Three years ago, this author, then employed as a major-league beat writer by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, traveled to Cincinnati for the final series of the regular season. The Reds were hosting the Pirates in games No. 160, 161, and 162. The conditions weren’t quite fall-like yet — temperatures sat in the low 80s in humidity-drenched southern Ohio and northern Kentucky — but the Pirates had, at the very least, secured a playoff berth, and their NL Central Division title hopes were still alive.
Those three days in Cincinnati became some of my most memorable on the beat. The series was interesting in part for the decisions made by Pirates leadership amidst the end-of-season chaos of September baseball, decisions made in a largely conventional manner at a time in the game when tradition was being challenged, when players’ roles had begun evolving more rapidly. We continue to see evidence of that evolution in 2017. On the eve of the AL Wild Card game, for example, reporters are asking managers about bullpen-ing, about probabilities, about non-traditional decision-making. This was the backdrop for my long weekend.
The series was memorable for the camaraderie in the press box and the post-game conversations outside the stadium, the type of interactions between writers and scouts — between writers and other writers — that’s perhaps becoming increasingly rare as the economics of the media industry continue to erode jobs and travel budgets. Similarly, some regard player-tracking as a threat to render scouts redundant.
Those three days in Cincinnati, for me, have provided raw material upon which to conduct a sort of personal archaeology, a collection of vignettes to revisit as the regular season comes to an end. The weekend offered some small but revealing examples of tradition’s concessions to science and efficiency in baseball. For better, for worse. The following is intended neither as analysis nor commentary. It’s simply a story.
FRIDAY Sept. 26, 2014
I arrived by air that morning in Cincinnati, having covered the previous series in Atlanta during which the Pirates had clinched just their second playoff berth — and second consecutive playoff berth — since 1992. I don’t remember much from the Atlanta series. It was the second time I had been in a beer- and champagne-soaked clubhouse, the celebration taking place in now-defunct Turner Field. I’m not sure if Uber had arrived in northern Kentucky at that time, but it must not have, because I took a cab to the hotel from the airport. I kept clothing and toiletries to one modestly sized piece of luggage, as I always did, which would fit in overhead storage in the plane, often a Southwest 737, to save time and avoid a trip to baggage claim. Fortunately, the dress code of a writer can be generously described as “business casual.”
As I did for this particularly series, as I did for most series in Cincinnati, I stayed at the Marriott RiverCenter in Kentucky across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Not only is it relatively close to the ballpark, enabling me and my company to avoid a rental car, but I enjoyed the walk over the majestic Roebling suspension bridge, spanning the Ohio River, a forerunner to Roebling’s considerably more famous Brooklyn Bridge.
The downside of the commute by foot, roughly a walk, is that it can leave one considerably sweat-drenched in sultry Cincinnati.
Pretty sure Great American is the only ballpark within walking distance from another state. Thanks, Mr. Roebling pic.twitter.com/ektBcXkwje
— Travis Sawchik (@Travis_Sawchik) September 26, 2014
Sometime around 3 p.m. on Friday, I passed through security check, entered the concrete bowels of the Great American Ball Park, and arrived at the visiting clubhouse. The Pirates were 87-72 and a game behind the Cardinals in the Central.
That evening in the series opener, Vance Worley allowed one run over 6.1 innings. Worley was the Pirates’ latest successful reclamation project. Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon — combined for 2.2 shutout innings to secure the win. The Pirates’ bullpen had been one of the strengths of the team. But the Cardinals had won, too, that night. The 88-72 Pirates remained a game back of St. Louis.
With it being the last series of the season, with Cincinnati being a relatively easy drive from western Pennsylvania, a larger contingent of traveling media had materialized for the Reds series. This was unusual. It was also uncommon for the Steelers not to be the sole focus of Pittsburgh sportswriters in late September. This stands out to me in retrospect, as the volume of media that travels to cover major-league teams has decreased in just my relatively short time around the game.
Typically, in my experience, mid- and small-market clubs will feature a lone MLB.com writer, one newspaper beat writer, and a reporter and cameramen from the cable-rights holder to follow the club on the road. That might be it. I’ve seen the Miami Herald and San Diego Union-Tribune pay for stringers rather than send a reporter to cover a road series. My former newspaper in Pittsburgh no longer travels west of the Central Division. During Indians spring training this season, on some occasions, the only writer present was from MLB.com. Even MLB.com has decreased its travel this year. Many media outlets are struggling to turn profits. The travel budget is often among the first expenses reduced.
But reducing travel hurts the quality of coverage and, ultimately, the consumers of media. Covering a team is best when the club is on the road. While traveling, you’re freed of all other distractions and take greater ownership of the story. There are also fewer media members around, more opportunities for exclusive interviews and conversations. Moreover, players are generally more available, as visiting clubhouses have fewer amenities, fewer rooms. For instance, the Cubs’ home clubhouse is a sprawling underground complex complete with a party room; the Pirates’ clubhouse has a regeneration room with isolation tanks where players can lay in a completely dark chamber and float on water infused with several thousand points of salt to create sensory deprivation. At home, there are plenty of spots to avoid the media.
