It’s rare to be able to pinpoint the precise second when your youth officially faded, but I think I can identify the day I got old: October 1, 2020. For me, the moment wasn’t one of the classics, like finding a first gray hair, looking forward to falling asleep early, or not knowing the names of any artists on an album of the year list. The Reaper appeared to me in the top of the third inning of the winner-take-all wild-card game between the Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox. That was when I, like legions of white guys before me, first experienced a strong urge to say “Back in my day” while watching a baseball game.
This unwelcome reminder that we will all turn into our dads and one day die invaded my mind during an on-air interview conducted by ESPN broadcasters Dave Flemming and Jessica Mendoza. For half an inning on Thursday, Flemming and Mendoza talked to A’s center fielder Ramón Laureano, while Laureano played center field in a playoff elimination game that his team was trailing. As the White Sox rallied to tack on two runs to a lead that the eventually victorious A’s would later overcome, the 26-year-old Laureano alternated between fielding baseballs and fielding softballs from the booth, sometimes within the same labored breath. I like baseball, I like Laureano, and I like innovative attempts to promote players and combat baseball’s reputation as a faceless, fuddy-duddy sport. I do not, it turns out, like live, on-field interviews in consequential games.
I don’t want to be a baseball grump, so my visceral reaction to the interview prompted some self-examination. What does my deep-seated discomfort with live, on-field interviews say about me? Is this a small step from ranting about bat flips and players taking too long to admire home runs? Am I about to renounce sabermetrics and lament baseball becoming too much like math? Will I suddenly develop a profound appreciation for sacrifice bunting, like the 45-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who stopped bunting in the ’90s and hit almost 700 home runs but mysteriously morphed into small ball’s biggest booster after he entered the broadcast booth?
After further reflection, I’ve decided that this isn’t a slippery slope toward declaring that baseball is dying. I realize that I’m almost literally telling ESPN to get off my lawn (or at least the lawns I’m watching on TV in October). But I think my complaints are legitimate.
On the one hand, live, in-game interviews remind me how much of the sport involves simply standing around: Talking to players midgame doesn’t do much to refute the argument that baseball is boring by default. On the other hand, if MLB isn’t going to get serious about cutting down the dead air between pitches, it might as well make the most of that time. Mookie Betts, Pete Alonso, Freddie Freeman, and other personable players mic’d up during spring training games? Heck yes, give me more. All-Stars bantering with broadcasters, teammates, and opposing players in the middle of the Midsummer Classic? I’m in. Players mic’d up at any time they consent to be recorded, as long as they don’t need to have earpieces and converse between plays that might impact a pennant race? By all means, cue up the clips or call up the dudes in the dugout or the bullpen. The players are baseball’s best ambassadors.
But real-time, two-way conversations during high-stakes, regulation games—particularly postseason games? Nah. And not just because it goes against tradition.
The pandemic has imposed a number of drastic changes on the sport, including a 60-game season, a 16-team playoff field, the automatic-runner rule in extra innings, seven-inning doubleheaders, and the universal DH. Like most lifelong fans who are in way too deep to abandon baseball now, I’ve embraced or temporarily tolerated every aspect of this Calvinball campaign. Midgame, on-field interviews matter much less than those other alterations, but they seem to provoke my inner old man more. During the regular season, stars such as Bryce Harper, Tim Anderson, and Fernando Tatis Jr. wore mics during games with potential playoff implications. And while the automatic-runner rule and seven-inning games were suspended for the postseason, the interviews have continued, with Justin Turner and Mark Canha speaking live from the field before Laureano.
In Game 2 of the A’s–White Sox series, Canha wore a mic in left field an inning after making a spectacular catch. Unlike Laureano, he had nothing to do on defense while he was on the air, which gave him plenty of time to joke about his perfect form. Laureano wasn’t as lucky: As Flemming and Mendoza fed him questions like “Ramón, what’s it been like for you guys in the clubhouse?,” the center fielder retrieved a double in the gap and threw the ball in; caught a fly ball; charged a grounder up the middle and threw home (a little off line) for an attempted play at the plate; backed up the left fielder on another extra-base hit; and broke toward the infield on an inning-ending popup. At times he talked—and panted—as the pitch was on its way. When Flemming asked him how long it takes him to catch his breath after sprinting for a ball, Laureano guessed five or six pitches, but answering questions probably prolonged his recovery time.
Given all that activity, it was hard not to wonder whether Laureano—or another fielder in the same situation—could have been distracted by the back-and-forth with the broadcasters or the awareness that millions of viewers were listening in. I’m so bad at tuning out distractions while I’m working that I had to turn off the TV to blog about this. Granted, major leaguers are much more focused than your average writer, and defensive fundamentals are almost instinctive. But conducting a conversation must increase the cognitive load. Would Canha have made that series-saving catch if he’d had an earpiece in then? Probably, but is the benefit of hearing him midgame worth not knowing for sure? Not according to Dave Roberts: After Turner’s trial interview, the Dodgers manager nixed the idea of any other Dodger doing the same.
