How the Rise of Social Media Has Changed the Game of Baseball Forever

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How the Rise of Social Media Has Changed the Game of Baseball Forever

Remember what baseball was like before social media?

I only vaguely remember. I have a hazy recollection of watching ballgames on a rabbit-eared TV in a cave somewhere. When I had something to say, I had to cry out and hope someone heard.

Things are obviously different now. The social media mothership landed on Major League Baseball a few years back, and things haven't been the same since. 

The game itself hasn't changed so much, mind you. Baseball is still played with bats, gloves and, apparently, lots and lots of sunscreen. Social media hasn't yet developed the power to turn a fly ball into a groundball or to dictate things like pitching changes and groin scratching (yet...).

No, what social media has done is add a whole new layer to the game. It's changed the entire baseball experience for good. Let us count the ways...

 

Rumors, Rumors and More Rumors...and Then Even More Rumors

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

The baseball rumor machine used to be a simple thing. I recall the the days when "getting the latest" meant sitting down at your computer, pulling up ESPN's Rumor Central and getting that day's rumors. There was usually only one or two per player, and some players' statuses went un-updated for days at a time.

For a rumor-obsessed soul like myself, it was unbearable. And I bet some of you out there are nodding your heads and saying, "I know exactly what he means."

But things are different nowadays, aren't they? Whereas coming across good baseball rumors used to be a challenge, now it's a little too easy. These days, the rumors come not by the day or the hour, but by the minute, and they're best found on social media. Twitter in particular.

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Rosenthal tweet: "Sources: Twins GM Terry Ryan is sitting to my left. Will take two quality prospects to make him leave."

If you're going to hear about something happening, you're going to hear it first on Twitter from the likes of Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, ESPN's Buster Olney or whoever else. If you were out all day, don't worry, you can go over to MLBTradeRumors.com to get caught up.

The explosion of the rumor industry on social media has created complications, the biggest of which is something that ESPN's Jayson Stark called a "culture of misinformation" back in 2011. Wrote Stark:

Now stir the mix with the 21st-century rumor machine, which careers and veers and ricochets, often out of control, fueled by tweets, Facebook links and blogs. General managers and agents abhor this culture of misinformation, but they can't avoid it and can't dismiss it because they know rival execs and fans are attuned to the talk. What's real and what's not? It doesn't matter anymore.

It really doesn't. Social media has done the same thing to baseball reporting that it's done to all reporting. Being right doesn't matter so much as being first, and whoever's first must be recognized. 

You'll remember the "Hey, I was first!" spat that took place last March between Olney and Jack Curry of the YES Network, which you can relive over at Awful Announcing. Curry broke the news of Andy Pettitte coming out of retirement first, and he got ticked off when Olney subsequently reported it without crediting him.

Bickering ensued. Bloggers blogged. Such drama has become part of the larger baseball fabric.

As for the players, they're obviously not deaf to the rumors. For the most part, you're going to hear players say they're not distracted by all the rumors, but occasionally you hear about a guy who might be letting the rumors go to his head (see Rodriguez, Wandy).

If so, it's hard to blame them. Players in the old days may have read rumors about themselves in the paper every other day or so. Today's players are beat over the head with rumors day and night. Sometimes even by their own family members.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA
People actually wanted Heath Bell once upon a time.

Then-San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell had a funny anecdote about his mother that he relayed to Stark back in 2011:

I think my wife is more worried about it all, but my mom is more informed. She reads everything. She's on the Internet and on the phone a lot. She even has this one website where anything that pops up with my name on it goes straight to her email. I don't know what it is. And she doesn't even know how she put it on there. But anything that has my name on it, she'll get it. She'll even get this [story].

In addition to making it very easy to get all the latest rumors, the social media rumor machine also presents a golden excuse for general managers to contribute to the culture of misinformation to hide their movements.

But good luck getting any active GM to admit to that publicly. The best I can say is that, yeah, it probably happens. The really crafty ones should be doing it, anyway. In the meantime, we do have one case of a general manager using social media to reach out to a player. 

