By: Tony Case
A handful of newspaper sports sections are continuing to run
coverage of the strike-stopped major-league baseball season
by reporting the results of simulated games played via computer sp.
THE GREAT BASEBALL strike of 1994 plays out in these moribund days of summer, and sports editors are finding ways ? sometimes unorthodox ? of coping with the national tragedy of a season cut short.
As they report on the day-to-day negotiations of obstinate players and equally stubborn team owners, most sports sections are filling the void created by empty ballparks by beefing up coverage of minor-league baseball and other sports, running all sorts of feature stories or remembering great baseball seasons and players of the past.
But a handful of papers in major-league cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are asking: Strike? What strike? Computer programs are enabling them to play phony games, simulate statistics, invent trades ? and fabricate news stories about all of it.
Make-believe baseball anyone?
“The players may be on strike, but the games must go on,” the New York Daily News declares atop its daily report on the imaginary remaining season titled “Pennant Fever: The Race That Wasn’t.”
The tabloid is the lone paper in town to have incorporated fiction on its sports pages, although the Record in nearby Bergen County, N.J., is also playing computer games.
A journalistic travesty?
News sports editor Kevin Whitmer reasons that the gimmick simply provides what other features in his paper offer: pure entertainment.
“It’s not supposed to replace baseball; it’s just something to get people through a time when they don’t have baseball,” he said.
“It’s the same reason papers have columnists, horoscopes, the comics. It’s not meant to be a serious piece to represent what did happen; it represents what could have happened. It’s not cut-in-stone journalism at its roots.”
Whitmer has a message for those who dislike fantasy baseball coverage: Don’t read it. But he notes that many fans, including those who take issue with the computerized stats, are faithfully following the faux season.
Record sports editor Gabe Buonauro expressed pleasure over the generally positive response to his paper’s feature, especially among younger readers. But he adds, “You’re always going to have the real diehards who are going to oppose it.”
The broadsheet is also running a regular column on the 1969 New York Mets and ’79 Yankees, including “Where are they now?” bits updating readers on former players.
Chicago Sun-Times assistant sports editor Chris D’Amico said his tabloid has seen mixed reaction to its imaginary baseball reportage. He was surprised readers were so impassioned.
“Some are in favor of it, but others call in and say, ‘How can you do this?’ Purists don’t seem to like it, but even those people that called to complain obviously were reading it,” he said. “We’re glad we did it.”
As for filling the rest of the news hole, D’Amico explained that sports is usually a tight section, “so we’re getting in things we’d like but always can’t, or give them the play we’d like.” College and high school football are getting quite a bit of attention, for example.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution plan to use a single day to imagine with the aid of a computer how the baseball season this year might have turned out.
“We decided not to do a daily item but to sort of see where the strike was going to go,” said assistant managing editor for sports Don Boykin. “When we felt confident about the direction it was taking, then we would come back and play out the season in one package.”
Outside its daily strike coverage, the papers have examined the Atlanta Braves farm system, predicting through the year 2000 who will be playing in which positions, and played up pieces on the imminent football season.
“I don’t know that we’re doing more [football coverage] than we would have, but we’ve had the chance to give it better play and we’ve had pretty good response,” Boykin said.
Calls it ‘crap’ p.
Greg Noble of the Cincinnati Enquirer is one of many sports journalists who dismiss fictitious baseball.
Calling it “crap,” he said, “I guess if you’ve got the space to burn it can be a clever idea, especially in cities where the teams might be in first place. In Cincinnati, we didn’t think it was a good idea.”
The first week of the strike, the Enquirer profiled 10 minor-league teams in towns within easy driving distance of the city. Since then, one of its sportswriters traveled to Princeton, W. Va., to report on a Cincinnati Reds rookie-league team.
Like other papers, the Enquirer is giving extraordinary attention to sports other than baseball at a time of the year when America’s favorite pastime usually dominates coverage.
“Non-baseball fans are suddenly enjoying the sports section a little more than they did before the strike,” Noble said.
Los Angeles Daily News sports editor Tod Leonard revealed that he is “very much opposed” to publishing made-up scores and stories.
“I don’t really see how that fills the void of major-league baseball. I see it as a gimmick that may be interesting for a couple of days, but it just doesn’t sustain. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep track of [San Francisco Giants player] Matt Williams’ fantasy home runs,” he said.
“We’ve suffered from the strike, but we don’t need to run fantasy baseball.”
So the News is concentrating on events such as the Little League World Series, in which the local Northridge team reached the finals.
As for the strike, Leonard said the paper got many letters in the beginning from readers furious the season was being interrupted. But he found the prevailing attitude eventually became: Who cares?
From a business standpoint, the strike has actually benefited the News in that the paper has been able to reduce the number of pages for sports, Leonard said.
The same is true at the Detroit Free Press.
“We’re saving space,” said deputy managing editor over sports and operations Dave Robinson. “The space budget this year was way over because of the Olympics, the World Cup and so on, so we were going to have to pay back a little every day anyway.”
Back in New York City at the New York Post, the Daily News’ tabloid competitor, sports editors have chosen reliving history over inventing it.
“We had considered doing that and decided not to,” said associate sports editor Dick Klayman. “We thought that after a couple of days it would be silly and nobody would care anything about it.”
Instead, the paper is running a series penned “The Greatest Games In New York Baseball History,” which Klayman says has been well-received, especially among old-time sportswriters. “As the baseball strike continues, the Post presents another classic game in New York baseball history pulled from its back volumes,” an editor’s note explains. The nostalgic feature recalls such immortal players as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio as well as some of their legendary moments.
A piece headlined “Chambliss’ Royal Blast” harks back to Oct. 14, 1976, when the New York Yankees’ Chris Chambliss hit a ninth-inning home run to give the team a 7-6 win over the Kansas City Royals and earn it a thirtieth American League championship title.
The story’s lead paragraph heralded the news: “The Yankees win the pennant. The Yankees win the pennant. The Yankees win the pennant. The Yankees win the pennant.”
New York Times sports editor Neil Amdur proposed that the gray lady doesn’t have to resort to flashbacks and fantasies ? keeping readers abreast of the latest strike news is enough.
“I think there’s a tendency to hyperbolize baseball and treat it as different than any other sport. But we’re still a newspaper and it’s our job to report on what’s taking place in the news, and that not only refers to baseball but to other sports,” he said.
Amdur was beaming the day E&P contacted him, as the Times had just scooped all the other papers in town in reporting that Stanford University economist Roger Noll, who was hired by the Major League Players Association, issued a report disputing team owners’ claims about financial losses.
“No other paper carried that story,” Amdur noted. Referring to Murray Chass, who wrote the piece, the editor boasted, “When you have the preeminent baseball labor reporter . . . you don’t have to run fantasy baseball scores.”
?( The New York Daily News’ fantasy baseball page) [Photo & Caption]
?(The Record in Bergen County, N.J., runs sports-section stories daily reporting on computer-simulated game results. A full page carries updated standings and statistics based on the computer results. Included is a column penned ‘Flashback!’ remembering the greatest New York Yankees and Mets game in history ) [Photo &Caption]