provocation, a pure attention grab both for his show and for his cause. That his mission was accomplished, or even its merits to begin with, became secondary to my overall takeaway, which has little to do with the news and everything to do with the newscaster. It all happened in the 20 minutes it takes me to drive to work in the morning.

Numerous baseball writers are on the record as stating they will never vote for the most supposedly tainted talents. This leaves aside the fact that few, if any, of these biggest names ever acknowledged or were officially “outed” as testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, leaving second-hand accounts and lingering, technically unproven doubts as the sole, though damning, evidence of their guilt. In a way, it’s like that moment in every courtroom drama ever made where a defense witness blurts out something startling and potentially game-changing, only to have opposing counsel object to it and win. The judge instructs that the outburst be stricken from the record and orders the jury to disregard it. But how easy is it to ever make yourself disregard something fabulously interesting on purpose? Baseball HOF voters think of themselves unironically as the guardians of decency in the sport, which makes me want to take a drink just so I can spit it out in surprise and delight. Fool me once, say over a 14-year conspicuously record-shattering career, shame on you. Fool me twice? No way, Jose Canseco. We won’t get fooled again.

So the doubts not only linger but calcify. Some writers advocate for inducting the big guns in spite of their infamy, on the basis of otherworldly statistics and their seismic impact on the game and, occasionally, the culture at large. I would probably agree, though I wouldn’t object to an explanatory asterisk adorning their plaque. A few especially curmudgeonly writers, sprinting in the opposite direction, have flatly stated they will never induct anyone who thrived in the Steroid Era, whether or not performance enhancement was ever suspected. Since stalwart, and presumably squeaky-clean, Atlanta Braves pitchers (and historical Met killers, so a golf clap from me at best) Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were inducted yesterday, one gets the sense that the brain is still capable of overruling even the stony heart of a baseball writer. But hand-wringing over the various intricacies and pitfalls of the Hall, which requires a 75% affirmation from its 400+ members for induction, has never been more vigorous than it is today. That’s where LeBatard’s weird but, I feel, genuine protest comes in.

I’ve heard other writers (such as ESPN’s Buster Olney, Tim Kurkjian, and Jason Stark) passionately decry the Hall’s induction policy in recent years, and few if any defenses. I’m of the opinion that there does need to be some codification (or at least official clarification) on how to deal with the Steroid Era, a return to my imperfect analogy of the judge issuing jury instructions, if you will. LeBatard, as an insider with skin in the game, feels more passionately. He is a fairly outspoken advocate of Bonds, Clemons and their ilk. The HOF, he seems to be saying, by nature of its induction policy, tacitly sanctions vendettas against specific controversial players, carried out by a membership that has been reduced in effectiveness because it has, over a period of years, let power go to its head. Since a single ballot means nothing, and affects no change whatsoever, why not open its inner workings up to the public? Hence the Deadspin stunt. It should be noted that the ten choices on the Deadspin reader ballot were perfectly reasonable, and not the circus sideshow one might’ve expected.

Yesterday I watched Pardon the Interruption hosts/egomaniacs Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon excoriate LeBatard for his actions – deadly serious, unequivocal criticism, not a hair on his Miami head left in place. The whole premise of PTI (as it is on most ESPN television, minus the “articulate” part) is for two articulate guys to loudly disagree about sports topics for 90 seconds before moving on to the next one, so seeing the two loudly agree and, indeed, seemingly speak in a single voice (picture the moment where the gang “crosses the streams” at the end of Ghostbusters) was disconcerting. I wondered what the big deal was, as, in retrospect, I was supposed to. I spent the majority of my morning commute listening to ESPN radio’s Mike & Mike in the Morning rationally, reasonably break down both LeBatard’s grievance and protest and PTI’s summary judgment/ condemnation of it. They made good points, citing some solid sources to back up their arguments, and it proved a rare instance that I was actually the least bit engaged by the show instead of just having it on as colorful background noise, waiting in vain for them to mention the Steelers or Mets.

So, to review: on my drive into work this morning, I had the odd pleasure of listening to two ESPN radio hosts defending another ESPN radio host against vociferous attacks from two ESPN TV hosts, using opinions from ESPN writers to help support their case. And this is news…or, rather, it is self-generated, self-perpetuated “news”. In no way whatsoever should it qualify as actual news. It is endless, interminable analysis masquerading as news, as is forever the case on Fox News, MSNBC, and, in part, I guess, on this blog now (you’d think I would have waited a few posts before diving into this fetid pool). The game is obviously rigged, and as a consumer I’m part of the problem. I did not just figure this out, for the record, but this may the starkest example I’ve yet come across. Nobody should doubt that ESPN totally controls the American sports landscape – what they cover becomes what’s important news, not the other way around, and what they’ve bought and paid for is inevitably what they cover most – but I think this morning’s radio conversation neatly sends them down the rabbit hole.

Again, this isn’t news. This also isn’t institutional hubris on the level of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers goading the Spanish-American War into existence. No, it’s just a fact of life, and the preferred modern way of doing business, however frustrating. ESPN’s reach is so complete, pervasive and inescapable that not only can the right hand not know what the left hand is doing, when the two finally get on the same page they can turn it into a day’s worth of programming across multiple platforms. One arm of the company reporting news that the company itself created isn’t in itself even novel (think of ESPN’s wall-to-wall Tim Tebow coverage for a recent, egregious example). I wish I could say they’ve gone too far this time, but I can’t. They provide both the dog and the rope, so they decide not only the beast’s temperament, but just how far it can roam. Any limits already in place appear to be negligible.

Maddux and Glavine are in the Baseball Hall and should be. Jack Morris isn’t in the Baseball Hall, but should be. The first is a news item, the second is sketchier but still valid. LeBatard’s futile gesture is, in and of itself, also news, albeit ever so slightly. Everything else is so much occasionally interesting background noise. ESPN is a peerless monolith in the analysis as news business. It dictates, we accept. We are the buzzing of flies to it. The game is rigged, and as a consumer I’m part of the problem. I should throw my hands up in despair. Instead, in my own futile gesture, I’ll just change the channel. They’ll wait me out, though. They know that I’ll be back.

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