In March, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman asked Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York and other reporters to get the word out to the recently retired Chipper Jones that he was interested in signing him. The place he asked them to get the word out? Twitter, of course.

"I figured that is the quickest line of communication -- Twitter," Cashman said. "I already know the answer, but I figured I might as well throw it out there."

Cashman's plan worked, though Jones' response was about what he was apparently expecting:

Welcome to the days of social media, where a prominent general manager can say, "Screw it, just get the word out on Twitter," and get a response pretty much immediately. In the old days, an exchange like this would have had to happen...

Uh...with carrier pigeons? Two Styrofoam cups and a string? Something like that.

I wouldn't be surprised to see something like the Cashman/Jones exchange happen again. After all, there are very few players who can't be reached through some form of social media. Though for them, having an extra line of communication isn't necessarily the top priority. For most, the top priority is just having fun.

 

You Shall Know Me, and I Shall Know You

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

The question isn't which ballplayers are active on social media—it's which players aren't active on social media.

There are a handful of players out there—such as Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder—who prefer to make their social media homes at Facebook. I assume they're still watching DVDs too, for my powers of deduction are strong.

Players vastly prefer Twitter, and what's great about players on Twitter is that MLB has few restrictions on how players can go about their business on it. The league's social media policy, which you can review over at Hardball Talk, pretty much encourages players to be themselves.

Want to hear Brett Anderson's definition of Purgatory? OK then:

Want to hear Brandon Phillips' thoughts on Atlanta drivers? Here you go:

Want to hear David Price's dessert plans? They're enviable:

Want to hear Chipper Jones' natural dialect? That was a fun time:

To be sure, there are some players on Twitter who never say anything interesting. But for the most part, players are more than happy to let their personalities show. There are even some who have used Twitter to become bigger stars off the field than they are on the field.

Brandon McCarthy comes to mind, as does Logan Morrison. The two of them are cult heroes on Twitter, LoMo for his uncensored silliness and McCarthy for his very amusing and smarter-than-your-average-bear outlook on baseball and life in general. His wife, Amanda, is a cult hero in her own right. 

It's not just players who are on Twitter. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is on there, and you just never know when he might post a picture of him with an exotic bird on his shoulder.

Front-office types are also on Twitter, such as New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow  and Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro. Alderson's the most personable of the bunch, though it seems he's been too busy fixing the Mets (as well he should be) to tweet that much lately.

Between players, coaches and front-office people, there are an awful lot of baseball people showing their true colors through social media at any given moment. It's mostly harmless stuff, and it all serves a good purpose.

Players and other baseball people didn't exactly hide their personalities before social media came along, but it was much harder for them to be themselves in front of so many fans without the filter of television or the media.

Social media lets them speak for themselves, and it's made it much easier for fans to look at them as regular people who just happen to be in the baseball business. And while it isn't necessarily a top priority for all, the whole line of communication thing is there to be taken advantage of. Like most other regular people, baseball people have become quite accessible.

 

Let's Get Together and Feel Alright

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Anybody else out there ever write a letter to a baseball player? Ever get a personalized response? Yeah? Well, consider yourself lucky. I never did (he said, wiping away tears).

Getting a personalized response from your favorite player/coach/executive is easy now. All you have to do is get on social media and drop him or her a line. Twitter is the best place for it, and there are quite a few players out there—Brandon Phillips and David Price being two great examples—who are very good about responding.

Depending on the request, of course, you might get more than just a mere response. A couple years ago, a young fan asked Phillips if he wanted to come out to his Little League game. Phillips just so happened to have an off day, so he figured what the heck. He showed up, and the kid who invited him had a great game. Fun all around.

'Duk of Big League Stew said it best: "Man, if only it had been that easy to contact Ryne Sandberg when I was in Little League..."

Elsewhere, there's the Elliot Johnson story from last year, which was chronicled by Deadspin. Some fans tweeted at the Rays infielder and asked if he wanted to come play catch in the parking lot. Since Johnson had nothing better to do, he made like Phillips and figured what the heck.