Roberts on Justin Turner's in-game interview from third base yesterday: "Personally, I'm not a fan of it. I don't know the arrangement. Baseball is kind of evolving but, yeah, I don't know. That's a decision Justin made. I don't see that happening with our guys going forward."— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) October 1, 2020
When the Game 3 broadcast came back from a mid-inning break, Flemming acknowledged how potentially off-putting an interview can be in a do-or-die game. “I know it makes some people uncomfortable,” he said. “I think it’s worth saying out loud that we ask the players nicely. The players’ union, Major League Baseball, has encouraged players, even in playoff games, to be willing and volunteer. Ramón wanted to do it. He told us we should do it more often when we were on the air! I know it makes some people cringe, especially when he’s in the middle of all the action and we’re talking to him, but it is an insight that is hard to get in any other way, in any other sports broadcast.” Mendoza chimed in, “Especially if the players want to do it!”
Although the MLBPA declined to comment on the record for this story, a Players Association source confirmed that MLB and its broadcast rights holders relay in-game interview requests through the union, and that participation is totally voluntary. Even so, as A’s beat writer Susan Slusser noted, a request from an entity with the weight of MLB or ESPN behind it may put pressure on players to comply.
Few young players are going to say no to a major rightsholder, especially ESPN. They lucked out with Canha having a ho-hum inning yesterday, and Laureano might have taken that into consideration. Someone else needed to say no, talk to Bassitt instead. https://t.co/bJk8AAoB6f— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) October 1, 2020
ESPN’s Buster Olney responded to Slusser that only about 10-15 percent of players on ESPN’s interview wish lists have accepted the invitations. But even if we stipulate that every player feels fully free to decline and that every player who has given his go-ahead was an enthusiastic guest, that doesn’t mean the interviews make the broadcast better. Olney noted that baseball is a business of entertainment, but concerns about competitive integrity aside, the segment in Game 3 was mostly lousy TV.
Laureano was too active to offer substantive responses, and having him on the line also constrained the quality of the call from Flemming and Mendoza. Out of courtesy, they kept directing questions and comments to him, turning an eventful inning into a backdrop for a talk show. It’s unlikely that any broadcaster would make critical comments about a team while one of its members is volunteering his time to the network, and it’s also unlikely that a player would divulge secret scouting reports or talk trash on national TV. And to the extent that a proverbial “playoff atmosphere” exists in a game without fans, a casual conversation with one of the players sapped much of it for me. If players on the field are willing to multitask, why shouldn’t the audience divide its attention too?
Under certain circumstances, in-game interviews can work out well. Because Canha was less busy playing baseball, he was more entertaining. And even Laureano’s segment wasn’t without its charms. It was fun to hear him go “EEEOUYYARGH” when he landed on his belly after launching himself toward the plate (though I didn’t have to hear that live). However, the highlight of the interview was probably the lowlight from ESPN’s perspective: Like Alonso and Tatis before him, Laureano forgot to keep his language family friendly, exclaiming, “Damn, he can fucking run!” as Eloy Jiménez motored toward second. (At least I haven’t gone full Phil Mushnick and joined the sports profanity police.)
Ramon Laureano mic’d up: “Damn, he can fuc**** run!” pic.twitter.com/s2H1Wmi4x3— Danny Vietti (@DannyVietti) October 1, 2020
Despite my misgivings, I understand the impulse behind lowering a barrier between fans and the field. The average MLB fan is 87 years old, give or take a few decades, and MLB players are nationally anonymous compared to their counterparts in other sports. In a recent survey of Gen Zers, MLB predictably didn’t do well; the most common baseball players to be named as respondents’ favorite athletes were Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter, and David Ortiz, none of whom has played baseball for years. The narrative about baseball is that it’s for olds, and one way to change that reputation is to hand the mic to players like Tatis and permit them to “play loud” instead of letting hidebound blowhards vilify them for breaking unwritten rules. But it would be nice if the networks could stop pestering them to play loud like this while they’re actively competing to win the World Series.
I’m probably not going to get my way on this. According to the MLBPA source, two-way, on-field interviews are approved only for the 2020 season and postseason, a period when fans’ physical estrangement from the sport may make this kind of connection more feasible and desirable. But MLB and its broadcast partners have expressed increasing interest in conducting this kind of conversation, independent of the pandemic. Like all matters pertaining to workplace conditions, live, on-field interviews will be subject to collective bargaining, and as Brockmire’s prescient final season foresaw, in-game access to and promotion of players may become a bargaining chip as MLB seeks to placate its broadcast partners and players alike.
But won’t somebody please think of the children? And by the children, I mean me. Disliking live, in-game interviews in October makes me feel old. But by baseball-fan standards, I’ll still be young for years.