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Shohei Ohtani’s Free Agency Drove The Ball Writers Batty

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels watches a game against the Detroit Tigers at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 16, 2023 in Anaheim, California.
John McCoy/Getty Images

Nobody scolds quite like a baseball writer, which will not be news to anyone who was around during Hall of Fame season back when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling were the only names anyone cared about on the topic. Sanctimony raged, and the fraternity of writers—well, the frat house of writers—split into defenders of the crown and Trotskyite marauders. Battle lines were drawn; everyone was very disappointed in everyone else. Go back and read any Hall of Fame story from 2017 and you'll be able to hear your eyes bleed.

Those days are gone now, though, largely because Bonds, Clemens and Schilling ran out of years, but also because a lot of the older chemistry deniers have moved on and the young writers are either not sufficiently jaded or just happy not to have been laid off. Also nobody wants to argue about Adrián Beltré.

But there was a burst of writers-on-writers typing crime this weekend that brought back those halcyon days, and it was as silly as it was nostalgic. It was a response to the Shohei Ohtani free agency follies, which peaked with Ohtani learning, from the quiet of his living room, that he was currently being flown against his will to another country to sign a massive contract with a team whose deluxe spring training facility was the hook. This did not happen, it turned out, and Ohtani signed an even more massive contract with the pre-hype favorite just up the 5 on Saturday afternoon. While his deal is a flexible dreadnought that we admire now but will be laughing at the moment he stops playing, the weekend’s true gift came after the signing. It was purest hilarity of the kind that only ball writers on the boil can provide.

Before the signing, there was chaos. More specifically, there was Dodgers Nation’s J.P. Hoornstra breaking the Ohtani-to-Canada story to begin, and Jon Paul Morosi abjectly apologizing for being so assuredly wrong about Ohtani's decision to go to Toronto, and Bob Nightengale striking back with a vengeance, and Matt English, who is not a ballwriter but is correct, telling everyone laying him out for believing Morosi to piss off. There was even a shameless-even-for-Shams Shams sighting.

And then Nightengale had the last word at USA Today, a sad-faced fingerwag at Hoornstra, Morosi, and an industry that hasn't chewed Nightengale up the way it has most of his contemporaries. It was, taken altogether, some glorious heat-vision navel-gazing by folks who are richly experienced with it from the annual Hall of Fame pig-ropings, modernized to reflect the reality of the Ohtani story.

Unlike most baseball stories (or anything else stories for that matter), Ohtani’s free agency was dominated by an almost total lack of tactical leaks from either team or player, and even that gave us some vintage crankiness from Buster Olney earlier last week. Ohtani and his people decided early on to avoid the circus that they ultimately could not prevent; they installed a full information blackout that left the flower of the sport's media to guesstimate developments at a frantic pace, without the oxygen of whispers.

Which is important, because whispers have always mattered a great deal in sports reporting, especially when newspapers were the primary mode of information mongering. But they matter most on hot stove stories, which are more or less gossip and so depend upon one or both parties to a transaction feeling gossipy. This is why so many baseball people were decrying these winter meetings as a crashing bore—nothing much happened other than the Juan Soto deal, and general managers weren't jollying along the media as they were once required to do. Indeed, general managers (or as they are now known, heads of baseball operations) generally don't bother with managing the media nearly as much as they once did, and players don't really need the media to get the paydays they need. What media they do is done either under contractual obligations, or because they're not good enough players to act aloof, or because they're Stephen Vogt and just like to chat.

Ohtani worked these negotiations at the extreme, not merely allowing nothing to escape but warning teams not to comment on any contacts his people might have with their people. Ohtani's future manager, Dave Roberts, got in hot water for letting it escape that the Dodgers had even met with Ohtani; we hope that he is currently telling everyone who ripped him for inadvertently spilling this single undercooked bean that the line to fuck off starts at the entrance to his office at Dodger Stadium. Roberts' casual honesty was such a damaging acknowledgement that Ohtani didn't change his plans a single bit. He took the $700M instead of Toronto's $949,371,500 Canadian, as he apparently wanted to all along, so maybe the secrecy fetish wasn't as strident as it seemed at the time. Or maybe the leak that Ohtani toured the Jays' facility in Florida screwed them even before they knew they were screwed. Who knows? Nobody. Certainly not the people who might otherwise have been writing about it.

And that's the ancillary beauty here. Every story before the signing was uninformed speculation by design, and every story since then has been filtered in thoroughly slanted ways through interested parties. Ohtani won the media cycle by strangling it.

In his big USA Today kiss-off, Nightengale writes that "we baseball writers have disgraced ourselves, becoming an embarrassment to the journalism community. We have made fools of ourselves plenty of times before in the history of baseball media, anywhere from criticizing the integration of the sport, to calling Ohtani a fraud in his first spring training, but we have taken this to new heights." This is a convincing if incomplete list of the times ball writers were wrong about various things, but it avoids the fact that the old baseball journalism, of relationships forged over years of mutual benefit, is largely dead. Everyone was wrong about Ohtani, or at the very least profoundly uninformed, because Ohtani wanted it that way, but even uninformed medioids still have a beast to feed. 

When Nightengale says "We should do better" in the kind of tone that assures that he will be ignored, he's talking about the "he's on a plane" part of the story. But all anyone actually knew, at that point, was that a plane a) existed and b) was in motion. That it turned out to be carrying Shark Tank associate reptile Robert Herjavec feels perfect, in retrospect. That it got reported at all reflects the distance between the demand (for anything, any information at all) and supply (“a plane is flying from Los Angeles to Toronto”) that ruled this story. It also encourages us to report that Herjavec actually booked a private jet to fly from L.A. to Toronto just in a cynical move for publicity, or as a prank. That is completely made-up bullshit, but dammit you have to report something.

And yeah, making that up felt good. We get the intoxicating warmth of pulling one out of our ear just on the off-chance that it might be true—which it absolutely is, even though it isn't. In fact, we are now making up a story about a very angry financial analyst and weekend fur trapper in Mississauga who laid out a ton of money on a Blue Jays futures bet who feels like a total charlie right now. He wants a chunk of Morosi's apologetically misinformed ass, too.

In sum, the entire Ohtani weekend, whatever it means for the future of free agency reporting, was a throwback to the good old days when ball writers could rip each other for shoddy work. Sure, everyone should do better and strive to ennoble this dying business. But Bob, m'lad, where's the fun in that?

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