And of course he tweeted about it afterward, with a tip of his hat to Twitter for making it happen:

The road goes both ways. Just as fans can reach out to players, players can reach out to fans.

In one of the more humorous incidents, Gio Gonzalez took to Twitter to find a date for an upcoming gala. The response was so strong and, presumably, weird that Gonzalez ultimately had to delete the request.

More recently, Dustin Pedroia used Twitter to take suggestions for a nickname for slugging teammate Mike Napoli:

Somebody eventually suggested "Hacksaw," after two-by-four-wielding '80s wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Pedroia approved of it:

And then in came Napoli with his own approval:

In case the reference is lost on you (h/t to Big League Stew for finding this clip):

Because social media has had a prominent place in the baseball world and all other sports worlds for a while now, I doubt we even bother to mind the significance of stuff like this when it happens anymore. It just, you know, happens. It's part of the whole ballplayers-as-humans thing.

But even when they're not directly involved, fans should appreciate it when stuff like this happens. There used to be a barrier between the pros and fans, and it was breached only occasionally. Now the barrier is practically nonexistent. Social media battered it and battered it until it came down, resulting in a golden age of interaction.

Of course, not all that social media has been goody gumdrops. It's brought a whole new element of fun to the sport, but goodness knows it's also brought an element of controversy.

 

Oh, It's on Now

Jason Arnold/Getty Images

There were plenty of RABBLE! RABBLE! RABBLE! moments to go around in baseball before social media. Controversy has been a part of the game since the days of Doubleday and Cartwright.

But social media has certainly given controversy another avenue from which to descend on baseball. It may be fun and games for the most part, but it's also quite the pot-stirring outlet.

Perhaps the ultimate example of how social media has changed baseball unfolded very recently in late April when David Price took to Twitter to air his displeasure with umpire Tom Hallion.

It's not an easy tale to tell due to the he said, he said nature of it, but tweets from Price himself and Tampa Bay Times reporter Marc Topkin can do the job.

Chapter 1, as written by Topkin:

Chapter 2, also as written by Topkin:

Chapter 3, as written by Price:

Chapter 4, also as written by Price:

And we'll skip ahead to Price's final chapter:

Major League Baseball ultimately stepped in and said, "Alright, everybody shut up. And while you're at it, pay up." As reported by Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com, Price, Hallion and Rays pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore were all fined.

So you're caught up on that incident. Now do yourself a favor and ponder just how darn modern it was. 

Before Twitter, Price would have had to confront Hallion directly. Either that or spar with him via the media. Short of shouting from a rooftop, there was no way Price could have delivered his unfiltered thoughts on the matter to enough people.

Umpires aren't the only people who can end up in the crosshairs of players with a gripe to air. Players can go after pretty much anybody, including their critics and, if they dare, their bosses.

After Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe wrote a column that pondered the possibility that David Ortiz may be cheating this season, the Red Sox DH posted the following tweet after an 0-for-5 night on Wednesday:

In the old days, Big Papi may have had to go through a rival paper to get a jab in at Shaughnessy. Now he and all players can just bring out their phones and spend a few seconds composing a tweet if they feel the urge to put a writer in his place.

Players can also give their superiors a piece of their mind if they're feeling so bold. That's what Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton did in response to the club's fire sale this past winter:

Stanton wasn't disciplined for this remark, but he definitely got Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria's attention. We know this because, according to Joe Capozzi of The Palm Beach Post, Loria actually called Logan Morrison to thank him for not taking a shot of his own at the organization.

That Loria called Morrison to thank him for keeping his mouth shut on Twitter is ironic, as the general consensus when Morrison was sent down to the minors late in 2011 was that his R-rated behavior on Twitter surely had something to do with it. 

So one minute, a demonstration of Twitter policing. The next, a demonstration of Twitter politics. That there's a nice snapshot of any workplace in the 21st century.

Players aren't the only ones who can stir things up on social media. Managers have shown that they can do it too.

