Judging the Royals

Why ballplayers speak in cliches

"If we don’t know you or like you, all you’re going to get are clichés."

That’s what a former big-league ballplayer told me on how professional athletes deal with the media. If a ballplayer knows you—and trusts you—he might tell you the unvarnished truth. He’ll count on you to sort through the information and use the stuff that won’t hurt him. Most players want you to understand what’s really going on, but they won’t tell you unless they trust you not to hurt them with the information.

Here’s an example:

A player who shall remain nameless got thrown out on a bang-bang stolen base attempt late in a ballgame. The Royals went on to lose. Afterwards, the media was allowed in the clubhouse and the player in question was sitting by his locker. I screwed up because I started talking to him too early; it’s polite to wait for the rest of the media to gather around a player’s locker so the player won’t have to repeat the same answers to the same questions. But if you’re by yourself, you might get different answers.

I asked if the player was out or safe on the play and he went off on the umpire who made the call: "If that fat (expletive deleted) had moved his ass, he would have seen that I was safe."

At that point the rest of the media saw the player talking to me and came over. I apologized for not waiting for my colleagues and told the player it looked like he’d have to repeat the whole thing. But when the rest of the media asked if he out or safe the player said: "It was a bang-bang play and umpiring is the toughest job in baseball."

I started laughing and so did the player. The player was protecting himself with cliché’s. I waited until the rest of the media walked off and asked: "What happened to fat (expletive deleted)? I was going to use it in a headline."

He told me his original answer was just for me—not the general public.

The player had told me the truth because we had a relationship and he expected me to use that truth wisely. So I went back and looked at the play and the player was right: the umpire had done nothing to improve his positioning on the play and in fact was blocked off from seeing the play by the guy catching the ball. On the play in question the ball had beaten the runner, but the runner got in underneath the tag. The umpire couldn’t see that from where he was standing.

When a player tells you something off the record you can’t quote him—unless you never want to get anything else from him. But once he’s given you some off-the-record information there are still ways to use it: you can find someone who’s willing to say the same thing on the record or you can confirm what the player is telling you with your own eyes and then you don’t need to quote anybody. At the very least you can avoid writing something inaccurate.

Remember: when a player is talking with a group of reporters, the quality of information tends to go way down. The bigger the media crowd, the worse the information.

Because if a player doesn’t know you or like you, all you’re going to get are clichés.

Patience is a virtue

Let’s say a ballplayer has a bad performance. The next thing he has to do is talk to the media about it; the player hangs around his locker and the media swarms him. We want to know what went wrong; the media needs a quote—and we’re asking for one at the worst possible time. Insisting that the player give us a quote right now often means the quotes are uninformative clichés.

Imagine having a crappy day at work and you get interviewed on the way to the company parking lot. You’d be in a lousy mood and now somebody wants to explore just how you screwed things up so badly. Players can’t say they don’t want to talk about it (well, they can, but the media will bury them if they do) so instead the players stare straight ahead and give tight-lipped answers—often cliché’s—because they can’t say what they’re really thinking. They’re upset about their performance and the media is pouring salt into a fresh wound.

Cut to 24 hours later:

If you have a decent relationship with a player you can often get a much better response the next day. They’ve had a chance to calm down and think about what went wrong. They’re usually much more talkative and willing to reflect on the previous night’s performance. The player isn’t surrounded by media members he doesn’t know or trust.

24 hours later a player will tell you something he wasn’t ready to say the night before.

Luckily, this web site allows me to come back the next day and talk to players about a performance that may have taken place days earlier. I’m assuming the readers of this site want to learn about baseball from a player’s perspective and what a player has to say about Tuesday’s game can still teach us, even if it’s Wednesday. Knowledge is knowledge and it doesn’t always have a use-by date.

Patience is a virtue—even if you’re in the media.