Coverage, stories, insights, and reader knowledge suffers when reporters don’t travel. Not that reporters are supposed to become friends with players — that’s a breach of Journalism 101 ethics — but the chance for relationships to be formed, trust to be created, is reduced. And it’s to the end of developing relationships between camps that the Pirates began embedding a quantitative analyst with the club on the road in 2014. A number of teams have adopted this practice. There’s something to being on the road.
Access to leaders and key actors — even in something as relatively insignificant as professional sports — is an issue across journalism. In some cases, the reduction of exposure to independent news outlets is by design; institutions like Division I athletic programs intentionally curtail access to better control the message. In other cases, a decline in ad revenue is to blame, reducing the number of paid journalists and those traveling on the road. The pay gap — and employment gap (in numbers) — between PR and journalism continues to grow. The message is becoming more controlled, more vanilla.
But on Sept. 26, 2014, there was a healthy media party in southern Ohio covering the Pirates. That first night of the series, most of the reporters retired to their hotel rooms after a long day at the park and travel. That would change Saturday.
SATURDAY Sept. 27, 2014
Saturday afternoon complicated matters for the Pirates.
In the 10th inning, around 4 p.m., Ramon Santiago smashed a walk-off grand slam to lift the Reds to a 10-6 win. With a Giants loss, however, the Pirates had secured to the No. 1 Wild Card slot.
To capture the division, the Pirates now required a Cardinals loss later that night in Arizona, a second Cardinals loss (with Adam Wainwright pitching) on Sunday, and a victory of their own (against Johnny Cueto and the Reds) on Sunday. Even if all that happened, the Pirates would still have to travel to St. Louis to play in a tiebreaker game Monday.
The Pirates needed a number of things to go their way. They needed, essentially, four consecutive games to go their way. Using coin-flip odds, Pittsburgh had a 6.25% chance of winning the division.
The key question, and debate, became this: what to do with ace Gerrit Cole? Would Cole make his scheduled start Sunday? Or would they save him for the Wild Card game and a likely matchup with the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner?
Following the game, this author asked Hurdle if he still intended to pitch Cole.
“You’re not going to talk me into any path,” Hurdle said. “Speculate. Go for it. Have fun. Tell [your readers] what you would do. Yeah, go for it.”
After the post-game media availability, we retired to the press box to write recaps, finish notebook items — and speculate. The Pittsburgh-based media contingent then agreed to meet out for a group dinner.
We met at the Keystone Bar and Grill at the corner of Park Plaza and Greenup Street in Covington, Kentucky. Then-Tribune-Review columnist Rob Rossi, an excellent story teller, regaled us for much of the evening. And as the dinner party broke up, as most retired to their respective Marriott properties, I and one of my closest friends on the beat, David Manel of Bucs Dugout — also possessing an analytical lens for the game — elected to remain out deeper into the night. There were important matters to discuss.
We moved from the dining room to the bar, which was mostly empty, despite the relatively early hour. (It was only around 10 p.m. or so, as I recollect.) We occupied a high-top table and began discussing, presumably, the pitching dilemma facing the Pirates. At some point in our discussion, we were interrupted by two gentlemen sitting nearby, occupying the corner of the bar. They were curious why were so interested in the Pirates and we explained the nature of our business. They introduced themselves as scouts who were covering the series. Our two-person part became a four-person party.
For decades, scouts and beat writers have talked in press dining rooms and, I assume, over pints in dimly lit, wood-paneled public houses near ballparks like the Keystone. Information is exchanged, stories told, rumors spread, and relationships formed. But just as the journalist and the travel budget of the beat writer are in danger, scouts also face the prospect of becoming redundant in this era of player-tracking. This conversation occurred in the last regular-season week of play not to be tracked by Statcast. The following year, 2015, every player and ball (or most of them) was being tracked across the league, clearly marking a new era in quantifying sport.
Looking back, it feels like that weekend was the end of something.
We talked about the Pirates’ looming decisions; the veteran baseball men agreed with the idea of throwing Cole, of absolutely playing for today, despite the low percentage chances of capturing the division. There was a divide in thinking, though I don’t recall it becoming contentious. We eventually split, and Manel and I ventured across the plaza and under the glow of sodium lamps to another establishment, Molly Malone’s Irish Pub. We watched the Cardinals lose in Arizona, keeping the Pirates’ chances alive. There, the discussion on what the Pirates ought to do continued. The Pirates still needed to beat Cueto on Sunday, benefit from a Cardinals loss that same day, and then travel to St. Louis and beat the Cardinals on Monday. A lot still needed to go right to capture the division.
We arrived at an agreement and consensus, which Dave recorded here for posterity:
How to save Cole & Volquez & still compete Sun? Melancon first two innings then next move dictated by situation. Co-signed by @Sawchik_Trib
— David Manel (@DavidManel) September 28, 2014
That was our free advice.