Like that time last year when Joe Maddon took a shot at Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox following a game in May that featured a late-inning scrum:

The list of baseball controversies born out of social media goes on and on and on...and on and on and on. We could talk more about Brian Wilson's snafu back in 2009 or Oney Guillen's attack on Bobby Jenks back in 2010 (beware NSFW language in that link), but you get what it's all about.

And in a word, it's all about theater.

Whether social media-generated controversies lead to trouble within the world of baseball, they certainly make for a talking point. These talking points combine with the good-guy talking points and the rumors to make up that whole other layer on the game we were talking about earlier. This extra layer of stuff oftentimes has little trouble overshadowing the games themselves.

And there's no escaping it. Not even at the ballpark.

 

Social Media at the Ballpark

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball has long since embraced the wonders of social media, and the league deserves credit for how savvy it has gotten at blurring the line between cyberspace and reality. 

Case in point, holding a "Social Media Night" is now pretty much a must for MLB's 30 teams. Kristi Dosh of ESPN.com recently published an article about these nights, noting that most teams have at least one Social Media Night on their promotional calendar in 2013. The idea is to reward social media followers with discounted tickets and various giveaways.

Naturally, there can be some useful interaction between teams and fans on Social Media Night. Here's a fun anecdote from Dosh:

Last year, during the Padres' social media night, club executives and former players stopped by the suite to chat with fans. One fan asked the team president why there weren’t any electric vehicle chargers near the ballpark. This offseason, the team installed five electric vehicle chargers on the ground floor of one of the parking structures. 

Had there been electric cars in the old days, a request like that actually getting through to a team would have involved a pen and paper, and such things are much more easily ignored than an actual real, live person.

But while it's all well and good that social media has helped bridge the gap between fans and teams just as it has between fans and players/coaches/executives, the real interest in it from baseball's perspective, obviously, is business related.

The San Francisco Giants, for example, are probably the best team in baseball at using social media to enhance the influence of their brand. Here's Jon Swartz of USA Today:

Succeed, [the Giants] have, with a blend of baseball smarts and tech that ranks the team among the most popular in baseball on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+. Plus, there are those two gleaming trophies from title teams in 2010 and 2012.

This clearly isn't for show, even though the team is nestled near the heart of tech's heartland. The Giants want to create a global brand, pump up revenue and continue to hoist championship flags.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
As if AT&T Park wasn't already awesome enough.

This year, the Giants are introducing a social media haven at AT&T Park. While other teams have made social media at the ballpark something of a VIP experience, the Giants will be opening up a social media cafe for all fans to enjoy, complete with a coffee bar and a video screen that will display tweets and Instagram photos.

“Along with a charging station, this is going to be a very productive spot for those who love social media and keep an eye on the pulse of the game,” Bryan Srabian, the Giants' director of social media, told Dosh.

Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Dodgers are looking to make it easier for fans to access social media at Dodger Stadium by installing a "state-of-the-art" Wi-Fi network.

More mobile connectivity is a league-wide goal, in fact, as Major League Baseball agreed to a deal with Qualcomm last month with the idea in mind to increase wireless access inside all ballparks. The league wants fans on their phones when they're at the ballpark, and it's all about social media.

Here's Mark Newman of MLB.com:

Two years ago, the primary demand for connectivity by fans at games was for "downstream" data -- checking email, downloading things. This season, it is primarily for "upstream." Fans upload content constantly while they watch games -- tweets, Instagram photos, Vines, Facebook shares, etc. Up blows away down in 2013.

But downstream has not gone down, either. It's up maybe 50 percent year over year. But upstream is up 300 percent year over year. Baseball takes the fan experience seriously, and you are not expected to live in a bubble for nine innings. You want to keep the same habits. Mobile devices are typically a big part of that, especially among younger fans.

So get ready, my fellow baseball fans. If you think people are already paying too much attention to their phones at ballgames, just you wait. 

We live in a social media world, and baseball wants to be more a part of it than it already is.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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