Commentary

Tweet. Chase. Repeat

Technology has amped up the rumormongering that defines baseball's winter meetings

Updated: December 9, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- In a sketch in the new Second City revue, "Taming of the Flu," actress Emily Wilson chides her stage husband on his new technological obsession.

"Every time I hear a grown man use the word Twitter, a little piece of my soul dies," she says.

Good thing she wasn't at the Marriott this week. Between the frequent uses of Twitter and the overpowering stench of cheap cologne, it wasn't exactly an episode of "Mad Men."

Scores of sportswriters and baseball executives walked silently through the halls of the winter meetings headquarters tapping at their phones, looking for the latest scoop. In a year's time, Twitter has gone from a peripheral social media outlet to one of the foremost avenues for disseminating information and spreading rumors.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
AP Photo/Darron CummingsCubs manager Lou Piniella sits down for a session with the media Monday at the winter meetings in Indianapolis.

If and when Milton Bradley gets traded, there's a good chance you will hear about it on Twitter first. When Peter Gammons announced he was leaving ESPN, it was "retweeted" everywhere. Free-agent reliever J.J. Putz's future destination has aroused so much interest, he's the Robert Pattinson of Indianapolis.

The winter meetings are a great place to reminisce about the old days, and you don't have to be Tommy Lasorda to be sentimental about baseball. The lobby bar isn't the same. Deals don't get done as much. Everyone's too straightlaced, not bold enough. But as media evolves, one thing remains the same: Everyone loves a good rumor.

Standing at the lobby bar, longtime Chicago Tribune baseball writer Paul Sullivan lamented the post-first, think-second nature of reporting in this venue.

"It wasn't even the old days, just five or six years ago, but when you had a good rumor or story, you held on it until that night to put it in the next day's paper," he said. "Then everyone would spend the following day chasing your story and calling it [false]. Now it's all immediate.

"Then again, I'm as guilty as anyone."

The changed nature of the news-gathering business is visible at the winter meetings, as speed trumps accuracy. At an event that runs on innuendo and High Karate, if you're not quick, you're dead.

"We used to spend all day gathering information, and then we would disseminate it at the end of the day to get it in the morning paper," said John Perrotto, who has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for the past two decades for two newspaper chains and writes for Baseball Prospectus. "Now we spend more time disseminating and not enough gathering."

Perrotto is active on Twitter, just like his peers.

"It should be about getting the story right," he said. "But now it's getting the story first. And we're all so competitive everyone puts their scoops on Twitter."

When asked about winter meetings activity, a Twitter spokesman wouldn't give exact numbers but said he was pleased with the influx of activity.

"The hot stove is all the more hotter when people can engage in a process that was just recently much more closed-door," he wrote in an e-mail, adding that he's "tracking said winter meetings closely and praying the Giants get a bat."

The result of this evolution in reporting is that the same information is passed along, right or wrong, and rumors take on a life of their own. It's why it seems like more trades fall through and not enough are culminated. The writers rarely rest, henpecked by their bosses to deliver more news. No one wants to know how the sausage is made (or the Mexidogs at the trade show). Even when reporters are kicking back with a beer, smart phones are pulled out and examined in midsentence and no one blinks at the impoliteness.

For general managers, Twitter has become a danger word. When White Sox general manager Ken Williams was told that Mark Teahen hinted at his new three-year contract extension before it was announced, Williams said, "You're kidding, right?"

Athletes embarrassing themselves, or breaking their own news, on Twitter and blogs is old hat. Shaq was the first athlete to create an interactive relationship with his "followers" while he was still with the Phoenix Suns. Chad Johnson has completely turned around his image by using the service. Jay Cutler, who treats the local media like ciphers, connects with his fans on his account.

So now team executives have to keep track of their players while also tracking stories on rumors on the site. White Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert has been active in using Twitter for well over a year, an evolution of his team blog, and he occasionally uses it to break news.

"I don't much pay attention to [Twitter]," Williams said. "[Assistant GM] Rick Hahn actually just gave me a quick education on Twitter, and after the education, I decided I won't partake. It's just one more thing to check."

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, the kind of self-professed old-school guy who probably mocked e-mail until dial-up went out of style, said, "I don't think I can spell tweet."

While reporters loathe their competition's rumormongering because of the extra work it entails, not to mention the nettlesome calls from nervous editors back home, Hendry loves the proliferation of rumors, by whatever medium, for entertainment value only.

"The more rumors the better," he said Tuesday. "It's good for the game and good for the fan base. Hopefully a bunch of deals [will be] made in the next couple days."

Hendry's right-hand man, Chuck Wasserstrom, was sitting in the corner of the room on a laptop hooked up to a printer.

"Chuck's my tweeter," Hendry said. "We pull that [stuff] all day long. We pull the Roto clips every day, the national clips, the updated afternoon clips. We read all that stuff. I make Chuck print them for me. I don't 'retweet' them."

The fact that Hendry knows the word "retweet" makes me doubt his Luddite credentials, but Wasserstrom, the team's manager of baseball information, said he barely checks Twitter, if ever.

"MLBTradeRumors.com is good," he said. "Twitter is bad. Tim Dierkes is my hero."

For the record, MLBTradeRumors.com had more than 1.4 million hits on Monday, the first day of the meetings, and more than 1.6 million on Tuesday, according to site propagator Dierkes.

As Hendry's meeting lingers on, his phone beeps.

"Someone's tweeting me," he joked.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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