For a writer, one of the cool things about Twitter is the way it serves as a real-time focus group for thoughts and ideas. It is an unscientific barometer of sorts, a quick way to gauge public opinion on certain topics.
Shortly after Chase Utley met with reporters to answer questions about his ailing knee(s), I offered a quick opinion on Twitter, curious to gauge the reaction of the folks who subscribe to my feed (http://www.twitter.com/highcheese):
"The thing that Utley and the Phillies continually fail to grasp," I wrote, "is that when you make millions of dollars thanks to a publicly-funded stadium w/ no property tax in a city on the ropes, you should feel some civic duty to keep your customers/tax base informed."
Like most arguments that must be distilled to 140 characters or fewer (or, in this case, 280 or fewer), mine was an over-simplification of reality. The reaction was pretty much what I expected: half of the people who responded agreed, and half lambasted the media for the attitude of entitlement that it often displays when pursuing information. The reaction to today's piece in the Daily News is largely the same.
Unfortunately, a newspaper page presents some of the same constraints as Twitter, which often leaves us sacrificing ultimate clarity for the sake of space. As you may have noticed, this blog is not bound by dimensions, which is why you often find yourselves wading through posts that we would have to publish in bound volumes in order to fit them into print.
One of the things that I cut out of today's column was a disclaimer of sorts that I hoped to include in order to eliminate the pre-conceived notions that many readers have about the media. So I'll offer that disclaimer now:
I completely understand the frustration that many people feel about the sense of entitlement the media often displays when it comes to the pursuit of information. Covering sports is not the same thing as covering government, and it is silly for us to demand the same level of transparency from our athletes and front office executives as we do of our school boards and city councils. First and foremost, we have no right to that transparency. Private companies are private for a reason. Second, it would be impossible to run a successful sports organization if said organization operated with complete transparency. We do not need to know intimate medical information about players. All we care about is when they will be back on the field.
We do not need to know the exact details of a team's personnel plans. It does Ruben Amaro Jr. no good to tell the public that he feels a pressing need to add a veteran hitter who can play an adequate second base. Any negotiator who is worth his cell phone bill will look to preserve even the smallest amount of leverage. Broadcasting desperation to potential partners is a good way to end up on the short side of a deal. Besides, what difference does it make? You don't need Amaro to tell you that the Phillies could use second base help. Most people do not care that Amaro spent months denying interest in acquiring Roy Halladay or signing Cliff Lee. The only thing they care about is that Amaro eventually landed both pitchers.
As a reporter, I do not expect to be told the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. I would not answer questions in that manner if the roles were reversed, so it is hypocrticial for me to expect others to do so. It does not hurt my feelings when somebody misleads me or lies to me. It is part of the job. I fully understand that much of the information that I seek is none of my damn business. At the end of the day, I am going home to live my life. And as long as the decisions that other people make do not impact the greater good, then those decisions do not have any impact on my state of mind.
I have a lot of respect for what the Phillies and Chase Utley have managed to accomplish in their seven full seasons together. A few emailers have wondered why Utley is still battling knee pain when he had an entire offseason to deal with it. The question is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that he does have that pain. The stories about Chase Utley's work ethic are not empty myths built by sycophantic sports writers. Every decision that Utley has made with regards to his knee has materialized because of his desire to get back onto the field. To second-guess those decisions is ignorant. This is a guy who cares about his ability to do his job than most of us could ever begin to care about ours. This is also a guy who has access to the best medical advice that our country can offer, as well as a guy who has the means to pay for that advice. Nobody has been provided with a better understanding of Utley's knees than Utley himself. So why even bother questioning it? If you can't accept the fact that Utley's condition exists in spite of the decisions he has made, and not because of the decisions he has made, then you are so far removed from reality that you have probably already stopped reading this blog post.
All of that being said (I told you it was a long disclaimer), I think the baseball side of the operation at One Citizens Bank Park Way, from the players to the front office, sometimes fails to treat the fan base with the same dignity that we detailed above. Or, at the very least, it fails to fully grasp the level of emotional and financial investment that fans have poured into the players and the team.
