Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Peril of the Yellow Journalist


In one of my favorite scenes from Citizen Kane, yellow newspaperman Charles Kane explains to one of his editors how to squeeze a juicy story out of the disappearance of one Mrs. Silverstone, whatever the facts may be:



... Right now, I wish you’d send your best man up to see Mr. Silverstone. Have him tell Mr. Silverstone if he doesn’t produce his wife at once, the "Enquirer" will have him arrested. (he gets an idea) Have him tell Mr. Silverstone he’s a detective from the Central Office. If Mr. Silverstone asks to see his badge, your man is to get indignant and call Mr. Silverstone an anarchist. Loudly, so that the neighbors can hear.

I love that glimpse of a bygone era of rough and tumble journalism, the likes of which haven't been seen since Hearst's and Pulitzer’s penny paper wars raged in the streets of Gotham. Of course, yellow journalism is one of those things that's much more amusing in the movies than in real life. I certainly got no pleasure out of the almost identical ambush perpetrated by Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly just last week.

For those of you unaware, Reilly approached Sammy Sosa in the Cubs’ locker room, told him that the only way to for him to clear his name of steroid rumors was to piss in a cup, and then handed him the name and address of a nearby clinic that would test him. Sosa understandably took offense and asked Reilly if he was trying to set him up. Reilly’s response: "I asked how he could get in trouble if he wasn't doing anything wrong."

To his credit, Sosa refrained from pounding Reilly into a thick, pasty goo, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. Who the hell is Rick Reilly? When was he appointed baseball’s drug czar? What civics teacher dropped the ball at little Ricky’s junior high school during "Civil Liberties: Why They Count" week? More to the point, where does Reilly get off using Sosa’s demurral as the basis for a piece of character assassination like the one he wrote in SI, not to mention the post-publication radio interviews Reilly has given stating that Sosa’s reaction was an obvious symptom of "'roid rage?"

Contrary to Reilly’s ugly innuendo, there were several excellent reasons for Sosa to decline a starring role in Reilly’s witch trial -- reasons that have nothing to do with any juicing he may or may not be doing. For example, he may have refused because he has an obligation to the player's union (which is opposed to testing) not to break ranks until it devises a policy on steroids. Or maybe he was just trying to find a way out of serving on student council.

Or as fellow baseball junkie David Jones noted in a recent thread over at, maybe he said no because Reilly’s proposal was simply preposterous from the start: "Here, Sammy, stop what you’re doing. Get in your car and drive 45 minutes to this address and see this guy that you've never seen before in your life. Pee into a cup once, and then whatever the guy tells me about the results I'll print in a nationwide publication." Who in their right mind would do that, and how on Earth can Reilly claim that he was surprised at Sosa’s reaction?

The truth, I suppose, is that Reilly wasn’t surprised. Reilly is a grandstanding hack who doesn’t care whether Sammy Sosa or any other ballplayer is taking steroids. He cares only about his own celebrity and the thrill of gotcha journalism. If Reilly is taking his cue from the "Mr. Silverstone" scene in Citizen Kane, I must applaud him on his good taste in film. Nevertheless, it would probably be a good idea for him to watch the rest of the movie as well. Set-ups, cheap shots and other forms of manipulation may have made Charles Foster Kane famous, but they also caused him to die a sad and lonely death.

The Man Comes Down on

People ask me why I spend my free time writing about baseball when I could be busting my hump to try and make partner at my law firm. I think this sort of thing has something to do with it (scroll to the bottom of the linked page to see the attorney’s letter). Note the soul-killing paradox of a threatening letter written in the passive voice. Note how the letter was sent the day before a federal holiday, thereby increasing the likelihood of cutting the recipients’ response time down by a day or so. Note the cc’s to no fewer than three other attorneys, demonstrating the corporate lawyer’s tendency to hunt in packs. Indeed, apart from the law firm’s way-cool domain name ( there appears to be absolutely nothing fun or life-affirming about the letter itself or the place from whence it came.

My thinly-veiled career ennui notwithstanding, isn’t that one of the dumber things you’ve seen in a while? Sure, the Astros are legally justified in worrying about the unauthorized use of their trademarks, but the zealousness with which they appear to be pursuing this matter seems a bit much. Ray Kerby, the operator of obviously puts a lot of time and effort into promoting his favorite team (probably more time than the Astros do themselves, given MLB’s notorious record of poor-mouthing its own product), but rather than pick up the phone or drop an email in an attempt to work out some mutually beneficial deal over the use of their intellectual property, the Astros and Major League Baseball have their legal gladiators launch mindless cease-and-desist letters. How creative.

Looks like one of my favorite websites is about to get a new addition.

Goodbye, Teddy Ballgame

As we established last week, I’m not the person to come to for deep reflection when a ballplayer dies. Of course, if there were ever an appropriate time for a lengthy ballplayer obituary, the passing of Ted Williams is it. Williams was the best player of what, rightly or wrongly, is known as baseball’s golden age, bridging the gap between Gehrig and Mantle (outhitting them both) while still finding time to fly combat missions in two wars. If he had played tenor sax, he’d be three Ken Burns documentaries in one.

But to me, Williams’s battles with the reporters who covered him were every bit as interesting as those fought against opposing pitchers, the Empire of Japan, and North Korea. Why? Because they show that even in a sport that prides itself on the unassailable superiority of its alleged golden age, some things have always been pretty much the same. Williams was robbed of at least three MVP awards -- coming in second in two seasons in which he hit for the Triple Crown and one in which he hit .400 -- primarily because sportswriters hated him. Compare this to Barry Bonds, who was robbed of an MVP in 1991 because the baseball writers held his much-publicized confrontation with manager Jim Leyland that spring against him, or Albert Belle, who lost the 1995 MVP to Mo Vaughn simply because Johnny Sportswriter didn’t like the cut of Belle’s jib.

The animosity of the press towards Williams was even worse. As noted in ESPN’s excellent obituary, the sportswriters seemed to have it in personally for the Splendid Splinter, "always fishing for an exclusive or scrambling for a fresh angle . . .seiz[ing] on any scrap of gossip or conjecture and blow[ing] it up into a headline . . . and they had no qualms about investigating an athlete's private life if it sold newspapers. Turn this crew loose on a guy like Williams, who stubbornly insisted on his right to privacy, and you had all the elements of a political battle."

Knowing that Williams had to put up with that kind of abuse makes his accomplishments seem even more amazing. Knowing that Sammy Sosa has to put up with the same damn thing does the same for his.