Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Lincecums, father and son, and a reporter's objectivity

Chris Lincecum is a wisp of a man, even smaller than his son Tim, and he's a smack-talker. I don't mean that in the talk-radio sense. I mean he smacks you during a conversation to emphasize a point. I've talked to Tim about this. Chris has always been that way. Won't change either. I like the guy, though. He amuses me.

Shea and I were in the Italian Grotto during spring training when Chris walked in for a nightcap. The three of us shot the breeze for a half-hour, and whenever the topic of Tim's Cy Young award from last year arose Chris made a snide comment about me voting for Chris Carpenter instead of his son. Then he'd smack me in the chest and say, "You know I'm joking." By the fourth time I started thinking how expensive a new sternum would be.

I tell that story as a long-winded intro to a point I've wanted to make about the job of a newspaper beat writer. I have to say I was stunned by how many fans tore into me for that Cy vote because they felt I had to be "loyal" to a Giant and vote for "my guy." I was equally surprised by the reaction on Twitter when I said I grew up a Dodger fan in Los Angeles (though I haven't rooted for the Dodgers since Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey manned their infield).

It's not just fans, either. My mom will call me after a Giants win and say, "You guys got 'em today."

I really did not think I would have to explain this, but as a beat reporter I cannot be a fan of any team. I have to think and write straight down the middle or I lose valuable credibility.

I fancy myself a writer (shaddup!), but a beat writer has to be a reporter first. My currency is information, and that comes from many sources inside and outside the Giants' clubhouse, manager's office and executive suite. The Giants front office is so secretive, I have to get much of my information and tips from agents, scouts and executives from other teams and garbage bins that I root through for documents. OK, that I don't do.

Anyhow, when I get on the horn and talk to sources, they have to trust they are talking to an objective reporter with no axes to grind and no team loyalties; and I have none, even if Giants bullpen coach Mark Gardner thinks I'm on the McCourt payroll because I sometimes wear blue shirts (very slimming, you know).

Do I want Giants players to do well? Sure. I get to know these guys and spend oodles of time with them over a season. But you should not be able to discern that by reading my stories. If I praise a player, the reader has to know I did so because I, as a fly on the wall, observed what he did and approved. Similarly, if I criticize a player, the reader and other players need to know I have nothing against the guy. During the 12 years I covered Barry Bonds, nobody could read my prose (shaddup!) and accuse me of running a vendetta, even though Bonds treated me like merde, as the French would say.

I have an easy objectivity gauge. It comes in my email and on fan bulletin boards and Twitter and from what I hear. I get ripped in many quarters for being a Brian Sabean toady, yet there are many times Sabean won't talk to me because he's angry about something I've written. Right now, I'm getting lots of "Schulman, you're such a homer" and lots of "You still bleed Dodger blue."

Perfect.

The minute the praise-scorn needle starts tilting in one direction or the other, I'll know I have to reassess my writing.

I expected to be ripped for bypassing Lincecum in my Cy Young vote by people who thought he had a better year than Carpenter. That's worthy of debate. I did not expect so many emails suggesting I stick my head where the sun don't shine (or in the alternative remove it from that very place) because I should have voted for "our" guy. Nor did I expect so much negative reaction to having grown up a Dodger fan long before many of these haters were born. OK, that I should have expected. This rivalry runs deep.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to Costco and see if I can buy a 12-pack of chest shields. Chris Lincecum has retired from Boeing and plans to travel more to watch Tim pitch, and I expect to knock more than a few back with the smack-talking old man.

13 comments:

  1. Henry, objectivity in news and or beat reporting is practically (in all senses of that word, so to speak) nonexistent. We're all judgments just sitting around.

    Thanks for your writing this. I look for and appreciate your asides, your subjectivity, and a sense that the players are real human beings, because so often we fans forget that, and any look inside their lives off the field is great. They go home to whatever situation they live in, make their food, clean their kitchen, just like us "regular" people. And they have the same sorts of problems, too. We can only imagine any of that.

    And just because they earn lots of money and our admiration or scorn doesn't mean we fans are allowed unfettered access to their private lives. You perform such a service with your filter.

    Thanks.

    Jonathan Frieman

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  2. I understand what you're saying about not wanting to be a homer. One need only read the articles written by the St. Louis scribes in the days following last year's Cy Young vote to see how ridiculous a beat writer can sound when 'his guy' gets passed over for someone else.

    But don't kid yourself. You may have gotten plenty of emails angry that you didn't vote for Tim because he's 'our guy' (I have to take your word for this, I'm not privy to your email account), but hateful emails are generally not an honest representation of the views of the public at large.

    The bigger issue was something you touched on but really didn't address: plenty of people were mad because you didn't give a first place vote to someone who legitimately deserved it.