Chase Utley has every right to his privacy, as does the organization. But when three weeks of assurances about the health of one of the team's stars suddenly turns into an imminent stint on the disabled list and a trip to an unknown specialist in an unknown location for an unknown reason, the fans have every right to wonder what the heck is going on. The player and/or team are under no obligation to provide their paying customers with any clarity. But, at least in this instance, it would seem to make business sense.
You can probably formulate an argument that all of the secrecy surrounding Utley's condition was an attempt to preserve leverage as the Phillies looked to swing a deal for an infielder. If that was the thinking, though, it was incredibly naive. After weeks of insistence that all was well with Utley's knees, the sudden revelation that he would not be ready to play on Opening Day made the team's situation appear far more dire than if it had acknowledged all along that things were taking longer than expected. With the subsequent refusal to answer any direct question about his status -- including the type of medical opinion he was seeking -- fans and media were unable to rule out any possibility.
The following is a conversation that I guarantee did not play out in any front office this March:
GENERAL MANAGER: Hey Clem, the Phillies just called to inquire about one of our infielders. What's the story with Utley?
SCOUT: He hasn't played all spring and I don't see him taking infield practice before games. He clearly wasn't himself after returning late last May. He said in February that he had revamped his conditioning routine and was optimistic, but he also said that he had not completely ruled out the possibility of having surgery at some point down the line.
GENERAL MANAGER: Well, it is three weeks before Opening Day, but the Phillies are telling reporters that everything is fine, so I'm guessing they are just playing it safe. I better not shoot too high when talking to Amaro.
In the end, the only thing that the secrecy managed to do was anger the faction of fans who do feel like their investment in the team entitles them to some degree of clarity about when they might get a chance to see Utley return to action.
In the end, most fans just want to see Utley back on the field, regardless of the steps that are needed to make that happen. I get that. Utley does not owe anybody anything more than he has already offered. Many of you do not care if he does not reveal his innermost thoughts. You don't care if he doesn't solicit public opinion about how to proceed with his knees. You only care that he has always given maximum effort, and that his prolific play at second base and in the middle of the line-up has played a major role in this, the greatest time to be a baseball fan in the history of Philadelphia.
But some of you do care. I get that too. And when Utley expressed displeasure with the rampant speculation surrounding his absence, telling reporters that he had asked Amaro not to reveal details of his status because he "did not think it was necessary for people to know," it left the impression that he does not care that fans feel invested in his situation. Again, this isn't about his right to privacy. It is about his inability to comprehend the ramifications of his decision to exercise that right to its fullest extent. He is a superstar who has benefited greatly from his position in the public spotlight: he can't expect people not to ask questions and not to ponder every potential scenario when he disappears from that spotlight without explanation. That's just the way it works. Some might argue that it is not fair for Utley to have to live under such a microscope while the rest of us can worry about our health in private. But others would argue that it is not fair that a baseball player makes $15 million a year and has access to the nation's best health care while a social worker or non-profit employee struggles through life without pay or recognition that is commensurate with the vital impact that he or she makes. Baseball players make the money they do because of their visibility: salaries were a fraction of what they are now in the days before television contracts broadcast every game and fantasy sports increased the breadth of fans' focus on the sport. You can not reap the benefits of visibility and then expect the public to allow you to become invisible on demand. The upside of visiblity only exists because of the downside.
And let's not forget that the Phillies' payroll was a fraction of what it is now before millions of taxpayer dollars helped fund a gleaming new stadium that has turned into the organization's personal mint. Many economists argue that stadium financing is an inefficient way to use public dollars. Owners argue that the value of a team's relationship with a community can not be quantified with impact studies. But it is disingenuous to use that argument to acquire capital and then act surprised when some members of the fan base ask to be treated like they are partners in a relationship. Who invests money in a project without being granted a stake? The Phillies are not the only private business that has ever received public dollars or property tax breaks. But they are among the more visible business to have done so. And while they have every right to act without explanation, their visibility sometimes makes it impossible for them to do so.