June 13, 2021

Rosenthal: Why clubhouse access matters (The Athletic)

Locker-room access is not strictly about us, the reporters. It is about you, the readers. We are your extension into the world of professional sports, your conduit for gaining a deeper understanding of the games we enjoy watching so much.

Before going any further, I will state the obvious: The last thing any reporter wants to do is contribute to a public health crisis. With Major League Baseball exercising “an abundance of caution,” it is difficult for any of us to object to a temporary ban on locker-room access, even the reported six-foot distance baseball will require in interviews in other areas. The question of access also pales in comparison to the serious hardship some will face due to the coronavirus.

My concern, and the concern of many other reporters, is that MLB and the other leagues will find the temporary arrangement rather satisfying and make closed locker rooms the new norm. That would be a problem, and not because we would be prevented from doing our jobs. We could still do them, just not as well, and readers would be less enlightened as a result.

Here’s just one recent example of what can come out of locker room conversations. I can give you countless others from my nearly three-and-a-half decades of covering Major League Baseball, which continues to provide the most extensive access of the four major professional sports leagues, if less than at the start of my career.

On Monday, hours before the four leagues announced their temporary ban of reporters from locker rooms due to the coronavirus, I was having an informal conversation with a prominent major leaguer inside his clubhouse, the kind of informal conversation a baseball writer conducts with numerous players each day.

Often these conversations are of little consequence, exchanges about the weather, news in baseball or other sports, maybe even the world at large. At the very least, though, they build trust, enabling reporters to develop relationships that are not merely transactional, but based upon mutual respect.

My conversation with the player, whom I was seeing for the first time this spring, initially was just a case of me catching up with him, seeing how he was doing. But as we spoke, he pointed out, with enthusiasm and in some detail, how his area of the team had improved, and how that improvement might actually benefit his own performance in the coming season. What he said had not occurred to me previously. Perhaps in the next few days, it will lead to a decent story.

In fairness, both MLB and the players’ union seem to recognize the importance of access. They did not scale it back in the most recent collective-bargaining agreement, and ongoing discussions between baseball writers, the union and MLB regarding the next CBA also have been positive, according to Derrick Goold, the former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

MLB, in announcing its temporary ban Monday, said, “Clubs will be expected to provide best efforts in facilitating usual media coverage and access to uniformed personnel and team officials in these alternate settings. Access for and coverage by the BBWAA and all media are vital to our game and we hope to resume normal operations as quickly as possible.”

Fair enough, as long as that’s where it ends.

BBWAA president Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune issued a statement Monday night acknowledging support for any policy that will “assure a safe and healthy work environment … especially in a time of heightened concern throughout the globe due to the spread of the coronavirus.” The statement, however, also reflected the writers’ concern with the league’s action.

“The decision by Major League Baseball to join other leagues in closing the clubhouse to media is disappointing, even as a ‘temporary step,’” the statement said, “and we desire to work with MLB and MLBPA to discuss solutions beneficial to the players and media alike, until we can return to the access that allows us to chronicle the game and humanize its performers like no other sport.”

I know many in the general public are not interested in the ins and outs of sports writers’ jobs, and that some regard us as nuisances who should “just leave the players alone.” I also know reporters are not granted locker-room access at international sporting events, with interviews taking place in news-conference settings or “mixed zones” that make one-on-one conversations virtually impossible.

Reporters are fully capable of writing elegantly about those events with such limited access, but a good reporter works a clubhouse like a detective, seeking clues that will provide greater insight into the subject, give stories more life. I can’t tell you how many times during the postseason, in particular, that waiting out a player has made my story better, such as this one from the 2019 World Series.

The access in baseball, though, benefits players, too, and not simply because it allows them to explain their side of a story to reporters in a more private setting. Just as players are accountable to reporters, reporters are accountable to players. It’s a checks-and-balances system that works rather well, not just for beat writers who ask questions in the public interest, but also for players who can address coverage they find objectionable with reporters.

Just the other day, a player I saw for the first time in more than a year said he wanted to talk to me. I knew instinctively what he wanted to discuss: During the 2018-19 offseason, when the player was a free agent, I tweeted something that he interpreted — not incorrectly — as disrespectful. I did not realize at the time that I had crossed a line, but came to understand it later. It stayed with me, too, because I previously had enjoyed a good relationship with the player.

Sure enough, when I visited the player at his locker, he brought up the tweet. Right away, I told him I knew where he was going. In this case, I apologized, and we went on to have a good conversation. In other cases I might agree to disagree with a player, coach or manager, but at least we will clear the air. And we are all better for it.

Those kinds of discussions cannot take place during a news conference when other reporters are present, trying to ask their own questions. They will occur less naturally, if at all, in the more structured environments baseball will create during its temporary ban on clubhouse access.

Players come into contact with all kinds of people on a daily basis, not just reporters. Yet the four major sports leagues are targeting no other group in precisely this way, knowing reporters will come off looking petty and insensitive if they offer even a hint of protest.

Call it an abundance of caution. Call it whatever you’d like. Just understand that if the leagues extend the bans, fans will lose, too.

(Top photo: Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images)

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Ken Rosenthal is the senior baseball writer for The Athletic who has spent more than 25 years covering the major leagues. In addition, Ken is a broadcaster and regular contributor to Fox Sports’ MLB telecasts and an in-studio reporter for the MLB Network. He’s also won Emmy Awards in 2015 and 2016 for his TV reporting. Follow Ken on Twitter @Ken_Rosenthal.

Read “Rosenthal: Why clubhouse access matters” at The Athletic