It’s tempting to gather all the baseball saboteurs, owners and players alike, for a funeral service. We could spread the sport’s ashes across the heavenly ballfields at Malibu Bluffs Park, just off Pacific Coast Highway, a sensory delight that somehow has remained undiscovered by incurable romantics. Then a Little Leaguer would come by and rip a pitch over the fence, sending the ball, beautifully and innocently, toward the only visual in sight: the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
This would be our way of finding peace, just as we felt some relief upon hearing the FBI’s conclusion that Bubba Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime. Yes, in Nascar, a crew might create a “garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose’’ and leave it in a Talladega Superspeedway stall for months, long before the circuit’s only black driver showed up in Garage No. 4 for a race. Sometimes, a rope is simply a rope and not a targeted racist prop. Just the same, even in tortured and debilitated baseball, hope still can breathe through gritted teeth.
The reason we can’t entomb this sport quite yet is that Little Leaguer himself. While the rest of us are vomiting, holding our noses and wishing the game would go away and never return, there are kids who can’t wait for an abbreviated, mad-dash, 60-game season, even if it symbolizes the labor strife that ultimately will doom an industry bent on self-destruction.
Thus, we peel our dead skunk off the road and try to make the best of the stench. The compromise is a mere Band-Aid, holding back streams of blood that will explode in an inevitable lockout — a work stoppage this ailing enterprise cannot afford without dire, long-term consequences. And given the persistent fury of the coronavirus, it’s likely the season will be canceled before any October postseason, the appropriate abrupt ending for a devalued, bastardized alternative. Yet through the labor animosity and health dangers, the players must try anyway to stage the finest, coolest show possible. They are the only hope in salvaging what still can be a breathtaking game, despite the scandals and 3 1/2-hour slogs, when they are free of management-imposed migraines and obstacles.
They must revert to being kids on a Little League diamond, hoping to impress anyone who might be watching. Because that’s where baseball finds itself now, drowning in public apathy and disgust after prioritizing a lengthy labor fight in a country pummeled by a pandemic, racial unrest and rampant joblessness. The electric stars — Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper — will have to save what’s left of a game that once energized America but now only brings grief and yawns. Don’t tell me about hating the Astros, A-Rod and J. Lo buying the Mets and the Dodgers’ promising chances of finally winning it all.
There is only one story line: Can baseball, on the edge of the abyss, miraculously keep players safe from a raging virus and still convince folks to give a damn and watch spectator-less games on TV? The answers will be no and no, but there’s no use in dwelling on the obvious when all it does is infuriate us.
“It’s absolute death for this industry to keep acting as it has been. Both sides,’’ tweeted pitcher Trevor Bauer, the defining truthteller of this crisis. “We’re driving the bus straight off the cliff. How is this good for anyone involved? COVID-19 already presented a lose-lose-lose situation and we’ve somehow found a way to make it worse. Incredible.”
Repulsive, actually. But if the umpire shouts “Play Ball’’ in late July — rather, holds up a cue card while wearing a facial covering — the players must entertain us with quality performances and nightly thrills as they never have before. Or, they still could be viewed as villains in what has become the real battleground for owners and the Players Association: the public-relations game. At present, owners are seen as the bad guys, for a change, after they foolishly tried to claim baseball wasn’t a profitable business. Yet if the players are half-hearted about resuming the season — or, in some cases, don’t want to suit up — America’s jobless masses will turn on them.
It’s mortally unfair, I know, to make players and their families assume the dreadful virus risks. Make no mistake, there will be positive tests, scads of them, starting next week when they’re due to report to home stadiums for a bizarre form of summer training. Unlike the NBA, Major League Baseball has abandoned thoughts of a medical bubble, instead allowing players a return to relative daily normalcy: they’ll stay at their residences when teams are at home, travel to the ballpark, then hop on charter flights for road trips and stay in hotels within geographically friendly divisional pods. Still, this is madness. Despite 100-plus pages of health and safety protocols, the plan is fraught with peril. There will be mass gatherings every day in more than two dozen MLB markets, many of which are COVID-19 hotspots, including recent surges in Florida, Texas, California and Arizona — homes to 10 of the 30 teams. Players, support staff and all others on site will be susceptible to contracting the virus and spreading it in their homes and communities.
No? Just the other day, after a spate of positive tests throughout the sport, MLB shut down all 30 facilities in Florida and Arizona for Hazmat deep-cleaning. The Philadelphia Phillies, for instance, now have counted 12 positive tests among players and staffers. If the protocol included daily coronavirus testing, there might be a modicum of confidence. But the tests are being administered “multiple times a week,’’ whatever that means, through a lab based in Utah, a state with no direct connection to MLB. When a player tests positive, his team will continue to play games while he is quarantined.
Only in a quack’s wildest fantasy can this possibly work. At worst, it would be a health disaster that destroys the sport forever and forces the so-called commissioner, Rob Manfred, to walk away in shame. “What happens when we all get it?’’ Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson tweeted.
As millennials and Gen Zers, baseball players aren’t prime candidates to follow protocols. They’ll refrain from high-fives and hugs, but they’re going to chew tobacco, munch on sunflower seeds and spit. And they’ll be eating at restaurants, going out at night and possibly not wearing masks, despite MLB pleas to stay at home or in their hotel rooms. Hopefully, they won’t be as stupid as tennis star Novak Djokovic. It’s still unfathomable that the world’s top-ranked player threw a wild dance party and practiced no social distancing during exhibitions he organized in Serbia and Croatia, which led to Djokovic, his wife and three other players testing positive for COVID-19. Also testing positive at the Novak Bash: Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, whose return to the U.S. is delayed as he tries to secure two negative tests within 24 hours in Serbia. This as the NBA tries to explain to leery players why Disney employees, who would be working inside the Florida bubble, aren’t subjected to the same testing demands as players and personnel in a state nearing 100,000 infections.
It’s these blasé, devil-may-care attitudes that will derail sports amid a pandemic. “Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with,’’ Djokovic finally admitted in a statement. “I am hoping things will ease with time so we can all resume lives the way they were.’’
Don’t count on it, Joker. Don’t count on it, ballplayers. Whether any sports season has a chance of finality depends on the selflessness and diligence of athletes to obey protocols. Yet there was Tom Brady, ignoring the warning of the NFL’s medical director and continuing to practice with Tampa Bay teammates in a private workout, even after two Buccaneers players and an assistant coach tested positive last week. Congratulations to Brady and Djokovic for joining the COVIDIOT Hall of Shame.
Will I watch the start of the truncated baseball season? Sure, if only for the surrealism. But if America wasn’t watching much baseball before the pandemic, why would attention spans be heightened for Desperation Ball? This is a sport built on tradition, statistics and historical perspective. Wedging in 60 games out of necessity — remember, the Washington Nationals were 19-31 after 50 games before rallying to win the Series — won’t whet the appetite of the baseball diehard, much less people simply looking for a fresh diversion during a tense summer.
What’s crazy is, a reasonably high level of baseball will be played next month — in front of spectators, no less. In Massachusetts, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League will open gates July 2 for a 39-game schedule involving six teams. I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it.
You’d rather accept the risk of sneezing, maskless fans and watch the Brockton Rox play the Worcester Bravehearts — in person — than sit in the safety of your home and watch a major-league game on TV. That’s how much joy has been sucked away by feuding adults. But for now, at least, why not take a long, deep breath and let Mike Trout swing a bat?
Before you know it, such a treat might vanish for eons.
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.