D.C.’s State Secrets


Nationals minor leaguers engage in a baserunning drill.

 

The Washington Nationals for the last few years have been considered one of the worst organizations in baseball.

It was a year ago that Nats general manager Jim Bowden resigned amid allegations that scouts had skimmed money off the signing bonuses of Latin American prospects.

In their five years since moving to D.C. from Montreal, the Nationals have gone from 81-81 in 2005 to 59-103 in 2009. Their record over those five years was 342-466, a .423 winning percentage.

About all they have going for them is a progressive new GM in Mike Rizzo and the #1 draft pick overall in the June 2010 draft, Stephen Strasburg.

So you’d think an organization with such a bad reputation, an organization viewed as a joke by much of the baseball world, would go out of its way to nurture better relations with media, wouldn’t you?

Wrong.

I haven’t said anything publicly until now, but for the last couple months I’ve quietly explored every avenue to play by the rules and obtain a credential so I could shoot photos and video at the Nationals’ minor league complex in Viera.

I’m not going to name names, nor will I divulge private conversations with those who tried to get the Nats’ media relations to see reason.

The bottom line is that their media relations don’t seem to know how to handle legitimate media requests from the cyberworld.

Media credentials will only be issued to mainstream newspapers and television stations.

I’ll fully acknowledge that they have the legal right to control who sees their product.

On the other hand, courts ruled long ago that a baseball game is a news story and therefore Major League Baseball is limited in what access they can restrict.

Baseball and the media have courted each other for over a century. A newspaper story is free advertising. In the minor leagues, many teams are desperate to get any news coverage. In the majors, both sides have a common interest — money. A newspaper’s sports section generates revenue, and it gives the ballclub free publicity.

Some organizations fear the cyberworld, though, because individuals and small businesses running web sites and blogs are not part of that common interest. The cyberworld poses a clear and present danger to mainstream journalism. Newspaper subscriptions have plunged in recent years, forcing most papers to cut back on their coverage. One D.C. paper, the Washington Times, closed its sports department in January.

So you’d think the Nationals’ media relations people would welcome cyberworld writers and videographers to fill the gap.

Nope.

I walked into minor league camp today, figuring no one would mind if I’m just shooting photos and video of the morning drills, especially since there was nothing happening on the major league side at Space Coast Stadium.

I was doing my thing for about fifteen minutes when an older gentleman wearing a Nats cap and jacket, with a Bluetooth in his ear as his only apparent badge of authority, rudely tapped me on the shoulder and stuck his finger in my face. He told me that unless I had a credential, I would have to stand behind a chain link fence to observe.

So I left.

I won’t come back for their spring training activities, major or minor league, even as an observer. I’ve no reason to care now.

Some of you may know that I’ve run another web site, FutureAngels.com, since 1998. I’ve gone to minor league spring training camps around Arizona for twelve years.

Never once did I see a guard demanding credentials of someone shooting photos or video, much less a credential being required.

Other organizations are more than happy to find someone actually cares about their minor league operation, because baseball people know the minor leagues is where they develop their future. They’re proud to show off their baseball acumen.

Let’s also note they understand the desire of players’ parents and loved ones to see their sons pursuing a dream thousands of miles away from home. That was one big reason I started FutureAngels.com all those years ago, to allow parents to see their sons playing ball while they were away from home for six months.

The Angels went through this cyber insecurity about six-seven years ago. I remember a media relations person saying to me, “The problem is we can’t control you.” It was explained that because I didn’t work for them, they couldn’t control my message. A baseball executive said he was concerned because all the coaches and players knew me and trusted me, therefore I might see something I shouldn’t.

Implicit in those remarks was the suggestion that they thought they had the mainstream media under control. Newspapers and TV stations had been co-opted into the publicity machine. They understood that if they wanted privileged access, the scoop or the exclusive, they’d have to “play ball,” pun intended.

Some web sites and bloggers might be willing to co-opt themselves, but because they’re excluded from access they have no vested interest and therefore write with impunity. They can howl at the moon if they want.

That scares the bejeezus out of some P.R. people who are so concerned with controlling the spin.

But the Angels outgrew that insecurity. Today they arrange credentials, access and interviews for established Angels fan web sites and blogs. A blogger establishes a working relationship with a media staff person, submits a request for an interview or whatever and the staff person arranges it if appropriate. The Angels media relations have arranged for a couple fan sites to have recurring gigs on local sports talk shows. In 2009, one fan site was even granted credentials to access the Angels clubhouse post-game.

If you go to the Angels’ minor league spring training, you’ll find dozens of fans walking around glimpsing the team’s future, even on an off day for the parent club. Read fan sites and you’ll find that a lot of people know not only the top prospects, but also the guys on the fringe and even the organization players with no meaningful future. The Angels also draw three million fans a year.

Contrast that with the Nats’ minor league camp today. I saw no one other than three or four autograph collectors standing by the clubhouse ambushing players as they walked by.

If media relations doesn’t want anyone to care … mission accomplished.

Click here to watch a Nationals minor league baserunning drill filmed before I left. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.

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