    If I recall the article you authored a day or so before the votes were revealed correctly, you stated that you sat down with all the stats from the season and ultimately decided that Carpenter was the better pitcher. This was confusing to baseball fans from the sabermatricians to old-schoolers alike. While the stats were close, and good arguments could be made for either pitcher, Lincecum still had the edge in categories dealing specifically with pitching independent of things like supporting defense or offense.

    In that same article, you also put forth the view that you couldn't vote for Lincecum because 2009 Lincecum wasn't as good a pitcher of 2008 Lincecum. This is baffling, because statistically he WAS better in 2009. Maybe he didn't look better to you. Maybe he didn't blow you away in 2009 the way he did in 2008. But that's a subjective analysis that a beat writer so interested in being objective ought to think twice about using as part of any evaluation.

    The bottom line is this: if the majority of people were angry because you didn't vote for the home town guy, they're in the wrong. But if, more likely than not, people are mad because you had all the evidence at your disposal and still chose a guy who deserved the award slightly less, you should be called on to account for that. Because that's the kind of standard a beat writer who has the privilege of voting on MVPs, Cy Youngs, ROYs, etc., ought to live up to.


    P.S. I'm sorry Chris Lincecum keeps hitting you. I'd advise you to sit across the table from him in the future lest you land yourself of the beat writers DL.

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  3. What a sad situation to be in; to be such a big fan of the game, but with the inability to be a fan of a team. I wouldn't take your place for all the insider perks you could name.

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  4. So you maintain one tenet of journalistic integrity, objectivity, while frequently violating another, the separation of news and opinion.

    If you want to call yourself a reporter and be objective, then hat's off too.

    But if you want to be a reporter, stop writing opinion pieces (for example, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/giants/detail?blogid=22&entry_id=60414). Reporters should be unbiased and should report the news, not their thoughts on it.

    So either be a journalist, giving us the news without your personal opinions on it, or stop writing lectures about how your objectivity is so important.

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  5. Logan, there is a difference between analysis and opinion. Nowhere in that blog did I say Fred Lewis should not play. The point was to expose the ridiculousness of making suggestions and decisions based solely on certain statistics, and how a great publication like Sports Illustrated sullied itself by doing so."

    Yes, I used some strong language, but nowhere in that blog is objectivity compromised. I am expected to analyze what I see. No where do I say, "The Giants should trade Lewis because he's a bad outfielder," or "anybody who uses on-base percentage in his analysis is an idiot."

    That would be opinion.

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  6. Thanks for responding! It's always cool to get to talk to the authors. I realize now my comment up there was a little harsh; didn't mean it that badly.

    That said, c'mon, you offer up a ton of opinions in that piece. That home runs are why Huff is better than Ishikawa (he is, but it's not because of home runs), that Fred's strikesouts outweigh his walks (they didn't).

    I'm not saying that you're not right about your opinions, but they are opinions.

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  7. Logan: in defense of Henry, any analysis carries with it some opinion, but it is an objective opinion based on facts, stats, and observation. As a fan and a reader, I want the insight and analysis of someone who sees the players and the game from a closer perspective. If the writer was just making snide comments and cheap shots (Ostler?), I would have less respect their opinions.

    Side note: I think Krukow and Kuiper try to be objective sometimes, but I wouldn't hold them to the same standard as a reporter.

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  8. As a Dodger fan, I think Jon Miller is genuinely outstanding as a broadcaster (rightfully a HOFer). He does not approach being a homer like some of his other peers on the broadcast team.

    Henry, you continue to astound me with great analysis while tempering your opinions. It must be tough to walk that tightrope continuously for all these years.

    Ted

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  9. I've always appreciated your fair, pithy game reportage, leavened with the occasional dose of sour humor when the G's find yet another novel way to lose.

    As a life-long Giants fan, I was glad to see Timmy win his second Cy Young -- but if forced at gunpoint to vote for a Cardinal pitcher instead, I'd have gone with Adam Wainright. Carpenter may have had the numbers over the season, but down the stretch, Wainright was a much better pitcher (IMHO), and the guy any Cardinal fan would want to see take the mound for a crucial game.

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  10. Back when I was a baseball writer with deadlines (as opposed to a baseball without deadlines, which I am now), whenever people would ask me what my favorite team was, I'd say: "The team in the field" or "The team that's winning in the seventh inning."

    By the way, I'd have voted for Carpenter too.

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  12. I'm reminded of my days covering high school sports in small towns, where everyone had an idea of where your allegiance stood -- even if you had none.

    In wife's hometown of Porterville (think Ceres, but with less asthetic appeal) there was an outstanding reporter covering sports for The Reporter. The word on the Porterville High side of town was that his kids went to rival Monache; across town, the Monache folks said his kids went to Porterville. In truth, George and his wife had no children at the time.

    Me? My rep was that I hated every school. Apparently my stuff was perceived as negative. Probably why I became an editor.

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