The End of an Era: Little Joe Goes For-Pay

One of the early staples of my blog, back before there was anything called The Hardball Times, was to bring to light the ramblings of ESPN’s Joe Morgan. Though a spectacular baseball player, Morgan is prone to say ridiculous and often factually incorrect things, both on television and, more specifically, in his columns and “chat sessions” on ESPN.com.

There were several times when he talked about how wrong Billy Beane was for writing Moneyball and there was a time when he yelled at a chat session participant who had the incredible gall to actually question Morgan on something he had written just a day earlier. Morgan responded that people should “not put somebody else’s words in my mouth” and chided everyone, saying, “I guess once a year I have to remind people to listen to what I say and not hear what you want to hear,” despite the fact that the person used a direct quote from the previous day’s article. There are other incidents, which you can search for in my blog’s archives if you’re ever bored and in need of a good laugh some day.

At some point though, I stopped. I stopped tracking what Morgan was saying, I stopped examining his words for inaccuracies and silliness, and I stopped trying to point out such things in public. And beyond anything, I simply stopped reading what he had to say. It was a tough habit to kick. Every Friday afternoon, I’d think to myself, “Joe Morgan is doing a chat right now, I wonder if he’s saying anything ‘interesting.’” To make matters worse, many of you were enablers for my habit, sending me quotes and links via e-mail every week. But I did it — I kicked Joe Morgan, cold turkey.

Thankfully though, Mike Carminati of “Mike’s Baseball Rants” kept up the good fight each and every week, dissecting Morgan’s chat sessions with a fine-toothed comb, in what always made for an entertaining read. By breaking all of Morgan’s chat-session responses down into “Good,” “Bad” and “Ugly,” Carminati gave credit where credit was due for Morgan’s intelligent responses, of which there were usually quite a few, and had no problem pointing out the sort of stuff that made Morgan such an easy target.

Reading Carminati’s browndowns of Morgan’s chat sessions became one of my “guilty pleasures” and I began looking forward to them more than I ever looked forward to the actual chat sessions. Even when I was “covering” Morgan at my blog, I only pointed out the particularly absurb things he said, whereas Carminati took it one step further and kept a sort of running tally of absurdity, which really gave an interesting look into the mind of Morgan (and into the mind of Carminati, although that’s another issue).

Sadly, the Mike’s Baseball Rants “Joe Morgan Chat Day” breakdowns have come to an end. With ESPN moving Morgan’s weekly chat sessions to the “pay” portion of their website, Carminati is no longer able to, as he said, “worship at the altar of Joe Morgan’s intellect.”

In the announcement to his loyal, Morgan-obsessed audienced, Carminati said:

It’s another step in the inuring of America to pay for previously free content on ESPN.com while dumbing down the content that is provided. The last wave took Rob Neyer, the most readable of all the ESPN analysts — not that that is a major feat — off the free side of ESPN, where he had been for years. I remember reading Neyer some six or seven years ago when he was basically a blogger, though they didn’t call it that, at ESPN, I think, supposedly intended for fantasy baseball. Now, you have to pay to read Neyer.

Carminati goes on:

Morgan is probably pleased as punch since no one on the net can now point out the rampant illogic of his impromptu sessions.

Morgan can say that Dave Concepcion is the best man not in the Hall of Fame — he isn’t. Morgan can say that Billy Beane wrote Moneyball — he didn’t. Morgan can say that the A’s live and die in the postseason by the three-run-homer sword even as he says that the perfect playoff team is in the Oakland model of two premier starters and a good closer. Better yet, Morgan can evade or ignore questions he doesn’t like to pontificate about how the young whippersnappers today are inferior to the players in his day and especially the Randolph Scott-esque Big Red Machine.

No one will call him on it because no one can. Bloviate on, oh might warrior.

