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How I Became Fake News

A tale of Trevor Bauer, colloidal silver, the CIA, and tweets taken at face value

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Looking back on it, my big mistake came somewhere around “colloidal silver.”

Colloidal silver, as a mineral solution, is a home remedy purported to have some ambiguous medical benefit. It reached its peak of notoriety around the turn of the 21st century when certain fringe conspiracy theorists drank it, hoping to supercharge their immune systems in advance of a Y2K-precipitated shortage of antibiotics. Colloidal silver is mostly harmless to the human body, except it can cause argyria, which turns the skin permanently blue. The Libertarian politician Stan Jones, a Y2K-era consumer of colloidal silver, ran for U.S. Senate in Montana in 2002 and 2006, healthy as an ox except for his stonewashed-denim complexion.

I find colloidal silver hilarious as a shorthand for the self-confidence of right-wing hucksterism, and I’d used it in jokes about baseball before the Friday afternoon Twitter misadventure that led Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer to refute me directly. I assumed that my joke about Bauer using blood transfusions and colloidal silver to cure his injured fibula was so ridiculous it would be impossible to mistake it for actual serious reporting.

I was wrong.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bauer, the current dean of my favorite kind of baseball player: short, right-handed power pitchers with big stuff and lots of personality. (Other recent examples include Pedro Martínez, Tim Lincecum, and Lance McCullers Jr.) Bauer, enjoying the best season of his often-promising but often-frustrating career, carries himself with a self-assuredness and/or hubris that makes him one of baseball’s most interesting players.

Bauer tends to do things his own way. When he was a prospect, Bauer turned heads with his uniquely aggressive long-toss program, in which he’d throw the ball from one foul pole to the other to build arm strength. He’s also one of the highest-profile clients of Driveline Baseball, a high-tech performance training company that uses weighted balls, high-speed cameras, and countless other tools to help pitchers throw harder and stay healthier. Because Bauer has an engineering degree from UCLA and because he’s quotable, he has a reputation for being an intelligent, independent thinker.

But that independent streak, and Bauer’s propensity to speak his mind, sometimes gets him in trouble. As a high schooler, he feuded with teammate Mike Montgomery, now of the Chicago Cubs. At UCLA, where he won the Golden Spikes Award and played for a national title, he feuded with teammate Gerrit Cole, now of the Houston Astros. After the Arizona Diamondbacks made Bauer the third overall pick in a loaded 2011 draft and brought him to the big leagues in just over a year, they shipped him to Cleveland after just four starts when he couldn’t get along with coaches or teammates.

Since arriving in Cleveland, Bauer has made the news for slicing his finger open while repairing a drone in October 2016, then spraying blood all over the Rogers Centre mound as he tried to pitch through the injury during the playoffs. In February 2017, Bauer spent a night on Twitter trying to own the libs. Bauer has made a career out of being an iconoclast, to put it charitably.

This fibula injury ought to keep him out for four to six more weeks. Even among professional athletes, Bauer is notorious for wanting the ball, and being out until the eve of the playoffs is killing him. His remarks to reporters before Friday’s game, quoted here by MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian, could not have been more quintessentially Bauer.

Shortly after seeing the remarks from Bauer and Indians manager Terry Francona, I made my joke, built on the premise that Bauer wants to pitch as badly as he does and that he has a history of trying to find ways in which the rules don’t apply to him, with a garnish of a jab at his Extremely Online right-wing politics. I thought referring to colloidal silver and “CIA nanites” would make it clear that I was making fun of the situation, not attempting to report the news.

I woke up Saturday morning to discover that MLB Network had taken my tweet at face value and reported, on the air, that Bauer expected to be back sooner than projected, provided the colloidal silver freed his blood of government-administered nanites. By early afternoon, Bauer had not only learned about the “report,” he felt the need to take to Twitter to issue a denial.

In MLB Network’s defense, “serious baseball analyst” is one of the many hats I wear here at The Ringer. I publish stories reported from inside the confines of MLB clubhouses, and I’m a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), the professional organization for writers who cover MLB. It’s not out of the question that Bauer would seek some alternative treatment and that I’d be in a position to report it if he did. Every part of the tweet is at the very least plausible, right up until I literally said the words “CIA nanites.” (Even if the government did attempt to exert mind control over the populace by putting nanites in the water, they’d probably be NSA nanites rather than CIA nanites.)

Bauer gave contradictory quotes to beat reporters, including at least one employed by MLB. And while I write serious baseball stories, I’m not exactly Ken Rosenthal—my Twitter is a carefully curated feed of showily erudite anti-humor, hilarious to the seven people on Earth who have seen the same episodes of Star Trek and listened to the same Art Brut albums as I have, but inscrutable to most others.

For example: A couple hours after the original ill-fated tweet, I clarified that I’d been joking. In between the joke and the clarification, here’s the only tweet I published.

Every Ringer article is exhaustively fact-checked—in fact, there’s a story about Bauer attempting to inveigle his way into a College World Series game that I wanted to reference here but didn’t because I can’t find contemporaneous corroboration and I didn’t think it’d make it through our fact-checkers. While knowing little about cable news production, I would’ve assumed that MLB Network would get to the bit about the nanites and think, “Hang on, let’s see if we can find a second source before running with this.” The thought that there could’ve been any confusion simply never occurred to me.

By then it was too late. This whole experience has been mortifying to me, and I imagine to Bauer and MLB Network as well, and my pride at constructing a well-crafted bit of satire has turned to nothing but embarrassment. I want to walk away from this whole experience having learned some lesson, but only one comes immediately to mind: Not enough people know about colloidal silver and the blue-skinned libertarians who drank it. Journalists can best serve a well-informed public, and our public evidently knows far too little about the dangers of drinking colloidal silver.