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As Newspapers Cut Back, Press Boxes Grow Lonelier; How a Venerable Institution Lost Its Way


By RUSSELL ADAMS and TIM MARCHMAN
Baseball's independent press corps, once the most powerful in American sports, is fading. As newspapers cut budgets and payrolls, the press boxes at major league ballparks are becoming increasingly lonely places, signaling a future when some games may be chronicled only by wire services, house organs and Web writers watching the games on television.
In Their Own Words

"I certainly recognize where things are going," says Jack O'Connell, secretary of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the venerable 101-year-old membership organization for the profession. "I certainly see the dark clouds."

It's not clear how many newspaper beat writers and columnists will vanish. Some major dailies in baseball towns like Boston and New York say so long as they exist, they will never stop covering their teams. Online-only sources have filled some of the void, and independent Web sites have popped up where fans gather to comment on the games as they happen. In many ways, baseball writers are no different than other professionals whose industries are being shrunk.

But throughout the last century, baseball writers have stood above their sportswriting colleagues. When the National League needed a president in 1934, it hired former Yankees beat writer Ford Frick. When San Diego named a ballpark in 1980, it honored Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union. In some press boxes, black-and-white portraits of writers line the walls in tribute.

Their exalted status gave rank-and-file BBWAA members unusual powers, from being assured entry to clubhouses and press box seats at the World Series to electing players to baseball's Hall of Fame. After 10 years, BBWAA members are given certain perks that continue even after retirement.

The changing world was on vivid display recently at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Opened in 1923 during the golden age of sportswriting, it held its first-ever night game last March -- 20 years after the lights first went on over Chicago's Wrigley Field. At a March 22 game between the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds two writers from Pittsburgh papers were in attendance, along with two reporters from Major League Baseball's Web site. The Pittsburgh chapter of the BBWAA is down to nine members, an all time low, from 20 in 1988.

The Beaver County Times, outside Pittsburgh, has stopped covering spring training and won't cover every Pirates road game -- primarily due to finances, according to sports editor Ed Rose. To some, it's inevitable that more papers will follow suit. "We're waiting for that first domino to fall, for that first major newspaper not covering its team on the road," says current BBWAA president David O'Brien.

For some papers looking to eliminate redundancies and cut costs, baseball, with its 162-game regular season, is low-hanging fruit. Tom Jolly, sports editor of the New York Times, says it costs the Times about $6,500 a month during the regular season to have a reporter follow the team on the road. Adding spring training and a trip to the playoffs, one baseball reporter costs the paper more than $50,000 per season on top of his or her salary.

Beginning this season, the Washington Post will rely on the Baltimore Sun to cover the Orioles, while the Sun will leave its Nationals coverage to the Post, part of a broader content-sharing deal being replicated at papers around the country. The Hartford Courant quit sending a reporter on the road with the Red Sox, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette has cut its Red Sox road presence to between 35-40 games from 70 last year. And the New York Times now sends only one person on certain road trips that in the past would have called for two, Mr. Jolly said.


Still, some major dailies are not about to take reporters off the baseball beat. The cash-strapped Boston Herald has cut its city desk by more than half in the past five years, but tinkering with Red Sox coverage "was never really an option," said Tony Massarotti, who covered the team for the Herald for nearly 15 years before moving to the rival Globe last fall. "It would be suicide, quite honestly."

Some teams and organizations say the decrease in newspaper coverage may hamper their ability to promote themselves. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, wrote recently on his blog that to let newspapers die is a "recipe for disaster" for professional sports leagues because newspapers, however weakened, remain the leagues' best and only link to a mass audience. He said he has spoken to other sports executives about creating a league-backed "beat writer cooperative" to guarantee a minimum number of daily stories on each local team.

In Detroit, where the city's two largest newspapers recently cut home delivery to three days a week, research conducted by the local professional hockey team, the Red Wings, shows 65% of season-ticket holders get their Red Wings coverage from the printed newspaper.

One day in January after the Red Wings played the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field, both the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News ran large photos from the game on the front of their sports sections, many of which are now hung on walls in offices and homes around the city. "I don't know how we would duplicate that on our own," said Steve Violetta, the Red Wings' executive vice president of business affairs.