But I can’t even blame Morgan. He just works for the intellectual sinkhole that is ESPN. This is a network that has been headed in the direction of PTI and Rome is Burning for some time. Even the once proud SportsCenter is turning more and more into a commercial for itself, the ESPYs, or ESPN in general. Baseball Tonight has dumbed down substantially with the ludicrously bad John Kruk replacing the surprisingly good Bobby Valentine. Meanwhile, the mercurial Harold Reynolds, who seemed to improve having Bobby V as a partner, has fallen off the charts by apparently trying to outdumb Kruk this season with a fair degree of success.

It’s even worse at ESPN.com, where you can still read Peter Gammons’ unedited, William Faulkner-esque prose at least for the time being, but other than that it’s a lot of AP stories. One would think that ESPN.com is making enough money off of the banner ads, popup ads that obscure the text of the articles, full-window ads that preceded the actual text, and ad nauseum ads scrolling by in ESPN “Motion.” By next season, your local paper’s site will have more content than what was once the best baseball site on the web, ESPN.com, and you won’t have to wade through the embedded advertising to get to the scores.

That is a rant very similar to one I have made here and at my blog on multiple occasions. One of the greatest things about being a baseball fan right now is the incredible amount of quality baseball content you can find on the internet, but at the same time, one of the most disheartening things is what has gone on at both ESPN and ESPN.com over the past few years.

Aside from watching live games and the World Series of Poker, I have essentially weaned myself completely off of ESPN, which is something I would have thought impossible just a few years ago, when my days revolved around SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight was must-see TV. I still frequent ESPN.com every day; in fact, it is the “home” on my web browser. That said, I see the way things are going over there, both with the lack of quality contributors and the fact that the few good ones are often moved to the pay portion of the site once they establish an audience, and it saddens me.

And certainly Carminati and I are not alone. Whenever I write about the decline of ESPN, I get flooded with e-mails that are in agreement with me (and then some), and the network and its website are a topic of near-daily ridicule at baseball communities such as Baseball Think Factory.

It is, I fear, a fight that is not winnable and, most likely, not worth fighting. I have actually discussed some of these issues with employees of ESPN, both guys who work for the website and for TV, and I get the feeling that they are not necessarily in disagreement with the quality going downhill. However, it is tough to tell a media giant like ESPN to go back to their roots and go back to what made them special when ratings are up and the money is piling up.

I was watching Baseball Tonight on Monday night while chatting with my friend and THT colleague Vinay Kumar, and we both marveled at the fact that the segment we had just watched, featuring Karl Ravech and John Kruk, was actually a decent one. I believe my exact quote at the time was, “Wow, Kruk is making sense!”

There are all sorts of examples of the issues people have with ESPN and all sorts of evidence of the decline of the product, but I think that sums it up fairly well. A show I once watched on a daily basis is now one that I tune in to every couple weeks in order to get a chuckle, and I am actually shocked when I find something worthwhile being said.

ESPN is still home to the best maintstream sports content out there, but while that was once a tribute to their quality, it is now a mark against the rest of the market. In a way, ESPN has taken the brash, loud, confrontational approach that FOX Sports Net presented to their audience, and they have turned it up a notch. They’ve clearly been successful at it, out-FOXing FOX Sports Net, but I’m quite certain that is not a good thing.

SportsCenter has become a place to, as Carminati said, plug ESPN’s many other products and shows, in between the anchors breathlessly ramming loud and obnoxious catch-phrases down our throat at the expense of actual description of what we’re watching. Finding quality writing on ESPN.com is like searching for a needle in a haystack of ads, and with Page 2 and now Page 3, much of the content you can find has but a vague resemblance to anything related to sports.

They trumpet a statistic like Productive Outs, which was quickly and easily shown to be all but worthless, and the majority of the ESPN “personalities” on TV and in print fall all over themselves in a race to bash anything that goes against “traditional” baseball thinking. And perhaps worst of all, ESPN has made itself the news in just about every conceivable way.

Screaming “debates,” an onslaught of catch-phrases, seas of advertisements and product placements, and a dumbed-down, singular view of sports is what “The Leader” has become, and if it sounds like I’m bitter it’s because I am. ESPN used to be a hell of a network.

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