SUNDAY Sept. 28, 2014
The next morning, we filed into the visiting manager’s office, down the white sheetrock corridor of the visiting clubhouse, around 10 a.m.
There, in his crowded office, Hurdle announced Cole was starting because capturing a division title was still mathematically possible. He explained that, to make the decision, he had asked the opinion of a small group of players, a “leadership council,” who agreed they ought to pitch Cole.
“They didn’t make the decision. I wanted their input,” Hurdle said that morning. “There’s been many times where we haven’t [agreed]. But I think it’s important for [players] to have ownership.”
During the press meeting, Dave and I each proposed the idea of bullpen-ing to Hurdle, of starting the game with Mark Melancon. Had it been a consideration? After all, the Pirates had one of the strongest bullpens in the game and could theoretically preserve their run-prevention abilities while also saving Cole for the Wild Card game. Hurdle seemed exasperated by the question.
“At the end of the day, with every conversation I’ve had with a player, I’ve had with Neal [Huntington], that I’ve had with Bob [Nutting], that I’ve had with Frank [Coonelly] and that I’ve had with my coaching staff, there is no way we’re going to walk away from the opportunity to win the division…” Clint Hurdle said. “After 161 games of grit and fight and battle, we’re trying to make history here… There is no guaranteed way to cut this thing up and do what you want to do. So, we’re going to do what we believe in.
“This is not about theory. This is not about analytics. The only analytics that played into this decision was human analytics… You play this long and you get [the opportunity to win the division] and to go theoretical is not in a lot of your players DNA… That’s the other beauty of the sport. When your business is other people’s pleasure, other people get pleasure telling you how to do your business.”
We were operating from a theoretical perspective, as we’ve yet to see a manager go full bullpen in the Wild Card era. I lean analytical. And perhaps there’s a writerly bias inherent in me, a desire (consciously or subconsciously) to see something new, different, and interesting. I’m interested in compelling stories. I have little experience in trying to keep a clubhouse together. I have less experience in answering for strategies gone wrong.
In a game becoming more and more analytical, emotion and tradition can win the day when facing something new and uncertain. And perhaps that’s a product of self-preservation. When a new idea — however attractive in theory — goes awry, the public (and perhaps clubhouse) can become outraged. When facing a new, uncertain situation like a Wild Card game, managers can become conservative.
But there still seemed like a better way, and a way to sell that strategy. Andrew Miller demonstrated last year that a relief pitcher won’t melt in an unconventional role on the biggest of stages.
We’re seeing questions change and thought process change in the press. Last week, a reporter asked Joe Girardi about attacking the Wild Card game with the Yankees’ strong bullpen exclusively. Girardi, like Hurdle three years prior, said he was uncomfortable with the idea.
“I think that’s pretty risky,” Girardi said before Tuesday night’s game, “because you’re in the one-game playoff and the season’s over if you don’t win that game, that’s the bottom line.
“To me, that’s awful risky.”
Three years ago, I wrote about the events of the weekend in Cincinnati the following Monday. I referenced this line from Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in the eponymously named film:
“A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing true north?”
The debate became a moot point.
Cole went out and had one of his best performances of the season, striking out 12 over seven innings. He allowed just four hits and single run, issuing no walks along the way. But he was outdueled by Cueto. With the loss, the Pirates were eliminated from the divisional race.
Would Cole have had such a performance in the Wild Card game? That’s difficult to know. He’d entered with four straight quality starts. Rob Arthur has verified that the hot hand is a real thing. Cole still probably would have been outpitched by Bumgarner, who shut out the Pirates in the NL Wild Card game. It was then that Bumgarner began his historic run in the postseason, leading the Giants to a World Series title. The Pirates tabbed Edinson Volquez to face San Francisco. Volquez had a fine season, but his true talent was less than of Cole. Cole had a 3.23FIP/3.25xFIP and 2.3 WAR for the season. Volquez? Just a 4.15FIP/4.20xFIP and 0.9 WAR. His performance enabled a blow out, Bumgarner cruising through a game with few, if any, high-tension moments. Would Cole, at the top of his game, in a closer contest, have forced a Bumgarner misstep? Probably not. But it’s impossible to know.
Looking back upon it now, maybe the Pirates should have bullpen’d the Wild Card game.
As the series ended, the members of the traveling press corps shared rides back to Pittsburgh. The regular season was over and the postseason would be short-lived. Still, they were three days in Cincinnati I remember fondly — in part due to nostalgia, as I’m no longer a beat writer. I wonder about how will media companies travel, how many scouts will be employed — what types of scouts will be employed — how games will be managed, who will manage them, and how players’ roles will change.
The game is becoming more extreme on the field and there are elements in and around the game that are changing quickly off the field, too. As we arrive at the end of another regular season, I think about where I have been — where the game and industry has been — and about where it is all going.